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What happens when 22 researchers get together to write a book?

This past week 22 researchers from 3 different countries gathered together in Montreal to continue collaboratively writing a book on the history of print. The “multigraph,” as we’re calling it, is an experiment in seeing what happens to our ideas when we change the way we write and work together. But it is also an attempt to argue for the importance of integrating multiple forms of communication with one another (online, face-to-face, and print). For two days we undid, rewrote, combined, edited, critiqued, polished and extended each other’s work in new directions (and in new formats). It was intense and it was inspiring. Here are some lessons learned from the process.

Over the course of the past year, contributors have been writing “seeds” and “grafts” using a wiki platform to address the history of print interactivity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — how individuals interacted with print, how print interacted with other media, and how new kinds of social communities were brought into existence through these mediated interactions during a crucial transitional phase in the history of print. The aim of the project is to change how we think about the history of media by changing how we communicate through media.

There was an initial seeding period of roughly 3-4 months, in which participants wrote initial contributions of 1500-2500 words on one area of print interactivity. Following that — but more like simultaneously — there was a grafting phase during which people were encouraged to add 500-1000 words to at least two seeds. The wiki platform allowed contributors to make changes while preserving all versions so no changes would be lost. It also contained a robust comment function so discussions could parallel the writing process.

This work then culminated in our conference, nicknamed the fall harvest in keeping with our (over)use of organic metaphors to understand the process (no one’s quite sure how they started, but once they did they seemed conceptually useful even if annoying). The conference’s aim was, first, to force a hard deadline on everyone and, second, to give us face-to-face opportunities to exchange ideas about the purpose of the volume. It succeeded admirably on both fronts. The week before the conference saw a flurry of activities on the wiki — everyone received automated notices everytime anything was updated on the site. Then, for two days we met in a series of interactive breakout sessions to edit the seeds and design a plan for future work.

One of the keys to success, it has to be said, was the group of participants. An amazing bunch. We had a very low rate of attrition, losing about 5 people from the start. On a project this out of the ordinary that is saying something. (I should also add that many of the participants had been to Montreal at one time or other to partake in our annual workshop — so there was some sense of community prior to the project.)

But the other key to success was the interactive process. I had no idea whether it was going to work. But drawing on our organizer’s training in pedagogy, we used a jigsaw process, which looked something like this:

The first session consisted of us in four groups of 5-6 people (that’s the first row). Each group discussed 3 seeds (from a total of 24) and outlined suggestions about where they saw those seeds heading (those little triangles are the seeds). The author of the seed was always in the group where his or her seed was discussed in order to give guidance on his or her aims.

The next three sessions then concentrated on editing one seed per session (the vertical columns). The make-up of the groups changed throughout the day, so people were constantly in new groupings looking at new material. Authors were not in the room when their seed was being edited. However, one person from the initial period stayed with the seeds throughout the day to preserve some form of institutional memory (variously called a captain, anchor, or some other nautical metaphor). In this way, every contributor saw half of all seeds and sat in meetings with close to everyone on the project.

The true key ingredient, however, for the success of the event — beyond lots of coffee and Montreal’s good food — was the way every time someone made a suggestion about what a seed needed, s/he was given an assignment to write. The aim of the multigraph conference was to turn conversation into action. Instead of passively listening to papers as with a traditional conference (or lots of pontificating), we engaged with each other, but always with an eye to producing more writing. Talk and action were intertwined.

The theory behind the multigraph was that if we allowed researchers to think horizontally instead of vertically — to roam intellectually rather than say one thing about a specialized area — then we would uncover new kinds of knowledge. Putting researchers into silos — called essays in an edited volume — seemed like a way of cheapening what they really knew. In the multigraph, many people make many small contributions to a wide range of areas. While we don’t yet know the final outcome, it looks incredibly promising at this point. I was constantly amazed at the level of critique, insight, and clarity generated during the meetings.

One of the biggest debates of the weekend (and of the process more generally) is why the outcome should be a printed book. (Actually the biggest debate was around the table of contents, but that’s a different story.) If we’re starting on a wiki, why are we finishing in print? That too is a longer story and we’ve written a little manifesto on multi-modal writing. The short version is that for most in the room, we believe in the kind of reading and kind of argumentation that printed books make possible. But we are also converts to the ways in which digital platforms, when combined with personal discussion, allow for new ways of rethinking the writing process. A multi-authored book was what we are after.

We now have about 65,000 words of text and a list of over 100+ assignments. I won’t pretend to suggest what metaphor this stage corresponds to in our garden of ideas, but I’m really hoping they stick. It’s going to be very hard to go to a normal conference after this. But I think I’ll still enjoy writing things on my own too.