The Newsletter 94 Spring 2023

The Unknown University: notes on ‘Collaboration as Method’

Laura Erber

I attended the Craft as METHOD workshop—in my capacity as the (new) Coordinator of the IIAS Fellowship Programme—to explore possible links between the fellowship programme Humanities Across Borders Programme (HAB). What is striking about HAB is the effective form of collaboration established there; it all depends on a common desire to transform institutions from the inside.

The Unknown University is the title of the volume that brings together the poetic work of the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. The word “University” in his works does not name a fixed and delimited institution, but evokes learning processes from which life and society, in their complex entanglement, are not neutralized beforehand. I use Roberto Bolaño's title and its web of possible meanings here because, in a certain way, the experience participating as an outsider-insider in the HAB meetings in Saint-Louis, Senegal, has been the closest I have been to the Unknown University. The Unknown University will then be the name of a spacetime of experiences of ephemeral communities, experiences where thinking, creating, and living are not distinguishable from each other. 

Due to their dynamics and synergy, the meetings of the HAB allow a reflection on collaboration as a method, which involves an enormous amount of invisible work difficult to describe in the documents that normally account for our academic activities. 

The HAB meeting brought to light the concreteness of the effects—dramatic for some—of the isolation produced by the pandemic as well as of the community and academic reconfigurations it generated. The speeches of each member were guided fundamentally by a need to continue to elaborate, from mutual listening and collective effort, an effectively south-south academic (and trans-academic) platform. They took place beyond the design determined by the modern forms of control of the modes of valuing knowledge in this new axis of intellectual engagement not controlled by the North. 

This meeting, the interventions of each partner, the reports of activities implemented, and the clashes with the bureaucracy of the university machinery and the regional/national powers and their vicissitudes make the notion of collaboration more dense and concrete. Collaborative projects aimed at building more porous institutions require a struggle that can last for years with the university administration. This work, which involves the slow navigation of bureaucracy, is also part of the gestures of collaboration when it ceases to be a harmless word at the service of beautiful descriptions of academic life. 

There is an enormous amount of work involved in the construction of a space of exchange that effectively values the moment of meeting. Collaboration as a method starts by defending the importance of bringing together researchers and practitioners from very different countries and contexts. To do so, it avoids building an artificially neutral environment guided by the pure idea of time optimisation and the corporate idea of efficiency.  

Collaboration as a method allows us to reflect on the bottlenecks, on the fatigue and on the gaps that the academic space imposes. Instead of being seen as sacrificing the individual trajectory in the name of the institutional community, cooperation among HAB members is taken as the very vocation of higher education spaces. 

The University as we know it will only be transformed by the mass of critical energy of the “unknown universities” that also inhabit it if scholars can take on their discomfort and reinvent their role by going beyond nostalgia, discouragement, or magical solutions imposed from above.