Thursday, February 20, 2014

Doing It Together

Last night I gave a talk to a Rotary group in Johannesburg.  When I was asked to do it, I muttered something about collaboration, thinking that I would do the usual piece about myself and Stanley writing the Detective Kubu books.  But when I started thinking about the talk, I realized that collaboration has really been a part of almost all of my professional life.  (I think Stanley may say the same.)  I think I would have achieved very little without it.

I suppose my first introduction to collaborative work was as a mathematics graduate student in Australia.  I remember exactly one topic from my coursework – Von Neumann Algebras.  I can still tell you a bit about the subject (but, don’t worry, I won’t).  The reason I can is that the course consisted of a set of lectures given by the head of the department, and he would arrive for each class with one or two sheets of scribbled notes and embark on proofs, getting stuck halfway through many of them.  Although he promised to repair these at the next session, he never did.  Eventually a group of us borrowed several text books from the library and worked through the proofs and other gaps together.  We all did very well in the exam.  To this day I wonder if the professor did this deliberately to force us to take ownership of how we learned, or whether he really was just bumblingly unprepared.  I never had the guts to ask him.

Collaboration isn't always successful!
In 1972 I joined the University of the Witwatersrand and became an applied mathematician.  (Why is another story.)  Seduced by the enthusiasm and brilliance of my new boss – Anthony Starfield - I started working on problems that involved using mathematics in other people’s domains.  Applied mathematics is collaboration almost by definition.  What did I know about the biology, the ecology?  But they didn’t know much about mathematics nor about the rapidly expanding use of computers.  The point was that we came from different perspectives, bringing different knowledge and tools.    So, together, we investigated population dynamics in the Kruger National Park and built ecosystem models of the Kalahari.  They got computer systems that could model their problems – perhaps showing them where their knowledge was flawed or where the sensitive areas lay.  We got to go to the Kruger Park and the Kalahari!

While that was going on, I was collaborating with two colleagues in the US – one at the University of Maryland and one at the University of Minnesota.  (My visits to Minneapolis led to my friendship with Stanley, and, much later, to our collaboration.)  All my best work in this area, too, was done with other people.

Mathematics students at the IMA in Minneapolis
Over the years I became involved in mathematics education issues here in South Africa.  In the eighties and nineties there was a surge of support for reform in the teaching and learning of mathematics.  It was then, and unfortunately often still is, a subject abysmally taught and widely hated as a result.  Much emphasis was placed on curriculum reform, but a change in teaching styles and a focus on collaborative learning was pushed strongly.  The cynics will say that no education experiment ever fails.  If a teacher is willing to put the energy, time, and enthusiasm into a new way of doing something, then inevitably many of the students will respond.  But the new paradigm offered many young men and women a path into the sciences that need quantitative and computing skills.  Nowadays, that’s all of them.  Of course group work has issues with assessment, but those are not insurmountable once you get over the idea that the only way for someone to learn something, or to do something, is alone.

So in 2003, Stanley and I started to write novels together.  We’ve often been asked – by other writers – how we can do something so individual together.  We don’t get it.  Having spent our careers working co-operatively with other people, why would we undertake this new venture any other way?  We have our brain storming, our support of each other when one flags, someone to push when things go slowly, someone to see the wood for the trees, someone to give honest (really honest) feedback in almost real time.  Of course, it wouldn’t work for everyone, but we believe it works for us.

I was also asked a couple of interesting questions last night.  One was this: 'If you had known you could be successful as a writer - he meant getting books published, not necessarily eating! - would you have started writing after university instead of becoming an academic mathematician?' I had to think about it for a few moments.  I was keen on SciFi in those student days and wrote some short stories of which I was quite proud.  Recently I had a chance to reread them.  None of the magazines I sent them to at the time accepted them, for which I am now very grateful!  I think I needed to grow up a bit – maybe forty years – before I could write anything anyone might want to read.

Another question I was asked was: What do you enjoy most about collaboration?  The answer to that one was easy.  You have so much more fun that way!

Michael - Thursday


  1. Michael, I have told both you and Stan how envious I get of the two of you when I I think I am writing drivel and have no one but myself to answer my question. I echo this lovely pean to team work. I spent my professional career working, among other management techniques, on team building. I think that is why I never have one person solving my mysteries, but groups of people who all have a piece of the puzzle.

  2. I have the exact opposite experience of life Stan - everything I've done, it's been on my own. Set up my business from scratch, write on my own - I think it might be a personality disorder. One of my staff asked my manager how the business worked as in when we had planning meetings etc. 'No, none of that. It's a benign dictatorship in here!'

  3. Thanks for the comments. I don't think it's a personality disorder, Caro. Different things work for different people. There are plenty of students who do very well working on their own, often never even asking a question. But peer support and interaction certainly helps a lot of others. Different horses, different courses.

  4. I'm more like Caro when it comes to my writing. Although I believe in team work in many things, in the creative mode I write best when left to screw up on my own.