Tag Archives: open access

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.


Knowledge costs: the business of creating lifelong learners…

“All that time we lavish on convincing students that scholarship matters is wasted if we can’t be bothered to make it accessible to graduates for something less than, say, $45.00 per article.” – Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister’s statement (Fister, an MVP in academic library land) hits the nail on the head for me. Why do students citizens relinquish the right to access information once they leave the academy? Why trouble with teaching at all if knowledge access is reserved for a privileged few years in college only?

Ashley Dawson sums up the teetering system of scholarly production and dissemination as follows:

“The upshot is an increasingly Darwinian world of frenetic competition and commodification in which scholars illogically hand over their hard-won knowledge virtually for free to presses that then limit the circulation of that knowledge through various forms of copyright in order to maintain the precarious revenue stream that keeps them in business.”

Open access is an ethical issue, a money/labor issue, and a political issue.

While the open access movement (led voraciously by librarians) soldiers on for free/unrestricted access to scholarship, academic capitalism and the traditional academic tableau (scholar hermit gifts esoteric work in print monograph or gold standard journal article) continues to snake through the system of tenure and promotion. The result is that a majority of academics are held hostage at a time of great shifts in knowledge production, increased collaboration, digital transformation, and new modes of information dissemination. The traditional formula for measuring scholarly accomplishments no longer fits and it is difficult to measure scholarly work when notions of authorship and knowledge production are changing- this is mainly because the system is incredibly inflexible and has relied far too much on unpaid, immaterial labor. It’s not like scholars have ever been paid to do peer review.

Open Access comes at a cost
Creating, editing, presenting, and preserving the work is not free and we’re at a difficult moment where a lot of this labor risks going virtually unnoticed and unremunerated. In the case of several new open access initiatives at CUNY, Academic Works, the University’s institutional repository, and the development of open educational resources (OERs) as alternative course materials at various CUNY campuses, much of the support and administration is planned to be absorbed by CUNY’s 28 or so academic libraries but it remains to be seen how exactly libraries will find the resources to do this.

As a participant in an OER pilot at my CUNY campus, I am also concerned about the amount of awareness and marketing that still needs to be done around open access issues. It’s also a delicate matter depending on who you talk to. Librarians tend to be among the most invested in the movement, and so it’s important to grasp the different concerns around this major shift in scholarly communication. Throw in intellectual property, copyright, and licensing, and you’ve got one complicated discussion.