Thursday, 23 May 2013

Failblog/Fumblr, Asa Simon Mittman and Shyama Rajendran

I fell into a weird syntactical trap and just couldn’t get out. Thank goodness that it’s in print forever. I blame scholasticism. 
–from Karl Steel’s post, “Killing is OK. Or not. Or both. Or neither.”
Sometimes ideas don’t work. Failure is an inevitable fact of life, and we have all experienced it—that moment where students look completely confused, that paper with a logical hole the size of the (former) Soviet Union, that presentation that just did not fly. In the humanities, however, we do not often discuss our failures. So how can we understand the utility of being wrong? In the sciences, when an experiment fails, the results are often published so that the community can benefit from the errors. 
Let me assure you that I very much know that WISCONSIN IS NOT MICHIGAN.
–from Jonathan Hsy’s post, “Wisconsin is not Michigan (Where's Troy?)
In the humanities, we’re not often demonstrably “wrong,” since much of what we offer is interpretive. You might disagree with Asa’s reading of the Wonders of the East, but would be hard-pressed to conclusively invalidate it. Still, many of us are still in a 19th-century paradigm of the lonely scholar, toiling in solitude, with a glass of absinthe at the elbow, so our failures are solitary. When I head down a wrong-headed path, I (hopefully) learn something. But you don’t.
I have since seen all three manuscripts, and it turns out that I was not only flatly wrong, but that the actual situation is much weirder … The error is there, in perpetuity, when the bizarre truth is much more interesting.

This is why we started “Fumblr: The Academic Failblog” a place for any of us to post our scholarly missteps for all and sundry to read and learn (and laugh) from. 

In the long run, as I worked through the many consequences of my ‘failure to understand,’ I followed more investigations, worked through anxiety, thought deeply and—at last—reached an acceptance of the fact that I investigate a historical period that will always offer up such instances of profound discomfort.  To wish it were otherwise would be to wish away that aspect of the problem that continues to inspire me, as much as it remains a challenge.
–from Emily Gephart’s post, “The Failures of Symbolism
We no longer aspire to be solitary figures, toiling in isolation. We want to embrace collaboration, to facilitate community through the work that we produce. This shift is in part attributable to the ways in which scholars have embraced social media—we blog, Tweet, and have lively Facebook conversations. However, the veneer of optimism that we bear about the community created by these spaces masks a truth that we do not often acknowledge publicly: what we do is hard. We make mistakes when we teach, we constantly revise what we write, and we frequently falter, and then learn, and keep going. The brilliant conference papers and amazing publications are not achieved with ease, and we must remember the battles as much as we cheer the victories, and might stop for a minute to mourn each other’s losses.

We bandied about a few titles:
[Grandiloquent]:“Before the Phoenix Rises: Swimming in the Ashes of the Humanities.”
[Goofy]: “Faceplanting: Tripping Over the Scholarly Cracks.”
[Self-Abusing]: “Head, Meet Desk”
[Colloquial]:  “Scholarly Facepalms.”
And our final [for now] decision:  “Fumblr.”
All are probably wrong, but perhaps one or more is productively so.

“Fumblr” is an attempt to create a space where these failures and struggles can be shared. The idea for the blog was, aptly, germinated in a fumble—a throwaway joke in response to the question of how one encourages undergraduate students to take risks when they are afraid to fail. We might attribute our hesitance to wear our failures as openly as our successes to the fact that our products are valued highly in the university, while our processes are invisible ghosts. However, it is the dynamic, transformative nature of process that allows us to reach what we consider a product. Further, the silence surrounding the conversation about the processes inherent in scholarship and in learning to teach does a disservice to graduate students and early career scholars, prioritizing product over discovery. If we are serious about experimental approaches and risk taking, we have to be prepared to fail, at least on occasion. 
The whole conference, while fantastic, was filled with these little failures. Fortunately, there were some truly wonderful people whose kindnesses helped prevent these failures from ruining my experience.
–from an anonymous post about “Literally falling down a flight of stairs

We are transformed not only by our successes but by our difficulties, and by the responses of our friends and colleagues to them. “Fumblr” is designed to encourage a collaborative space, with contributors (rather than authors) who share their stories, with posts related to research, teaching, writing, job searches, and so on. Further, we hope to foster a sense of community in which we can struggle together just as easily as we succeed together.

Join us in faltering, in tripping over the cracks in our own arguments, in falling down the solipsistic rabbit holes of our personal-professional preoccupations. Fumble with us, so we can all take a step forward, together.

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