The Value of et al.: Fostering Collaborations in the Humanities

Yelena Kalinsky's picture
A post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.This post kicks off a new occasional series on collaboration in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

A guest post by Erin Benay, Associate Professor of Early Modern Art and Co-Director of Undergraduate Studies, Case Western Reserve University

In mid-March 2020, I found myself, like so many other college professors, alone and anchored to my desk at home, laboring away for large parts of the day in silence, relishing the occasional class meetings with students whose disembodied heads appeared on my Zoom screen for an hour at a time. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced our most hermetic scholarly qualities—like sixteenth-century depictions of Saint Jerome in his study, we hunch over our desks in solitary isolation, sometimes literally quarantined from others, struggling to maintain our singular work.

Fig. 1 Albrecht Dürer, Saint Jerome in his Study, 1514, engraving, 9 11/16 x 7 7/16”, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 19.73.68, Image in the public domain.

Many humanists, however, find that this is not such an unusual state. Unlike faculty in the sciences or social sciences, who are moored by the other members of their labs or grant projects, humanists often read alone, write alone, and publish alone. Art historians seem especially prone to seclusion and therefore rarely have occasion to consider the addition of et al. (and others) to the byline of their publications. The implication of such a phrase is not simply that multiple authors have participated in the production of a study, but that still others have contributed to the ideas contained therein. Intrinsic in et al. is the notion that ideas may not be the exclusionary property of a single, great Author, but are rather shared by a group. Moreover, et al. suggests that participants in any given intellectual pursuit are too numerous to cite—a proposition that moves well beyond the single-authored text that has so often been the aspiration of academics laboring under the universal “publish or perish” maxim. Collaborative practices like those frequently embraced in the sciences are inherently bound to a mode of production that prioritizes shared credit over individual accomplishments since the nature of scientific discovery often depends on teams or labs comprised of many participants. This works in direct opposition to systems of power like tenure and promotion that, at least in Art History, favor individual success and therefore foster competition, division, and rivalry amongst colleagues. For humanists on the tenure track, collaboration is a risky prospect that may divest its participants of the acclaim that is most lauded by research institutions. Although the culture of R1 institutions is changing to reflect the significance of digital and public humanities, governing bodies in the academy still largely assess contributions to the field according to individualistic rubrics of accomplishment. In turn, junior faculty are often concerned with how much credit a particular project will earn them toward tenure or promotion. For many, collaboration demands that we forsake questions of credit in favor of making the sorts of contributions that we feel are truly important, regardless of how they are valued on ranked scales of productivity—whether in academies, libraries, or museums.

Regardless of what may feel like the perils associated with collaboration, there are many reasons why it can and should be done. I have engaged in three substantive collaborations during the course of my career as an art history professor, two before earning tenure and one after. Each project required a different type of engagement with a collaborative partner but all necessitated that I cede some type of authority: I had to accommodate a broadened view of what a “contribution to the field” might look like in order to do this. My first substantive collaborative project was also my first monograph, Faith, Gender and the Senses in Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art: Interpreting the Noli me tangere and Doubting Thomas (Routledge, 2015). This audacious decision came from the simple intellectual deduction that my collaborator, Dr. Lisa M. Rafanelli, and I had written our dissertations on interconnected topics and that those topics would pose fascinating questions when put into dialogue with one another. Our book considers how representations of two popular Renaissance subjects engaged with contemporary theories of the senses and definitions of gender. Both stories are recounted in John 20: when Mary Magdalene sees the risen Christ in a garden, she reaches out to touch him. His response, noli me tangere, most often translated as “do not touch me,” is countered several verses later when Christ invites his dubious apostle Thomas to touch his wounded, resurrected body. In their juxtaposition of the insistence on touch (Doubting Thomas), with the denial of touch (Noli me tangere), representations of these subjects evoke questions about the gendered ways in which sense perception was understood at the time. Lisa wrote her dissertation about the Noli me tangere while I focused on the Doubting Thomas. She looked more at the implications of gender while I searched for the significance of touch and tactility in religious art. Together, we were able to join vast bodies of art historical research, integrating our work to ultimately suggest how early modern artists confronted the tensions between seeing, touching, and ultimately, believing. As reviewers have acknowledged, the scope of our case studies, the novelty of our methodological approach, and the originality of our contribution is all predicated on the unusual union of our discrete studies.

The complications precipitated by our choice to work together—our different tenure statuses, geographical separation, and varied writing styles among them—did not factor into the decision to pursue a collaborative path. I did not strategize about whether this was the best way to get ahead in my career and indeed, at one point, rejected the brusque advice of a very senior colleague who suggested I simply keep the book project but “drop the co-author.” At a later moment in the process a colleague indicated that this was a meaningless collaboration because my co-author and I have overlapping areas of art historical expertise. For her, this overlap was a detriment to collaboration! And yet it was precisely our shared art historical training that facilitated the discussions, disagreements, and additions to my own work that made our project successful. 

