Blog Post

Working Failures in Traditional and Digital Humanities

Humanities courses need to teach students more about failure.

Universities are becoming an increasingly fostering atmosphere for student accomplishments. The majority of the time, I appreciate this environment immensely. Trying to make the most out of the many academic and extracurricular opportunities that university offers can be overwhelming, and I know that I’m not alone in struggling to perform at my constant best. I genuinely feel that my professors empathize with my concerns, and a majority of them are wonderfully encouraging and accommodating. They inquire constantly as to how their teaching methods can be more effective, and go to incredible lengths to provide their students with an abundance of time, resources, and advice for success. Without the efforts of these professors, I couldn’t dream of achieving what I have so far in my studies. But for all their efforts to improve our motivation, I find that the topic of failure – a subject so imperative to academic success – often goes unaddressed. 

Failure is a difficult thing to discuss. Failing as an undergraduate hurts. It hurts our grades, it hurts our pride, and hurts those who devoted their efforts to helping us avoid it. Because failures can be so personal, they are understandably delicate to navigate, and even more so to actually analyze. I’ve had my fair share of failures over the last few years. The absolute worst part of being an English major is working your way through a returned assignment and finding out that a piece of writing that you struggled to perfect has been heavily criticized. On the occasions that I’ve reached out to my professors about my failures, I’ve found it to be an incredibly difficult process for both of us to get through. I’ve finally realized that this is because traditional humanities courses often lack a good model for analyzing failure. As a student, I want to correct my mistakes to prove to both my professors and myself that I am capable of learning what they have to teach. However, my professors tend to be more interested in the grand scheme of my success rather than the immediacy of my failures. Their suggestions for improvement on an essay or an exam have less to do with fixing what’s in front of me, and more to do preparing my skills for ‘next time’– even if ‘next time’ is something that I can’t see yet.

Working Failures

One of the many reasons why I love digital humanities is because it encourages failure. In my first few DH lectures at the BISC, we discussed the idea of working failures. Simply put, not everything will work in a DH project the way you want it to. While your project may work in that it functions and achieves an end goal, it may still be considered a failure in that it doesn’t do what you originally intended. What’s particularly wonderful about this concept is that while a project can be deemed working failure, it can still be a failure that works. This idea allows uncovering and correcting your mistakes to be an essential part of the creative process, rather than something reserved for hindsight.

Throughout the duration of Young Ladies Journal project, I’ve been using the concept of working failures as a way to overcome the different obstacles that I’ve faced. As with any DH project, I’ve hit my fair share of roadblocks; some are technological, others are flaws in research or design. In order to move keep moving forward with the project, I’ve found it best to view every obstacle as a small working failure – while I may not be able to accomplish something as I would, I still have a solid foundation to work from, and that knowledge is often all the encouragement I need to keep trying. I’ve developed my own model for improving on working failures, which I’ve organized into steps that have helped me:

Step 1. Recognize that something isn’t working. I know it sounds obvious, but admitting that something may have gone wrong is the only sure way to give a problem the attention that it deserves. Because the early stages of a failure can be hard to recognize, I try to pay attention to the amount of time that you’re spending on a particularly challenging task. Tiffany Chan, the last student assistant at WD Jordan Library, wrote a wonderful blog post about project management tips, where I first discovered the one-hour rule; if something doesn’t work after you’ve put in an hour’s worth of effort, it may be time to re-evaluate what you’re trying to accomplish.

Step 2.  Backtrack at least three steps. When something really isn’t working, I try to pinpoint the three actions I took that led me to my current state. I recall from either memory or written to-do lists the last three tasks that I completed before I became stuck. Did each of those actions truly accomplish what I wanted them to at the time? Do they still help accomplish what I’m trying to achieve overall? If the answer isn’t immediately clear, I keep working backwards until I recognize an action that deviated from the desired direction of the project.

Step 3. Explain what you’re trying to accomplish to someone else. Once I understand that something isn’t working, I often have a hard time deciding what to do next. I’ve learned that the answer to this problem is to literally call in all resources. The first person I usually call is my dad – because he's not too familiar with what I’m working on, talking to him forces me to explain my problem as simply as I can. Once I’ve boiled down the problem for someone else, a logical next step often presents itself. When I finally have that clear next step, I’m able to call in on other resources that can help me achieve it.

Step 4. Stay encouraged. Before I begin working on my new solution, I like to go back and look at the earlier stages of the project and remind myself of how much I’ve accomplished. As I’ve said before, the beauty of having a working failure is that something still works, and just because it doesn’t work correctly doesn’t mean that it lacks the potential to work well.  

Treating obstacles as a working failure is something that I've really learned to benefit from. Being able to work with a tangible set of mistakes, as discouraging as it can initially be, has taught me to take better pride in my ideas and objectives. Accepting my failures as part of both an immediate and grander solution is the best way that I've learned to keep moving forward. So many of my traditional humanities courses would benefit from promoting working failures as a part of student success, and I hope to one day see failure embraced in all classrooms. 



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