Rejecting Perfectionism/Failing Better

I’m trying to figure out how all these readings fit together and it seems like the theme is maybe less “failure” than it is a caution against over-simplification. In an effort to smooth out ideas or projects and make them seem coherent we often lose the complexity that makes them meaningful. I see these readings as cautions against trying to do work that is too perfect, which for a lot of people (myself included) is pretty similar to a fear of failure.

In The Aesthetics of Failure Cattelan tackles “the paralyzing fear of disgrace” and “the impossibility of doing something” that results from letting your imagination about what others might think of your finished product get in the way of your attempt to produce anything at all. This is familiar to me. It is the kind of perfectionism that leads to procrastination. It is why I have so many incompletes on my transcript. Similarly, in “the Rise of Worse is Better” Gabriel warns us against trying to do something exactly right the first time around. Put something out there to get people interested, and once people are hooked, take time to improve it. There is no point in producing something brilliant if you don’t even have an audience. Both of these pieces seem like lessons for grad students as we try to navigate our relationship to the publics many of us hope to reach. The lessons I take away are: trust in your ability to say worthwhile things publicly, and don’t wait the full seven years it will take you to produce a dissertation to “put things out there”.

How do these lessons apply to what we’re doing in this class? To pedagogy? As the semester closes, these pieces read as gentle reminders to stop talking about our projects and just do them. And these readings suggest that in trying to pull together an innovative project, it will be necessary for us to make some mistakes along the way. It is hard to remember that it is ok to make mistakes in teaching because it feels so high-stakes (I do think that as an adjunct without training I’ve made more mistakes than I needed to). This week’s content suggests that those mistakes are necessary.

In Scott Berkun’s hour-long lecture “The Myth of Innovation” his lesson, I think, is that a lot of breakthroughs we imagine in retrospect to have been isolated strokes of genius were actually preceded by many many failures. History’s great innovators tried and failed for years before they made their breakthroughs. They were persistent and bold, they tried many different things, that is why they succeeded, also historical conditions must be right, and economic conditions must be right, and innovation will just happen if you give your employees space to innovate, and if you need to make them obsolete by inventing brilliant machines that replace their bodies make sure you let them know sensitively, get them on side first. Wait, what? Nevermind. Buy that guy’s book. (But seriously – I’m going to leave most of that lecture be because there is too much crazy self-help management BS in it that I can’t even handle thinking about it. Lets just generously take his point that innovation requires failure, and move on).

I also disagreed with much of what was in Tufte’s piece The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint, but hopefully disagreements with that piece can lead to productive discussion. I think Tufte’s Provocative Piece about PowerPoint raises important questions, Particularly in the context of thinking about  Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. In the illustration accompanying the article Tufte suggests that slideshare software like PowerPoint is Stalinist. Within PP, there is only one way to do things. Tufte insists that PP is reductionist, presenter-oriented, preoccupied with form instead of content. Does it have to be that way, one might ask? Tufte says yes: PP is inherently these things. Tufte’s case studies include a powerpoint presentation given to NASA employees that so simplified information that it essentially caused an aerospace disaster; and a powerpoint re-telling of the Gettysburg Address. Both of these things seem like straw men to me. Like, OBVIOUSLY incredibly detailed aerospace problems should not be communicated via bullet form. Nor would most people trying to make inspirational speeches likely turn to PP. In both these cases the problem seems to be to be the context in which PP is chosen, not PP itself.

Why do I find myself defending PowerPoint? In the class I taught last term the “smart classroom” was down for the first half of the semester so I conducted the lecture-part of class time using my voice, my carefully constructed narratives, and occasional blackboard drawings. When the smart classroom was fixed, I started putting up slides while I delivered lectures. On the slides were carefully constructed bullet points that were the essence of the lesson, the central point I wanted my students to take away. The engagement and understanding of my students (as represented by the quality of classroom discussion following the lecture) went way up. This makes me wonder: does a simplification of material using PowerPoint necessarily exclude the possibility of a nuanced understanding of material? Can boiling a concept down to a set of bullets actually act as a complement (an anchor?) in the context of a more complex picture being painted? It is really hard to boil a complex concept down to a few key bullet points, but if it can be done well it can be powerful and productive, in my opinion. Like trying to figure out what your thesis statement is before you set out to write a paper.

