A Research Lead Perspective: Managing Collaborative Research

A Research Lead Perspective: Managing Collaborative Research

Posted on July 1, 2022

Project Vox is comprised of undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, faculty, staff, and community members. With such an array of contributors, our team has developed formalized roles for project management while maintaining flexibility to accommodate different forms of participation and levels of commitment. This post is written from my perspective as Research Lead, a role with the responsibilities of planning, delegating, and executing all work necessary to complete research deliverables; developing and maintaining a strong familiarity with the biography of, work of, and literature surrounding the philosopher of focus; distributing tasks and setting relevant deadlines for researchers; and serving as a mentor to junior team members. In this post I focus on the process of interdisciplinary collaboration and mentorship across academic stages through the practices of the 2021–2022 research team. As Research Lead, I have learned strategies for managing collaborative research from my team members, as well as developed new practices to creatively engage students at different learning levels as they work through a challenging research process in a collaborative enterprise. In addition to collaboration across the areas of the Project Vox team and with external partners, collaboration takes place within sub-teams including Research, Feasibility, Outreach & Assessment, and Administration. A detailed look at the research process for a single philosopher entry illustrates the types of collaborative practices involved, including collective reading, writing, and editing.

In March 2022 Project Vox published an entry on Tullia d’Aragona, the culmination of a two-year research process which involved a transition from an individual’s feasibility research to the collaborative effort of an evolving team. From Spring 2020 through Fall 2021, I conducted feasibility research on d’Aragona to present to the Project Vox team for their approval as a philosopher entry. Once we have completed an initial feasibility study and agreed as a team to proceed with an entry, our general goal is to complete the entry with three semesters of focused work. As course loads and schedules change with each academic semester, this means the composition and working dynamics of the research team will shift as well. Over the past two years our research team has benefitted from diversity of disciplinary backgrounds and expertise. Seven people participated in the research team during the production of the d’Aragona entry—three to four each semester—including four undergraduate students, a master’s student, a PhD candidate, and a postdoctoral fellow. These seven researchers specialized in philosophy, psychology, history, art history, romance studies, and general humanities, ready to lend their expertise and expand their knowledge of Western philosophy. As Research Lead, I developed practices that support our collaborative work, capitalize on our diverse backgrounds, and ensure that we are building on common ground.

The formation of the research team begins with team-building exercises and a shared foundation before drafting entry content. At the beginning of our collaborative work on the d’Aragona entry in Spring 2021, we began by reading through all the feasibility materials and primary sources that have been translated into English. Once we shared a basic understanding of the philosopher’s life and work, we then planned the outline of the entry and delegated sub-topics based on each team member’s interest, knowledge, skills, and areas for development. While Project Vox’s published philosopher entries share a common format, the sections within each entry are adapted to the life and work of the particular philosopher. During this phase of sub-topic research and content drafting we met on a weekly basis to discuss individual progress, questions, and challenges. Because much of the core research and writing for the entry was accomplished during the feasibility study, we were able to dedicate our time to pursuing more specialized topics tailored to each contributor’s interests and expertise. For example, our postdoctoral fellow leveraged knowledge she cultivated through the process of writing her dissertation and developing an exhibition on the Italian author Dante Alighieri to place d’Aragona’s works in the context of literary precedents in Italy.

As Research Lead it was my role to be a project manager, a mentor, and a coach. In order to best synthesize the needs of the entry and the goals of each of my team members, I asked each person to regularly reflect on their strengths, passions, and areas for growth. Given the need to accommodate the interests and abilities of the team, the plan for the entry changed over time. In some cases, this meant scaling back and omitting optional sections, such as a sub-section we had planned to further contextualize d’Aragona’s status as an elite courtesan in early modern Italy. In other cases, we were able to expand the entry beyond what we had initially imagined it could be, with additions such as a detailed lesson plan and annotated bibliography of contextual sources. While it was my role to ensure that we stayed the course with the essential components of the entry, I also recognized at times that it was necessary to set aside my vision of the entry in favor of what the team as a whole needed at each point in time.

During the writing stage, which extended from late Spring 2020 into Fall 2021, we met regularly as a team and engaged in several different forms of collaborative editing. The first practice we developed was to designate a specific role within the team of ‘peer reviewer.’ For each section, this team member would pose questions from a lay reader’s point of view, briefly restate the significance of the section, and suggest adjustments to organization that would improve the reader experience. This helped us to identify areas for clarification or further additions. Then, to achieve a more unified voice for our co-authored entry, we took turns reviewing each other’s sections and met synchronously to live-edit the most important sections line–by–line. Predictably, our writing styles varied so we were guided by the majority vote on any given phrase rather than the preference of the original author.

At the end of Fall 2021 we presented our final drafts to the larger Vox team for their review as lay readers, and then to our external reviewer, an established scholar in the field and d’Aragona expert. After we made revisions based on the feedback from the external reviewer in early 2022, each section underwent a few final rounds of review by the larger Vox team for clarity, grammar, and formatting before final publication. For the Research Lead, the revision process offers an opportunity to help students develop an editorial eye, write with a particular audience in mind, and learn to give and receive feedback graciously. Leading a team composed of undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers, one of my roles was to manage expectations of collaborative work toward publication. It can be challenging for students to accept that we will always write more research than we will publish in the final entry, or to appreciate constructive criticism as a gift of time and care.

Throughout the development of the entry, it was my job to model the research process as a faculty member would for a class: to invite participation, ask questions, offer resources, facilitate collaboration, encourage accountability, provide constructive feedback, and suggest strategies for improvement. This entails thoughtfully customizing the guidance of each individual while balancing the work of the team and adhering to the core values of our project’s mission. By working through each stage together and keeping an open dialogue about our successes and struggles, we have been able to achieve our twin goals of publishing a worthy entry and supporting the growth of each team member.

Dana Hogan is a PhD candidate in Art History and is enrolled in the Graduate Certificate in Gender & Feminist Studies as well as the Certificate in College Teaching. Her doctoral project, “Expanding Worlds: Women Artists and Cross-Cultural Encounters in Early Modern Europe (Working Title)” foregrounds women in the study of cross-cultural circulation of artists and works of art, as well as their subjects and objects.