As you might have intuited from a previous post, I had the opportunity to attend the recent 2011 MLA Convention in Los Angeles. One of the panels that I spoke on was organized by Jason B. Jones and featured a trio of the ProfHacker team on the theme of “Hacking the Profession: Academic Self-Help in an Age of Crisis.” Here’s the description of session #48 from the official MLA program: “This roundtable discusses how we narrate our academic lives online, whether in blogs or on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or in any other format. In particular, we are interested in how we talk about failure or, more gently, about the common problems that plague any academic life: the class that doesn’t quite work, the committee that’s driving us crazy, or the article that can’t quite find a home.”
To insure that we had plenty of time left for discussion, we decided to practice what we preach and give our talks in the Pecha Kucha format (AKA 20 slides at 20 seconds per slide). This was my first time giving a talk in this style, and I found it a very interesting exercise. Often I write my talks and only come to the images later, but I found that I had to work on both simultaneously since the slides would determine where I would be in the moment of my argument. I also discovered that in 20 seconds I can say at most 4 lines of 12-point Times New Roman text. I liked the whole approach well enough that I’ll definitely include a Pecha Kucha presentation the next time I teach.
What follows is the text that I cribbed from when presenting at the MLA. In a few places I ad-libbed, especially on the first slide. But you’re getting the gist here. And I’ve included the images that accompanied the text (images precede the text). Make sure you don’t miss Natalie M. Houston’s talk from the same session on “Happiness Hacking.”
Dr. ProfHacker, or How I L3rn3d to St0p Worry1ng and <3 teh fail!!1!
Title, introduce myself.
Admit to this being my first time doing Pecha Kucha.
The problem of the academy, especially the humanities, is that we’ve been too easily waylaid by the ideal of the romantic genius. We think we need to be like the people we study. That we as scholars must be solo geniuses. And we believe that genius scholars never have problems…or failures.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Failure is a common human experience. As little as academics seem like humans at times, then, we need to plan on having failures. And we shouldn’t consider it unusual or untoward. Some academics have become better than others at this.
In a 2007 article in Wired, Thomas Goetz considered the problem of “dark data,” information that is abandoned since it doesn’t conform to hypotheses or doesn’t yield a dramatic enough outcome for a high-profile publication. Reporting on failures is valuable, writes Goetz, because “your dead end may be another scientist’s missing link, the elusive chunk of data they needed” (Goetz).
A possible solution to this problem is the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine, which, Goetz notes, “has offered a peer-reviewed home to results that go negative or against the grain” since 2002. Since that same year, the Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis, reports on “experiments that do not reach the traditional significance levels…[t]hus, reducing the file drawer problem, and reducing the bias in psychological literature” (JASNH website).
These two journals play an important role for their particular fields by making “failure” public. Perhaps the idea of publishing unsuccessful research is not applicable to every field. But while we do not yet have a Failed Lacanian Interventions Quarterly, many academics are talking about failures in their professional lives as a whole. These discussions about research, teaching, and service take place on blogs, on wikis, and on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
The advantage of discussing our failures in public is that we can get help from other people. As an example, in Spring 2010 I taught a senior-level seminar. I’d taught the class once before and it had been really successful. Last January, I found myself in a classroom setting where I couldn’t get the students to talk to me. In a discussion-based class, it was obvious that I was failing.
My frustration with the situation resulted in my trying several different in-class activities. But at the same time, I wrote online about the difficulty of the experience that I was having. (You’ll notice from the tenor of these tweets that I was more caught up in the notion of my own genius rather than noticing that I was failing my class.)
Meeting with the director of undergraduate studies and asking him for help was useful, but so too was the response I received from my network of colleagues who had had similar experiences in the past. In particular, Erin Templeton saw my plaint and wrote a ProfHacker post about how silence is golden…until it isn’t.
Erin’s post begins by recounting her own “failure” in getting a class to talk and what steps she took to both get her students talking and in coming to terms with what she could not change. Among other things, she suggested methods that she had learned from other academics public narratives. (You’ll notice a virtuous circle happening where one person narrates publicly and others get the benefit.)
I never did get that class talking as much as I had hoped to, but narrating my experiences and asking for help online—rather than staying locked in my ivory tower—improved not only the class’s interactions, but also my own abilities as a teacher. ProfHacker became, in a sense, a Journal of Negative Results.
At the risk of patting ourselves too much on the backs, however, I’d like to suggest that ProfHacker and the work of others like Tenured Radical, Dean Dad, Sisyphus, and many more expose a different sort of failure: the general failure of the academy to make plain many of its most regular practices, from mentoring to writing letters of recommendation.
Narrating our lives need not only be about personal failures, then, but a desire to correct the failures of the academy to make its customs navigable to those who are new. By discussing how the academy works—even when it isn’t working so well in its present circumstances of “hard times”—we provide opportunities to diversify who can be successful in the profession.
There are increasing numbers of academic self-help books. Many of these are really useful, from Donald E. Hall to Kathryn Hume to The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career. But these books are limited in being from only one point of view. The advantage of narrating your academic life publicly is that you can hear from a wide range of interlocutors.
It’s this wide range of interlocutors that makes a university interesting. Large groups of creative and interesting people working together are also what author Steven Johnson suggests is responsible for innovation. In other words, Johnson’s book argues against the model of the solitary genius, against the idea that one person can repeatedly create something ex nihilo.
The advantage of narrating your life online, failures included, is that whether you are at a large research institution or not, you can participate in large group conversations that not only inform but also create, such as the real-time, crowdsourced publication Digital Humanities Now or the comment threads at ProfHacker.
Now, it might seem problematic to be narrating our personal and institutional failures when the academy is facing such hard times. After all, how can we expect state legislatures or individuals to continue funding our campuses if they are aware that we fail at times?
Contrary to expectations, however, I think that showing our failings might make us more sympathetic to those outside of academia. Instead of being the romantic geniuses in our ivory tower, we start to look a little bit human. And humans and human experience is what lies at the heart of the university.
In 2009, Google made a splash when it announced Wave. In 2010, Google made a splash when it announced that it was going to kill Wave. If you’d ever used Wave, this probably came as no surprise. I believe there’s a lesson that we can learn from Google, however. Admit our failures—including the academy’s—and do so quickly. Then talk about them.