Incentivizing failure

There is no magic in innovation and good design. That seems to be the one big lesson of both Scott Berkun’s lecture on the myth of innovation, and Richard Gabriel’s push for the adoption of ‘worse-is-better’ philosophy in the Lisp programming language community. Both Berkun and Gabriel stress the importance of sheer hard work and strategy – yes, you have to simply start to make/do/build, but you also have to sometimes pull back and look at what is the simplest design you can put out there from the complex structure you are designing.

This (as well as Allison Carr’s piece) reminded me a lot of Howard Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists, where Becker reminds us that writing (a paper, book, or some scholarly production) is not a magical activity, but something that requires a lot of work. We usually have an image of some brilliant academic or writer sitting on her computer with finalized thoughts pouring out of her fingers and onto the word processor. This, Becker reminds us, is not the case – in fact, the very first thoughts put on paper (or screen) usually need a lot of simplifying, massaging, and editing to get them to a coherent argument, brilliant academic or not. (On a related note – Becker, as a sociologist, studies how art is made and constructed socially, and he applies the same theory to his ‘art worlds’.)

As scholars, we constantly write, or are expected to anyway. As teachers, we also constantly engage with students’ writings. Hence, I want to connect Berkun and Gabriel’s pieces to both how we do our scholarship and how we teach. I think that the ‘worse-is-better’ philosophy makes a lot of sense when we apply it to our written work – re-writing drafts of papers to get to the basic idea and make it as clear as possible (getting rid of jargon and unnecessary, duplicate, or confusing language). But how can we teach this to our students? How can we encourage them to consider failure when it is precisely what they are socialized to avoid at all costs? More specifically, how can we get them to see their written work as works-in-progress rather than one-time all-nighters? (Yes, scaffolding and peer-review are important here, but what else?)

I think this also has a lot to do with the system of incentives we live in. We not only incentivize success, but also incentivize hiding all our failures that led to that very success (another great point in Berkun’s talk). This is where spaces like Teaching Fails on JITP are useful – the failures are out in the open to be learned from. So can this be replicated for innovators? Should we set up a blog or other kind of space to document and share our failures as we progress with our ITP projects?

PS – I failed to get this posted on time because I was at a location where I thought I would have wifi over the weekend; bad foresight on my part. My apologies for getting this in later than expected.

5 thoughts on “Incentivizing failure

  1. Adam Wagner

    I feel like the term failing has such a negative, permanent connotation to it that it might be impossible to get people to “realize” that it is OK to fail. Possibly, constructing a new phrase (maybe even the “failing forward” but I think something without the word fail in it would be better) might allow for a better understanding of the importance of learning from your failures. There is a big difference between making a mistake and failing.

    That being said, I do think being open about your mistakes allows you to identify what they were, reflect on why they happened and brainstorm on how to rectify them or, at the least, not commit them again. For example, in my Digital Praxis class, we are actually building this semester with 3 teams of 4 or 5. Each week a different team presents and Professor Gold pushes us to share our mistakes or hardships with the class during these presentations. Also, every second or third class, the teams split in to separate meeting with each other by specific roles so that we can discuss where we are and what we have learned and try to help each other. These have been extremely helpful, especially to a group of people that are essentially learning completely new things and trying new processes that are foreign to our academic background.

  2. Jared R. Pike

    @Maura A. Smale and Hamid, I agree with you about the struggle of convincing our students that our classrooms are safe spaces for failure. Teaching Introduction to Theatre, I often find that I am trying to get my students to come out of their comfort zones in order to take on, and tryout, different aspects of the theatre world. Despite my continued reassurance that it is ok to fail and for them to not know what they are doing, I am often met with strong resistance, in part I believe, because the possibility of failure takes on additional dimensions when you are physically invested, as in performance and public speaking, rather than just academically invested, as in a paper.

    My teaching experience has been limited to this one course but I wonder if this physical aspect of the fear of failure is not limited to theatre courses. Could it also correspond to a fear of failure in class participation in general? If so, how do we convince our students that it is ok to fail forward in out classrooms when that concept runs antithetical the environment of the rest if the institution?

  3. Maura A. Smale (she/her)

    Hamad, you make a great point about incentives for hiding our failures. I also really like Carr’s failure assignments that Pamela mentions, but I also wonder about difficulties convincing students that our classrooms are a safe place to fail. To think back to other discussions we’ve had this semester, perhaps this potential discomfort is an argument for offering both public and private spaces for students to work in?

    I agree that it would be great if you’d like to share both failures and successes as you work on your independent study projects. As I think we’ve mentioned before, everyone is also welcome to continue to use this course blog and group for communication and discussion after the semester ends, if you’d like to.

  4. Pamela Thielman (she/her)

    In terms of writing pedagogy and getting students “to see their written work as works-in-progress rather than one-time all-nighters,” I particularly like one of the failure pedagogies that Carr writes about. She calls it a “Low-Stakes Writing Binge” and it essentially asks the student to write and rewrite the same material over an extended period of time. I find that even when I scaffold assignments, a number of students take each piece of the assignment as an individual task without paying attention to the way that they build the whole. Carr’s idea of getting students to do the same work over again in different ways seems like it could productively get them focused on the expressive part of the writing process (which is largely my concern because I am not teaching composition) and off the notion that the writing process is a to-do list (Abstract? Check. Annotated bibliography? Check.)

    I’ll also second the idea that we should continue to share our failures as we work on our capstone projects. We can probably save each other some troubles that way, but it is also nice to just have a network to say “I failed at X” to. Carr is right that failures, even small ones, can be really isolating.

    Comment Tags: failure, pedagogy, writing

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