On Failure


My new favorite cartoon via lucyinnovation.wordpress.com

At a recent lecture with prominent DHer and computational historian William Turkel , he mentioned a few very eye-opening things that point to major differences between the sciences and the humanities.  Humanities students are not taught to work collaboratively. Humanities students, he said, are not taught to fail. He didn’t mean either of these things in a negative way, but rather as a matter of fact.

It’s true, but to some extent the grading system puts a damper on learning things for the sake of learning. This is nothing new. In a similar vein, it would seem that humanities students are taught that their failure is all their own. When there are less group projects, working with others  is daunting–if someone sips up, you could all fail. This puts pressure on the power of your own brain and equates an “ick” feeling to collaboration. I know when I was paired with a bunch of lazies and ended up taking over the entire project I sure felt that way. I think this feeling often lasts through adulthood, and I can’t imagine that all students in the sciences dream of the day their next group project will come. Nevertheless, we can learn a lot from group collaboration, even when it’s outside of a school setting.

With Digital Humanities, collaboration can be a necessity. If you want to employ data mining techniques in relation to Jane Austen’s texts, but have no experience with data mining, well, you better find someone who can show you. In my opinion, these kinds of projects start to move into a more scientific realm than one that’s purely 18th-century literary theory. But that’s another discussion.

What Turkel said is that he encourages his students to aim for big (do-able) projects. If your hypothesis or objective “fails” in the end, that doesn’t mean that you fail the class. You are forced to try new things and work out solutions – very much like how it goes in real life.

In an essay, your thesis doesn’t “fail.” You wouldn’t write a poetry analysis that admits to its own failure or shortcomings. It’s just a difference in the disciplines. But by the nature of the grading system, an ‘A’ is a success, and anything less than that may as well mean you’ve fallen short of succeeding.

When I was a writing tutor, many of my students came from a science background and were very concerned about their grades because of graduate school.

“OK, but how do I get an ‘A’?” was a common concern. This isn’t unique to the humanities, but rather, points to a larger problem that academics have bickered over for decades.

At UC Santa Cruz,  I was fortunate enough to be able to take some classes pass/fail. I did this when I took classes that were out of my field (Astronomy, for one), and for classes where I didn’t want to be limited by grades (Creative Writing). When I took classes pass/fail, there was  less pressure riding on the outcome and I enjoyed the learning process more.  Of course, teachers would warn you that if you were applying to graduate school, you should take all of your classes for a grade and that you should definitely get A’s. But we had lengthy written evaluations by the teachers and TA’s, which should have been worth more than the grade anyway, right?

Is this why I was rejected from certain graduate programs? Because I looked like a lazy California hippie? Maybe. But I’ve found that I’m right where I need to be. In the end it all works out, no matter how many classes you have “failed” or lessons that you find you need to learn over and over again. you won’t really get it until you start graduate school anyway.

1 thought on “On Failure”

  1. Sarah,

    I found Turkel’s talk on failure and your blog post very interesting. As I wrote on our class blog, at various library jobs I had, where I had a staff, I would tell them not to be afraid of making a mistake when working on the library catalog. I would tell them to be inquisitive and to explore the program and to ask questions. I assured them I set it up so that they couldn’t destroy the catalog and that their exploring and using the system was how they and I would learn. I try to follow this philosophy myself when setting up database interfaces and catalog systems. However, it is not always easy. Fear of failure and the consequences of that failure on job security (and sometimes grades) are real fears.

    The high school I went to had pass / fail grades and I also then had to provide long written explanations of why I didn’t have a typical grade point average when applying to college. Did that limit or hurt my chances of getting into some colleges, who knows, but I got into the school I wanted and feel my education was great.

    I think it is great that Turkel is able to assure his students that they will not fail his class if their projects fail but in many instances, in many jobs, this is not a promise one is given. I always joke that the only job where you can be wrong all the time and fail and not get fired is weather person. I say it jokingly but it is somewhat true. In academia or in corporate culture, having a project fail is not always looked upon in a positive light. As the people feeling the heat from the Federal Government Affordable Care Act Marketplace web site can attest to, people do not seem to think the current problems are “learning experiences.”

    My question is how do we then promote inquisitiveness, willingness to take chances and possibly fail in the projects we work on in DH without the fear of the consequences of our failure?

    In response to an email I sent Turkel after his talk he sent me a link to @jeriellsworth video on benefits of failing that I think you will appreciate. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhQ7d3BK3KQ

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