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. 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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