Tag Archives: provocation

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.


Innovation and Failure Post Part 1

This week’s readings all consider elements of failure, from experiences of design failure to implementation and follow-up failure to the emotional experience of failing and the fear (or reality) of becoming “a failure,” and the ways in which the legacy of failure is written out of the record.

As a one-time perfectionist turned proud, loud, and frequent fail-er, I was excited to focus on these readings. Further, as a teacher who’s more interested in students being creative than in their being right, I was eager for tips on how to create a classroom environment in which failure is understood to be OK. I want to talk a bit about Scott Berkun’s lecture, Alison Carr’s, post, and the lecture by Brewster Kuhle (founder of the Internet Archive) that some of us saw yesterday.

Scott Berkun makes some important points. First, process is integral to understanding innovation. Sort of like how this blog post was supposed to be up on Saturday rather than Tuesday, the point is that when ideas that are mulling around in our heads, we have a much greater chance of putting them together in new and unexpected ways.This takes time, practice, patience, and guts.

Process also, I might add, requires down time with no new stimuli. Every time I have a free second, I check my phone, the news, facebook. For workers in open office plans, there’s always something exciting going on. We have a million new ideas buzzing around us all of the time, which means that we (or at least I) never give my brain the chance to do its own work in reorganizing these ideas. This is where developing good habits come in. See below.

Another of Berkun’s points is that most of this mulling time is boring, and often leads nowhere. Further, some of the most creative people are willing than most to spend longer entertaining outlandish ideas–the ones that seem most likely to fail. Good managers give their staff time to pursue those outlandish ideas.

In the end, however, failure, along with  process, failure is written out of history. We never see the crappy wooden slums of Rome; never learn about Mac’s “Newton”; only the marble buildings and MacBooks that have (so far) stood the test of time.

Here are some questions to get a conversation started:

  • Both Carr and Berkun suggest that our relationship with failure uniquely American. Do you buy this? Does anyone know about different cultures’ understandings of failure? How do they differ? Have our American notions changed over time? When how and why? (Sorry, I’m an Historian…you can’t just say this stuff.)
  • Berkun talks about the Luddites and the sociological reasons why innovations often take time to be adopted. What are the conditions necessary for adopting new technologies?  What conditions prolong how long it takes?
  • How might our phones/open office plans be used to foster innovative habits rather than inhibit them, as I suggest mine do for me?


Structural Change or a New Society

The readings I ended up with all focus on collecting and revealing the sexism and other forms of discrimination that seem to form the fabric of some developer communities’ culture, and that are being broadcast (often anonymously) through apps and websites.

Moya Z. Bailey explores how the very semantics of “geek” and “nerd” that we use to describe those working in web development are gendered male and white (though Steve Urkel does come to mind as a notable exception) She challenges us to move beyond an “‘“add and stir’ model of diversity, a practice of sprinkling in more women, people of color, disabled folks and assuming that is enough to change current paradigms.”Her solution is for DH scholars to be “brave” enough to expand the definition of the field to include projects created by and for people of color, and to push for structural change in how sites and apps are designed in order to include within them the needs of the disabled, women, etc.

Greek Feminism Timeline of Sexist Events is a wiki where folks compile sexist actions/statements coming out of the tech world. These include anything from rape at conferences; to the sharing of an app like Titstare, which lets you “stare at tits,” presented in September, 2013 at the TechCrunch Disrupt 2013 conference, to private incidents made public such as when Biologist Dr. Danielle N. Lee was asked,”Are you an urban whore?” by an editor at the Scientific American after she declined an offer to write for free. She wrote a snarky post in response which was originally taken down, but has been returned.

Reply All reports a story of racial minorities at Colgate College who felt uncomfortable in an all white environment. After creating a support group and demonstrating, they became targets of hateful speech and threats of violence on the anonymous YikYak app. The college was powerless to prevent the hate speech as YikYak would and could not block their access.

These readings convinced me beyond a doubt that there are real structural problems in the evolving society we’re creating online.Further, I see real value in collecting evidence from around the web and bringing to light discrimination and the deeply troubling possibilities for bullying in an anonymous cyber world. In fact, one point these readings (and especially Reply All) drove home to me is that the web has great power to force conversations about issues that might otherwise fly under the radar. Because the internet with its possibilities for anonymity encourage people to say what they really mean, many deep-felt prejudices can be exposed and (maybe, hopefully!) addressed. It’s this “maybe, hopefully” part that stuck a bit in my craw in these readings. They are full of problems and severely lacking in solutions. (Beyond exposing and collecting this evidence which, again, is extremely important.)

How do we make a “structural change? in the cyberworld?” If just telling women to code isn’t going to fix the inequity, then what will? Is a better model the “separate” (and hopefully equal?!) model of HOTGirls, the Atlanta-based non-profit that works with young women of color to train young women in media literacy? (GoldieBlox, the engineering kit for girls, comes to mind here, especially when seeing the pink website.) This whole approach smacks to me of the “American Woman Novelists” problem Filpachi describes.

The only other solution I saw presented was the Colgate professors who try to “take back the YikYak” (my term, not theirs) through posting positive messages and attaching their signatures. The podcast hosts poo-pooed this idea though it did seem to make students feel less isolated and generated many more “likes” than the hate messages. Call me naieve, but I was shocked that students didn’t self-police and it came to the point of needing professors to step in at all. How could so great a proportion of the student body be so complacent/unaware of what was going on on campus? Is this indicative of larger trends in apathy/prejudice? Or about expectations of certain cyber spaces in which folks expect to see hate, and therefore those spaces don’t require policing? Does this mimic any other arena Americans have had for broadcasting hate in the past? And if so, how is this climate any different? And does it require different types of responses?

In short, I’m asking a pretty basic question: Is the cyberworld a reflection of our Analog society? And do the tactics we develop to address structural change in reality also work online? Or is the cyberworld a whole new society? If the latter is true, then there are huge possibilities about how etiquette, social relations, labor relations, gender roles, etc. will develop. If the table (to use one of Bailey’s metaphors) is still in the process of being set, then what tools might historically marginalized groups use to create a very different power dynamic in this new society?

Overview of Assignments

This semester we will be working on three major assignments, with continuous blog writing throughout.

Provocations and responses: We will continue the practice of having several students write provocations on the blog on the reading/subject of the week, and carrying on a conversation on the blog in advance of class. Those who write provocations, will lead off the discussion of that reading in class. Because we meet a day earlier than in the past, we need the provocations to be up by Saturday  by 5PM, so that discussion can start Sunday, with enough time to bear fruit. Several of the provocation assignments will scaffold towards the three larger assignments below.

Project Abstracts/Short Proposals: Your midterm assignment is to create at least two different project proposals that each have at least two scope variations: one full and a reduced version.

Collaboration and Wikipedia:  Collaboratively write a Wikipedia article on one of the readings from last semester.

Final Project Proposal and Proof of Concept: Your final project is to turn in a proposal for a larger project, that includes a proof of concept. Your goal is to convince us that your proposal is relevant and productive AND that you can actually pull it off. The details will be discussed on when we discuss the short proposals, and will be due at the end of the semester. We will have three days of presentations, and the written proposal will be due during finals period.