Mired by its past in the humanistic discourse of the Renaissance, art history is too often guilty of seeing originality in the terms that Leonardo or Michelangelo would have: as a work of singular genius, produced in isolation. In my collaboration with Lisa, we occupied alternating positions of authority; at times she knew more than I did about our topic. Recognizing and admitting one’s limitations may be a norm we encourage in academic classrooms, but it is less often the case when it comes to our own published work. Acknowledging that Lisa knew more than I did about certain aspects of our project was, however, one of the joys of the project: I learned so much in the process. I found the same to be so for my second book project. Despite the fact that it was single-authored, it was also the product of meaningful collaboration, this time with a major museum and a conservator of paintings. This book, which considers one painting by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in great depth, required careful and sustained analysis of technical data procured during a recent conservation process.

Fig. 2 Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Crucifixion of Saint Andrew, 1606-07, oil on canvas, 233.5 x 184 x 12 cm (framed), Cleveland Museum of Art, 1976.2, Image in the public domain.

Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of Saint Andrew at the Cleveland Museum of Art underwent a multi-year cleaning and conservation treatment beginning in 2013. During that time, I met regularly with chief paintings conservator Dean Yoder, who invited me to intimate viewings of each stage of the process. When curators from New York and scholars from Italy visited, Dean and I met with them together to discuss his progress and what it might mean from an art historical perspective. My integration into the comings and goings of the conservation department far exceeded the typical courtesy extended to colleagues from outside the museum. Without Dean’s collaboration, sustained over the entirety of the time that I worked on the project, my book Exporting Caravaggio (Giles, 2018) would have lacked the technical data that in turn shaped my thesis and which reviews have now made clear is central to its scholarly originality and contribution to early modern art history. It was not simply that Dean allowed me access to his findings, but that we worked together throughout both of our respective processes of analyses that was truly unusual. 

Although I wrote the book alone, I thought it with Dean. Thinking together has a long and illustrious history—the ancient Greek symposium and agora centered around collective discussion—but it has not always been equitable or inclusive. Symposia were closed to women and only the upper echelons of society could participate in the performance of civic life enacted at the agora. Indeed, while et al. may acknowledge co-authors, it still elides graduate students, lab assistants, and others who work tirelessly on behalf of a project while remaining nameless in the published byline. In this setting, how can we urge our students to plot a course of collaborative practice? How can we teach them to employ their humanistic education for the greater good, let alone make the humanities a matter of civic engagement? In order to answer these questions, I once again pursued a collaborative relationship that could offer students greater access—to resources, communities, and expertise outside the academy.

Toward this end, I joined with a community partner organization, an urban planning and public arts non-profit called LAND Studio, in order to develop courses that foster connections between classroom content and community projects. From the outset, I worked with the director of LAND Studio, Greg Peckham, to develop a syllabus and final project that would address a pre-existing need of his organization and to ensure that LAND Studio, and ultimately the city of Cleveland, would be the beneficiaries of our work as a class. Weaving together history, theory, and practice, our first course, titled “Painting on Walls,” considered the function of walls as a canvas for urban revitalization and pressed students to ask what art history (and the humanities writ large) can do for their city and for society.  The class was necessarily small: six upper-level undergraduates, and two graduate students in art history participated in this 300/400-level course.  A third of the class meetings were held at LAND Studio’s Ohio City office space while the rest met on the CWRU campus.  The students and I worked alongside urban planners to devise a strategic plan for a major mural initiative called Inter|Urban that addresses issues of social justice, equity, and inclusion in our own city.  In their attempts to better understand the various constituents and stakeholders at play in such a major urban initiative, students soon realized that the production of murals is far more complicated than they initially realized. This realization was entirely dependent on the way the course moved theory (the history of mural painting) to practice (a plan for Inter|Urban). By the end of the semester, students presented their plan to LAND Studio via Zoom and in a book produced through the online publishing tool, Blurb.

Fig. 3 Public Humanities, Public Art, book produced by students in “Painting on Walls,” Spring, 2020, Case Western Reserve University. Photo by author.

This collaboration undoubtedly required a reconfiguration of “content”: I taught fewer canonical works of art in the course than I would have in a seminar on the history of mural painting. It also demanded that I share authority with Mr. Peckham and that I adjust my views and expectations to what was needed by his organization. What would have been my classroom, with my syllabus, became ours. By working together, however, the students ultimately learned how to collaborate with each other and with the community beyond the classroom—a learning objective of fundamentally more significance than one the history of painting on walls could convey on its own.


...the primary lesson of collaborative practice is that in giving something up—exclusive knowledge, sole authorship, singular credit—there is much to be gained.


For me, the primary lesson of collaborative practice is that in giving something up—exclusive knowledge, sole authorship, singular credit—there is much to be gained. This is not an academic lesson but a human one. Writing this post during an international pandemic, it strikes me that the opportunity is rife with collaborative potential. Zoom and other virtual technologies make it possible to meet, share, and make on an unprecedented collaborative scale. In fact, museums, academic institutions, and databases previously limited to in-person access or barred from general use by expensive subscription fees have removed these impositions, thereby helping to fulfill their institutional missions of equity and inclusion. Ironically, in this time of social isolation, when more of us are sitting alone at our desks than ever before, the opportunity exists to dissolve barriers as never before—between buildings, between fields, and ultimately, between individuals.

Erin Benay is the author of two books, numerous articles, and has received fellowship support from the American Institute of Indian Studies and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Her third book, Italy by Way of India, considers transcultural networks between Italy and India in the early modern period (Harvey Miller 2021). Her current Public Humanities project seeks to bring art historical education to the formerly incarcerated through a reentry program in Cleveland, OH.


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