Week-Four Reflections on the Benefits and Struggles of Ground-Up Collaboration

The production of academic work too often happens in solitude and behind closed doors. As academics, we regularly sit alone in our offices or in an archive (or in a coffee shop, on adventurous days), engrossed in our own thoughts as we pore over documents, ponder new ideas, or struggle to complete an article, chapter, or even an abstract. The outside world ceases to exist, and we become completely caught up in our own entangled webs of knowledge.

But my work over the past month has shown me that this does not always have to be the case. The experience of working in the Greggiati archive with four colleagues, Professor Zanovello, and the Greggiati librarian Elisa Superbi has been a clear and constant reminder that academic efforts do not have to happen in isolation. Ground-up collaboration has been a vital part of our work here in Ostiglia, and we’ve learned that discussion and free communication can allow us to connect dots and deepen our ideas in ways that would be impossible when working in seclusion.

One of the most rewarding aspects of this class has been learning how to work well with others in an unknown situation. When the trip began at the end of finals week in May, I felt nervous and apprehensive about being thrown into a room with four people—some of whom I barely knew at the time—and having to work alongside them constantly, all the while navigating personalities about which I knew very little and adjusting to a new group dynamic. In the end, though, I learned that collaborating on projects like this from their inception can be engaging, helpful, and even fun. But playing well with others constantly for four weeks has its difficulties; retreating to the solitude of headphones has been an indispensable means of escape for us, even though we quickly realized the necessity of frequent communication for the successful progress of the project. Despite how infuriating collaborative work can be at times, though, its pros ultimately far outweigh its cons, especially for this particular project.

Each member of our group brings individual skill sets to the table, and working collaboratively allows us to benefit from each other’s special knowledge and abilities. We’ve been able to solve puzzles as a group that we wouldn’t have been able to solve alone. Bret’s excellent research skills helped us get one step closer to discovering the possible identity of the mysterious Franz Langer, a copyist and possible performer whose manuscripts Greggiati seems to have been obsessed with collecting. Anne, who catalogs on an almost daily basis back in Bloomington, has a deep knowledge of cataloging music-related documents that proved indispensable, and she played a significant role in our creation of a standardized practice that will be used by future catalogers as well.

For the first two weeks, we barely wore our headphones at all, constantly sharing problems, ideas, and finding ways to standardize our local practice. We frequently found ourselves gathered around one person’s manuscript in a collaborative attempt to decipher an annotation, which were sometimes written in multiple languages, or a performance marking. Aaron, always the first to jump to his feet when someone called for help, quickly proved himself to be the local expert on deciphering minuscule, crowded German text. Amanda became my personal figure-new-things-out buddy, and we pondered many questions together, some as mundane as “how does the Library of Congress standardize vocal score titles?” and others far more intriguing, e.g. “do these markings mean that Langer might have actually performed from this manuscript?” I took a special interest in opera manuscripts that list names of specific performers, particularly prima donnas; these manuscripts raise questions of authorship and highlight the intriguingly malleable nature of the nineteenth-century opera score. One of our favorite group activities became showing each other the elaborate and sometimes hilarious watermarks peppered throughout the manuscripts. I often asked Bret or Amanda to help me hold a large opera manuscript up to the window so that I could clearly see and describe for the catalog the animal or smiling crescent moon that stared back at us.

During the past few days, we’ve frequently made attempts to retreat to more private spaces by putting in headphones and working in silence. I’ve begun to struggle with the almost constant socialization of the trip, and I long for a truly private space and the freedom to seek advice only from those colleagues with whom I am especially close. But while I look forward to returning to my own quiet work space in Bloomington, I will take with me a new appreciation of the benefits of cooperative academic work. I have come to realize that much can be learned from colleagues with vastly different specializations than my own—and I’m so glad to have gotten to know the particular colleagues who accompanied me on this trip on both professional and personal levels. The Greggiati project stands as the product of many minds at work together, and I’m proud to have been part of something that encouraged us to raise as many questions as we answered.

 

I snapped a shot of what our daily work in the archive looks like.

I snapped a shot of what our daily work in the archive looks like.

 

Me playing the organ at Santa Barbara in Mantua–an indescribably amazing experience. Our day trips have been just as educational as our work in the archive.

The classic "crescent moon with face" watermark that we've each seen at least 200 times.

The classic “crescent moon with face” watermark that we’ve each seen at least 200 times.