Tag Archives: writing

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.

Josh’s Project ideas

Really interesting ideas that people have, and I’ll try to respond to specific posts– time permitting– soon. Below are my project ideas… so far. I might be able to work on more than one of these in the future as well. We’ll see!

  1. The first project idea that occurs to me is neither earth-shattering nor particularly interesting per se. It will, however, serve a useful purpose for students at BMCC where I work, immediately upon implementation. I want to revise, revamp, renovate, re-tool, reorganize, restore, rebuild, repair, remake, and/or otherwise improve the wiki page that I have created for the ESL Lab, which I oversee at BMCC. I created the page on a wiki platform site called Wet Paint, which has since been bought, and the site’s been renamed; it’s now called Wiki Foundry. Anyway, the ESL Lab wiki functions more like a website than a wiki, in that it’s not particularly collaborative (other than some of the faculty who contribute/write/edit), the reason being that the site is meant to be a repository of information, links, materials and interactive exercises/activities for English language learners at BMCC rather than a student-created/collaborative wiki. I would like to partner with English and Developmental Skills faculty at the college to create some new content for the site, and also introduce more interactive elements and/or games. We actually get a lot of traffic to the site already, CUNY wide, particularly from students looking for information about how to prepare and practice for taking the CATW Writing exam which allows them to pass out of remediation into credited English classes. I think we will get a lot more hits, though, if the wiki is improved. It is possible that the Wiki Foundry interface is too constrictive to substantially improve the site, but if it is possible to stay at the same web address I’d prefer it, as it is already an existing destination for a lot of people (at CUNY at least).
  2. On a related note, I would like to create, and hopefully improve upon, a site comparable to John Jay College’s E-Resource Center with unique content, and affiliated with BMCC. The John Jay site is wonderfully useful in many ways, but consists of mainly Flash animation slideshows, which make for a slow experience and handcuffs the visitor to the site, as she waits for the timed slides to present at their own pace. I am interested in creating something perhaps both CUNY-specific and more general, providing interactive composition/grammar/reading comprehension activities helpful (hopefully) to any college student. I know that the John Jay site was grant funded [the E-Resource home page notes: Funded by the U.S. Department of Education (Title V) and the New York State Education Department (Perkins III)]. I feel like if I could get hold of some grant money, faculty will be interested in collaborating. This project could/would be built from scratch.
  3. I have no idea how, but I would like to learn how to create an app, again to assist students to improve their English writing/grammar skills, perhaps for ELLs (English Language Learners), perhaps for native writers/speakers of English. This could be a game-based app or not… I know so little about what this potential app would look like, or what it would entail to build it, that I will stop here, so we can discuss this in class.