I think part of this has to do with learning styles. I have trouble listening to something unless I am also at the same time either looking at something else, or doing something else. When I doodle, I do so because it keeps me focused on what I’m listening to. When someone has powerpoint slides accompanying their talk, looking at them helps me to focus on (and therefore connect to) what it is they’re saying. I just recently realized that not everybody listens in this way. Nonetheless, it seems worth noting that Tufte’s idea that we need to “just talk about” ideas in order to capture their nuance doesn’t jive with MY experience.

However, this raises the question – does the visual accompaniment/enhancement to our speaking have to appear in PP form? While engagement and interaction could be achieved with a well-thought out PP presentation, should we use PP? Tufte insists that PP is so limited in the way it allows us to present information – linearly, superficially, passively. Prezi seems to offer solutions to this by allowing us to present ideas in non-sequential patterns. Is Prezi inherently better? Why is it so dizzying?

Is form really that important? Or does it just distract us from the more important discussions about content? How does this discussion about PowerPoint relate to the over-arching question about “failing better”?

6 thoughts on “Rejecting Perfectionism/Failing Better

  1. Mikayla Zagoria-Moffet

    I really like what you had to say about the form of Prezi versus Powerpoint. Whenever I’ve used Prezi, I’ve thought, “Well this is pretty!” but I don’t know that it actually functions, in terms of delivering information, any better than Powerpoint. In fact, I think with Powerpoint, we’re discouraged from using the flashy “Pay Attention!” things, like noises or flashes, when Prezi just inherently has that built in with the way we move from slide to slide. The issue with Powerpoint, as I see it, exists when instructors put those notes online; I remember students in undergraduate classes I was in shutting down the second instructors consented to do this, under the assumption that because the “main points” were available in already written-out form, there was no longer any need to engage during class time. There’s also an issue with what content is placed on the Powerpoint… are they main points from the chapter? If so, then it might seem repetitive to do the reading *and* go to class to hear the reading reviewed at a very basic level.

    But to go back to your main question, I wonder if the connection between Powerpoint and failing has to do with the assumption that form does matter and does facilitate learning/conversation in an important way. Again, it’s the difference, to me, of a Powerpoint that helps connect students back to the reading and provoke questions versus one that summarizes the reading and shows up online for students to memorize before the exam. We’re all going to make mistakes in teaching (or in grad school, or in life) but what can we do to perhaps fail to a lesser extreme, rather than fail less in general?

  2. Ashley Williard

    To add to the Powerpoint discussion: The article emphasized the problem as being the reduction of information in slides, and then proposed the distribution of a full-length handout as the alternative solution. What I find most useless about slides is their redundancy when they are in fact the same text that a person will be reading. How does a handout depart from this problem? I see images and short text as guides and enhancements, as not doing the same thing as the full-length talk or paper. Yes, simplification should be avoided, but why can’t clarity happen in a visual format with few words without simplification?

    I completely agree that slides shouldn’t be linear and teacher-centered, but I’ve also found useful ways to get around this, especially when teaching structures that really need visuals (e.g. telling time, possessive adjectives). I don’t see why slides can’t be interactive either, in particular with images and short text as prompts. I don’t use this often, but a couple times a semester, I find it to be a useful way to illustrate a point and get interactions going. Then again, I don’t lecture, so maybe I’m missing the point. My use of slides might be working against the grain of Powerpoint’s design; in this way, I might be failing Powerpoint.

  3. Michelle A. McSweeney (Johnson)

    Bronwyn, I find myself echoing many of your feelings about these cohesiveness of the reading this week.

    I also have issue with Tufte’s critique of powerpoint… I read it the same semester I was in a class completely created on powerpoint and AMAZING – the powerpoints were interactive, showed movement and relationships in a way that paper just couldn’t… I think it all comes down to what you make of it and what the content is. For some content, the simple movies in powerpoint are the key. For other content, powerpoint is a great way to hide the details and sell your product.
    Mikayla, I think you are describing me as an undergrad – once the powerpoints went up, I figured they wouldn’t test anything not on the main points and successfully passed all of my general education courses. That might have more to do with the dilution of education than powerpoint, though.

    A good friend of mine is a gallery director in a small midwest town and gave me the best advice I’ve received about failure (much like I assume Cattelan would do if we had dinner every Thursday). He said to accentuate and adopt whatever appears to be the failure or flaw – go with it and make it integral to the piece… In terms of my own project, I don’t think I can incorporate all of the things into one space that I want to. Initially this was a FAIL OK – fine! I’m now forced, if I want to include all of this information to separate spaces, which will hopefully lead my viewers (assuming there are any) through a story they will remember rather than information overload.

