Author Archives: Bronwyn

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”?

Response to Scheinfeldt’s “Third way”

Not sure if this is the kind of blogging we are doing on this site … but I had kind of a visceral reaction to Scheinfeld’s “Toward a Third Way: Rethinking Academic Employment” AND since I have trouble with blog-writing motivation I thought I’d channel some of my fiery reaction here.

Scheinfeldt raises an important point: the work done by digital humanists doesn’t fit with current models of academic employment. In particular, he is concerned with tenure – that most lauded, most prestigious form of academic employment. So, he asks: what are we (in the digital humanities) to do?

Instead of exploring the potentially democratizing effects of work in the digital humanities (the potential for de-commodification of knowledge, creating space for more people to access and produce/contribute to knowledge) he essentially argues that we need to surrender DH work to the market. He says he cringes when he realizes this is what he is arguing, but he argues it anyway. If only we could get rid of the conservative, stuffy job security tenure provides we could create an environment where those who excel at digital humanities work will rise to the top and convince everyone of their value. REALLY??

Scheinfeldt identifies real problems with tenure that really do need to be addressed, namely that the expectations for work which help you to achieve tenure are outdated, and that tenured positions are disappearing. He says – most Americans (“the 99%”) don’t have job security but are probably able to keep their jobs if they are good at them – why should academics think they’re special? This is soooo not the point. EVERYONE should have job security, and the University is one of those public institutions where a high degree of job security once existed. This makes it an important site of the struggle to defend job security as privatization and marketization encroach on all sorts of public institutions. To surrender to these forces would be a disservice to workers everywhere (not an act of solidarity, as Scheinfeldt perversely suggests). In the true style of a “third way“, he uses language familiar to the left (rejecting hierarchies! smashing conservatism!) while making fundamentally right-wing arguments.

There are, of course, important problems with the fact that only an elite crew of University workers get the type of job security that tenured faculty get. So the task should be to get that job security for everyone – to insist that DH “work” AND “scholarship” be paid on par with other faculty, to refuse to let universities rely on poorly paid insecure adjuncts (who Scheinfeldt is quick to distance himself from), to reject grant-to-grant funding models which infringe on the ability of workers to dictate the direction of their work. The production of knowledge suffers when it is surrendered to the market. And the “prestige” and “value” of DH work won’t come from convincing higher-ups to change their minds, it will come from winning demands for equal pay. Librarians don’t feel “depressed and embarrassed” because their positions are not prestigious, they feel that way because they are undervalued in pay (which also explains why their positions are not considered prestigious in case that is, in fact, felt to be the root of the problem). Just because the jobs of many prestigious Americans (Scheinfeldt cites lawyers) are vulnerable to losses suffered by the firm doesn’t mean theirs or anyone else’s should be. By this logic, we should all be joining the race to the lowest common denominator: no job security, and instead trying to work “creatively” with the scraps we are thrown (which Scheinfeldt insists we can and should do by trying to make grant-based funding, an inherently insecure form of funding, work for creating “relative” security. No thanks!).

Scheinfeldt characterizes the desire many have for tenure as an issue of people with PhD’s “flattering [their] biases and self-image.” I say it is much more complicated than this and has much more to do with a concern for material well-being (hello, we have debts!)(and so does everyone else!). Perhaps inadvertently, Scheinfeldt provides us with a great example of the potentially dangerous role DH could play in accelerating and intensifying the neoliberalization of Universities. I think we need to insist on imagining other ways to do things.