Collaboration Series: A Conversation with David Cunningham, Nicole (Nicky) Fox, and Christina Simko

Defaced Confederate Memorial,  Forest Park (2015). Source:

Máire Murphy, posted on May 16, 2017

Collaboration Series: A Conversation with David Cunningham, Nicole (Nicky) Fox, and Christina Simko. In this post we explore how complementary areas of expertise and approaches further their research and interpretation of the Confederate Memorial in Forest Park. In their MWMS essay the contributors focus on how the memorial was and continues to be a contested site on multiple levels. Read more about their site here.

How did your project originate? Had you worked together in the past on a project of this kind?

Nicky: The MWMS essay is linked to a larger project the three of us are working on, so that is how we met up. David is the central node in this network. David knew Christina and me prior to the project; Christina and I knew one another’s work, but had never met. The idea (for the larger project) was contestation around memorials in general, so David contacted us, and fairly soon after we started conversations about the research. So when AMCS reached out about the MWMS project, it all dovetailed so nicely.

David: In my head the Confederate Memorial, which was defaced the same week I first moved to St. Louis in 2014, was the generative case for the overarching project on contested memorials. Given the timing, its contested status was immediately apparent when I arrived in a way it would not have been had I come at a later time. The memorial was a compelling site to consider for modern segregation, so our work and the MWMS project was a great fit.

What characteristics or features of your site lent itself to collaborative work?

Christina: We are all sociologists but we are different kinds of sociologists – as a discipline, sociology stands at the intersection of the social sciences and the humanities. I fall closest to the humanistic side. So that means that I read the social world more like a humanist reads a text and I think that perspective complements the orientations that David and Nicky have to the site. This is a site that lends itself to understanding through multiple epistemological frames.

Nicky: We have different methods of expertise but they speak to one another and so allow us to come at this analysis from a unique and strong position. Meanwhile we have in common three bodies of literature and know them very well – issues of racial contention, memorials, and collective memory - and we were able to engage the material deeply by talking with one another.

Christina: The ways that each of us reads the site are different and complementary. My focus has often been on tracing the “biography” of an object historically, Nicky has a gift for looking at aesthetic form, and David is drawn to political processes and how they interact with symbolic forms.

David: In a more global way, and I think this is evidenced by what Christina and Nicky have just said, I feel like this is the most complementary collaboration I have been involved in. It is easy to get involved with collaborators who share your interests and orientations. But our perspectives really diverge in a way that is quite complementary. So it has been a great experience in that sense.

What were you hoping to accomplish and how did collaboration help you achieve that objective?

Nicky: Our larger project asks, “How do communities address contention around confederate memorials and how do earlier histories of white supremacy shape this?” So the Forest Park Confederate Memorial is one case of what that looks like, and we hope our work provides a compelling answer to the question. In terms of collaboration, it allows us to throw a much wider net because we have more people, and our thinking power is multiplied. Collaboration also allows us also to get at the question from multiple perspectives, and it allows progress to be continuous in a way that does not happen when you are by yourself. Here we have other people invested and we can help each other get unstuck.

What is a particular facet of the collaborative work that is essential to the written product?

David: Practically speaking, I am the only one in St. Louis all the time, so I was fortunate to be able to work with Jeannette Freiberg (Washington University undergraduate research assistant), and we have spent a lot of time in archives and doing on-the-ground fieldwork. This was true especially once we discovered our complementary case involving the Lyon statue. As the issues involving that relocation were much less well-known, that aspect of the project has taken some digging, so be being able to go down the road to the archives has been important.

What other aspects of teamwork have you found helpful in reaching your goals? And did you have to change anything about your style or priorities in order to work effectively as a team?

David: There is more intentionality around the project – it is nice to feel like I’m accountable to others and that they are also helping move things forward. It would be harder on our own.

Christina: Given the complementarity of our approaches and commitments there has been a really nice way in which a lot is gained and nothing is lost. This also derives from working with such open-minded colleagues. It is not a universal characteristic of sociologists that we work across epistemological divides.

Nicky: It has been a very well-functioning collaboration. I have been in some work groups that have not been this way. We will write a draft and might have to cut part of it out, but none of us are so attached to our own agenda that this is a difficult process.

David: I think this sort of project has a timeliness to it. Frequently we find something on our topic going on in the news, and this helps keep up enthusiasm around what we are doing as we share our findings (both research and news articles) with one another.

Christina: The collaboration is also complementary in terms of our experience. David has studied race and violence in the South. I have not, but I grew up in Virginia, and that is why the project resonated with me. Legacies of the past in the present were quite palpable to me growing up, even though I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe them in that way. Nicky brings an important outside perspective as a Californian. As she has not been steeped in the subject previously, there are patterns she can see that people closer to the situation might overlook.

David: Nicky is also the most likely to strike up conversations with strangers when we are in the field, and it is very helpful to have varied proclivities that allow us to take advantage of opportunities as they arise!

What organizational constraints or barriers did you face as a team working on your site? How did you overcome them?

David: Surprisingly few. Our central challenge involves geographic differences, but otherwise, through WU support and other bodies, we have been able to do a lot without institutional constraints that might slow us down. Our work on this project dovetails with a Ferguson Academic Seed Grant we received in 2016, and so we have been able to fund travel to sites, including multiple gatherings in St. Louis.

If you had to choose one word--that isn’t “collaboration”--to describe the work you three have done and produced on your site, what word would it be?

Christina: Synthesis. I think the paper represents a synthesis of complementary frameworks, approaches, and areas of expertise.

David: I think that is a great way to think about it. At times, we’ve compartmentalized tasks based on a rather neat division of labor, but then we’ve been able to effectively work collaboratively to bring it all back together. And in the end the work does look synthetic. 

Visit our Contributors page to learn more about David, Nicky, and Christina. For additional information about the MWMS project please go to our main page.

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