Making time to collaborate

Having come back from SC15 straight into a crazily hectic period at work, I am really craving time to process everything I took away from the conference. On a strictly practical note I need to watch the videos, sort the photos, and re-read my notes, and on an intellectual note I need to write down all of the things I want to achieve as a result of the incredible overflow of inspiration, and then try to prioritise just a few of them, rather than twitching from one thing to another and not doing any of them well.

To do all of that I need time. And as a teacher, time is the one thing I can pretty much guarantee I won’t get during the school term. Sadly, teaching is not the only profession that suffers this way. I hear from my friends who have bravely stayed in academia after I jumped ship that their teaching loads are up, their admin loads are up, and the expectations on them are sky rocketing. Friends in business seem to feel the same.

I had a fascinating conversation at the conference about the problem of collaboration. I’ve always felt that the really interesting problems in science lie on discipline boundaries, and this is what I tell my students. Computer Science + X is the buzz term. Computer Science plus some other – almost any other – discipline. But as researchers we tend to live in academic silos and not talk to other departments very much. This is not so much out of a profound academic snobbery as it is a lack of time, energy and opportunity to look up from our immediate deadlines.

The same thing happens in schools. It’s a wonderful thing when different faculties collaborate and produce subjects or units that tie separate disciplines together, but that requires an amount of joint planning time that we simply can’t scrape together, because we are all already stretched to maximum.

I’ve got to the point where I don’t go to the staffroom for lunch, I gulp my lunch during meetings or extra tutes for my students. And I make my own coffee rather than walking to the local cafe with a friend while we take a break, because it’s faster that way. But I am starting to think this is a mistake.

Collaboration creates an extraordinary synergy where you can do things together that would never be possible individually. And the best collaborations I have had with my computational science projects have come about almost accidentally, through meetings or conversations about other things entirely. If I were not part time, those conversations and meetings would never have happened. As a full timer with a full time teaching load I would never have the time or energy to make these projects happen.

Of course, the CS projects I run are not merely cross-faculty, they are involve entirely different organisations, from Polperro Dolphin Swims to Earthwatch Australia, and various departments of Monash University. They take time. But they are consistently rated by my students as the best part of the course – often the best part of their studies. They are wholly worth the effort.

Collaborating across disciplines gives you a whole host of opportunities you simply don’t get by talking only to people within your own field. But it’s also much more difficult to set up. You have to go out of your way to connect with people in other disciplines. 9 times out of 10 that will probably go nowhere, but the tenth may be a doozy of a project that changes everything for you both.

In today’s goal-oriented, results focused environment this is really hard to make space for. I’m convinced that the more we accept this structure to our lives that does not allow for exploration and collaboration, the more we lose from our future. The more we constrain the possibilities, and the more we limit ourselves.

I have struggled to write this post, because I don’t have a solution. I can’t change my own workload, I certainly can’t affect yours. Maybe I can try to make space for conversations, but when I am achieving improvements in my work by using countless hours of my own unpaid time – in effect stealing from my family – then it’s clear I haven’t got the answer. But maybe we can at least start talking about it – online, in person, at staff meetings, with management, and even with governments. Maybe then, as a society, we can start to recognise the value of time and space over endless short-term “productivity improvements” (a fashionable term for endless increasing workload expectations).

What do you think?



About lindamciver

Australian Freelance Writer, Teacher, & Computer Scientist
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