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Innovation and Failure Part II

Alison Carr and Brewster Kahle provide two practical applications of processes that encourage/embrace failure. Of the exercises Carr posits, the most interesting to me were “Assessing ‘Quality of Failure,’” based on Edward Burger’s “Teaching to Fail” and “Try Again, Fail Differently,” based on Peter Elbow’s concept of low-stakes writing.

“Teaching to Fail” subverts the notion that there is such a thing as correct and incorrect by making failure a prerequisite for a good grade. As Carr explains, Berger defines failure as “a willingness to take on and pursue ideas that might not seem entirely ‘safe.’” This exercise is based on the belief that “risk-taking and failure foster imagination and lead to innovation.” He encourages students to share their failures, and 5% of the grade is based on “Quality of failure.” (Whatever that means! See below.)

If Berger subverts the notion of correct=good grade, failure=bad grade; then Elbow rejects the dichotomy altogether. As we read last semester, Elbow suggests that in order for student writing to improve, teachers need to create environment in which writing is disassociated from receiving red marks on the page. In Carr’s exercise, the idea is that writing is never correct (check mark) or incorrect (red mark), but constantly in flux. As she says, the focus is “not on how to say it better but on how to say it differently.” This semester, my students participated in an archive-building activity with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum which required them to write a short vignette that had a limit of 1500 characters. Similar to this process, it was fascinating to see them have to figure out what to cut and how to tighten their language so that they could upload their piece. Assigning students to tweet, it seems to me, would also have a similar effect.

Here are some questions these teaching models brought up for me:

  1. How do we assess failure? Is it in relationship to success? Or can you assess it alone? (As Berkun says, failing alone is not enough to lead to innovation; it requires the ability to extract the lessons learned from failure and apply them to new situations.)
  2. How might we as teachers measure that extraction and re-application of lessons learned through failure? It seems to me that that, actually, should be the metric of learning.
  3. How do or would your students react to these assignments? Would they freak since it subverts their entire experience up until this point? What types of scaffolding could you put in place to help them feel comfortable with an assignment in which failure was to be valued, not feared?

Last, yesterday’s very interesting lecture by Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, got me thinking even more about innovation and failure. Here we see a man willing to go a long way in pursuit of wacky ideas. The non-profit has now made millions of books, movies, software, music, TV shows, websites and more free and open to the public. Kahle also referenced new pet projects including bit-coin and affordable housing; two aspects that don’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the archive. He spoke repeatedly of delegating; whether working with a Columbia University new music archivist to assess the importance of/create taxonomies for music preservation, or working with volunteers to trust them with the work of searching for whether video titles are currently available for purchase (and therefore should not be added to the archive.) In many ways, his approach and story reflects many of the  innovators described by Berkun.

Furthermore, his entire project, The Internet Archive, is the result of the failure (as he sees it) of the National Archives and the Library of Congress to collect, preserve, and create public access to intellectual material in digital formats. Kahle expects that he will be perpetually begging for forgiveness. This assumption that he will “fail” (get in trouble, do something wrong,) means that he doesn’t feel the need to constantly ask for permission. Some of the best parts of his talk were when he described mis-steps along the way and what he’s learned from other failures. For example, the fire of the Library at Alexandria told him to make many copies. Further, he’s making those copies in all types of different formats, with the full expectation that 90% of those (my made-up number) will fail to preserve this material. But if you try a gazillion different things, something is bound to stick.

Questions that Kahle made me consider:

  • What are the ramifications of this? Could it ever become damaging to get so used to/proud of failure? By never asking permission, but merely taking down materials when people complain, Kahle is railroading the (economic, social) aspects of shame that have historically protected intellectual property. In many ways, the digital age has meant that we no longer have these feelings of shame around stealing/being caught “stealing” intellectual property.
  • Should we see the integration of the pedagogy of failing forward as a feminist act? What are the gendered ramification of changing the culture of classrooms in this way? In Berkun’s lecture, we saw a group of innovators and were asked what they all had in common. My initial reaction was that they were all men; an observation that Berkun glossed over, along with the observation that they all have “bad hair.” Kahle embodies the sort of devil-may-care, breaking the rules personality associated with masculinity. Last year there was an article entitled “The Confidence Gap” in the Atlantic about why women fail once they move beyond the classroom into the real world; they expect that doing what they’re told will lead them to success. It worked in school; so it should work in the workplace! But, as Berkun and Kahle show, this training does not lead to innovation. The author argues that women get left behind since they lack the confidence to fail and to ask for raises/promotions, etc.

 

American Women Wikipedians: Categorygate and Working for Free

Amanda Filipacchi’s article Wikipedia’s Sexism Toward Female Novelists shows that sexism in categorizing information is alive and well. The category “American Women Novelists” is especially depresssing/ironic/unsurprising (take your pick) for librarians, editors and other knowledge workers because we thought we fought and won this battle years ago (circa 1975). Not many users of Wikipedia are old enough to remember library subject headings such as “Women as Poets” or “Poetesses,” but sexist ways of organizing information were standard operating procedure in the bad old days. Changing times and the active efforts of a largely female paid workforce made some real differences in how information was presented in libraries, textbooks, encyclopedias, and educational resources of all kinds.

Now that the internet has ‘disrupted’ the production of educational information, much of the largely female paid workforce has been displaced by volunteers working in a system of peer production and sharing. Wikipedia is a wonderful resource, not least because it is free and immediately available to anyone with an internet connection. Yet as we all know, “nine out of ten Wikipedians continue to be men.” Many possible explanations have been offered for the gender gap, but I think it is a labor issue.  As a librarian, I couldn’t agree more with DNLee’s statement that “This is work. I am a professional. Professionals get paid. However, even if my ‘old economy’ view of encyclopedia publishing seems sadly out of date, asking women to contribute unpaid work raises some complicated issues. As Adrianne Wadewitz pointed out, “In actively recruiting women to Wikipedia, we have to be aware of the systemic inequities in the amount of time women have available for unpaid labor.”

If women miraculously had more free time to devote to Wikipedia, would the “add more women and stir” approach really solve the sexism problem? Wadewitz notes that activism around the gender gap rests on some rather questionable assumptions (It is the responsibility of women to fix sexism on Wikipedia. Women do not further patriarchal knowledge and power structures. Women will edit underrepresented topics. Women will make Wikipedia a nicer place.) The drive to get more women to contribute is well-intentioned and admirable, but perhaps it runs the risk of repeating old patterns? Women are not a single entity and perhaps some of them would prefer not to be in the “American Women Wikipedians” category.