    Of course that’s a very positive personal example, I have so very many not so positive ones, but I’m not sure this is the format to articulate those… But, this whole semester feels like my biggest Teaching Fail yet (and I’m telling the whole world that on Friday at the Bronx edTech showcase)… But it has to be a positive – my students and I have both learned a whole lot.

  4. Philip

    On another note, I think Scott Berkun and Paul Silvia, author of How to Write a Lot, would get along. Specifically, on the point Berkun makes that “the moments aren’t that important, it’s the habits that lead to the moments” (min 12:30+-). Silvia too argues against the narrative of inspirational moments.

    Silvia’s main point in How to Write a Lot is that academics, or emerging academics, need a writing schedule. This means that like the course one teaches, or the baseball game in the evening, writing too gets a specific time of day when it is the event on your schedule. I’ve found this strategy, or habit, to be extremely beneficial. I call it my meeting, and during this set two-hour block three times weekly, I don’t take phone calls, and I try not to check email either. I just work on my research, be it reading literature, analyzing data or writing up a manuscript draft.

  5. Anderson Evans

    Here is a video that both reminds me of the Scott Berkun lecture I just sat through, and also highlights why failure might not be this awesome thing:

    Peep Show Season 8 Episode 2: The Business Secrets of The Pharaohs

    Probably not Scott’s fault that people that speak in this excitedly positive manner/tone make me uncomfortable. I think it has something to do with being raised in a family that forced my attendance to several evangelical churches.

    I hear what Bronwyn is saying about Powerpoint, but it is hard for me to come down too hard on a scathing critique of the software or any Microsoft offering for that matter (because they all SUCK ), then again I think that article might have been more helpful if he’d just thrown up a page of bullet points, because I seriously just don’t have time to ruminate on Power Point Phluff.

    At the end of the day, I think you SHOULD be afraid to fail. Too many people aren’t any more. That is why we started with Shakespeare and now Duck Dynasty is the highest rated television show on the air, knocking Honey BooBoo and the Kardashians down a notch or two. Maybe being AFRAID isn’t the right term, maybe being CONSCIOUS THAT YOU MIGHT FAIL and THAT ISN’T AN AWESOME THING ON THE WAY TO SUCCESS!!! I’ve failed more times than I’ve succeeded, but a terrible novel that took me six years to write didn’t have embedded in it some kind of special paragraph in the footnotes that brought enlightenment and fortune to its author. The only thing I learned from it was that maybe if I had kept it in a drawer as a manuscript, perhaps I could have gone back to it over time and fixed it up, now it’s out there and I have to own it. I know we all learn from our mistakes, but that doesn’t mean we should not worry about making them. This may not be that true in the construction of code that can be debugged, but when your networked identity is on the line, maybe you should be a little afraid. You know who wasn’t afraid of failure? That guy that answered the Nigerian Prince’s e-mail and lost his identity. Was that really a lesson worth learning through failure?

    I know I’m oversimplifying and maybe misinterpreting just a smidge, but I’m also just exhausted by what seems like a trend in academic “don’t fear failure” rhetoric, as all it does for me is enforces this idea that I might fail. Guess what, I already knew that, I don’t need some startup millionaire tell me about it. I’d rather him take that time to give me some hard data about what led to his successes, but he’s got that information under copyright, doesn’t he? Too much of this stuff lately, it is like the millionaires that write blog articles about how we should “All learn to live with less.”

  6. Erin Glass

    Loving all these different takes on failure but still trying to understand if we mean anything more by the term than market success. Are failures only failures if they fail to be succeeded, ultimately, by such publicly-acknowledged market success? Are failures worse if done in the public of the ‘net because such publicity affects one’s job and reputation prospects? Are we just talking careers here?

    If so, it’s fine to use this word “failure” to talk about professional consequence, but we should be careful to not let the conversation take on the same emotional charge as one about personal, aesthetic or moral failure. Part of the discomfort with Berkun’s lecture, I assume, is that he, like the entire popular discourse around “American innovation,” uses professional success (seen under the long view of history) to measure the value of personal experience. But must everything that is not published, profitable, proof-read, perfected, polished, applauded, consumed, complete, and consequential be deemed a “failure?” What a pity it’d be to think all the minute, haphazard experiences not processed and approved by the public or its descendents to be nothing but waste. I for one don’t think it so. Cheers to all all unpublished thought whose fruit is hard to trace.

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