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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · July 23, 2019

Co-authoring Atlantic History in the Digital Age

WMQ 8 min read

by Nicholas Radburn and Justin Roberts, co-authors of “Gold Versus Life: Jobbing Gangs and British Caribbean Slavery” in the April 2019 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly

A question that we were frequently asked while writing our WMQ essay on jobbing gangs was “what is co-authorship like?” That we were asked this question so often highlights how co-authorship is seen as an oddity. Our colleagues who have tried co-authorship said that they found it a frustrating process, as they had to work with someone with their own idiosyncrasies. Finding a co-author is also challenging. Few of us have a potential partner within our own department, or even within the same town; our colleagues are usually in distant cities or even other countries. We were no exception: Justin is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Nick is in Lancaster, England—cities separated by 2,800 miles and four time zones. Despite being separated by the Atlantic, we found that co-authorship alleviated many of the issues that are intrinsic to writing alone, largely because digital tools make co-writing surprisingly easy and pleasurable.

Our partnership sprung out of a series of personal meetings and our similar intellectual biographies. We both wrote our doctoral theses at Johns Hopkins under the supervision of former WMQ editor, Philip D. Morgan and had both worked closely with David Eltis. Ours was a partnership that Morgan himself may have foreseen when he urged us to meet up in 2010, when Nick had just started at Johns Hopkins University (JHU), and Justin had just finished. Over dinner, we discussed our shared interest in the social and economic history of Caribbean slavery. Three years later, we met again in Baltimore and had a long conversation about jobbing gangs. It seemed remarkable that historians had written so little on the tens of thousands of people enslaved within jobbing gangs—an integral component of the Caribbean slave economy. From these early informal conversations, the idea of co-authoring an article was born.

Technology was crucial to making the project a reality because it allowed us to create a virtual repository from which we could both draw wherever either of us was in the world. Justin had largely worked on Barbados and Nick on Jamaica, and so we had collections of digitized sources for two key islands. We collected these sources into a common Dropbox folder that would become our working space for the project. We pooled our notes in the same location by searching through our combined sources and copying over passages on jobbing gangs. By combining our notes, the role of jobbing gangs in Caribbean economies started to come into better focus. Reviewing other collections allowed us to fill in the gaps, revealing the ubiquity of jobbing gangs in the late eighteenth century, and their rise and fall over time.

Working from a common Dropbox made co-writing the paper particularly straight forward. Rather than each writing separate sections, we worked on a single paper, editing the other person’s words as we saw fit. Justin wrote a very rough first draft in December 2016 and then passed it over to Nick. We saved each new a version of the document within the Dropbox, ensuring changes were reversible, and coordinated via Skype in between rounds. Working in this way, the paper came together remarkably quickly and by April 2017, we had a first full draft.

We found this method to be refreshing compared to the frustrations of single authorship. We both wrote our previous single-authored projects in time eked out of crowded teaching and administrative schedules. By contrast, we could pass this piece over whenever we were busy, knowing that the other person was still developing the paper. Working in different time zones also became a surprising benefit, because Nick could write in the morning and pass it to Justin just as the workday started in Canada; Justin wrote after the workday in the UK ended.

Although co-writing in isolation proved surprisingly trouble-free, there were still numerous points when we needed to meet together and with other scholars to solve problems. In May 2017, we both presented our first draft to the JHU Atlantic seminar. We used their feedback to revise the draft before submitting it to the WMQ three weeks later. Presentations at the Institute of Historical Research in London and the Lawrence D. Stokes Seminar in Halifax honed later drafts. We also met at the AHA in Washington DC to discuss how we would action the WMQ’s invaluable readers’ reports. Digital technologies enabled us to co-author this piece from either side of the Atlantic and share, sift through, and access sources. But it was the “analog technologies” of workshops, seminars, and meetings that allowed us to clarify our ideas and shape our paper into the article that now appears in the WMQ.

Ultimately, we both found co-authorship to be a satisfying process. It provided us a wider geographic and chronological scope and a larger source base; it also sped up the writing process. And digital tools solved many of the problems that might have otherwise vexed a joint project. Co-authorship can thus help us to pursue a deeper understanding of #VastEarlyAmerica, the scale of which might be daunting to a single author.

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