Seven Questions about Failing Gloriously with Shawn Graham

To celebrate the release of volume 3 of Epoiesen and to continue the conversation started to Failing Gloriously and Other Essays, I button-holed Shawn Graham for a conversation about failure, his new book, future projects, and his growing digital archaeology and media empire!

Seven Questions with Shawn Graham: 

1. Failing Gloriously and Other Essays is a book about failure, but I noticed that you describe failure more than you define it. How would you define failure?

“I know it when I see it”, eh? I’ve got four different kinds of fails in the book, following Warnick and Croxall, and then we’ve got the social fails, following Dombrowski in there… Ultimately, ‘failure’, in the context that I am currently in, would be: he is not kind. He does not listen. He does not use what he has to pull others up along with him. To be an asshole when you could have been kind: that is failure.

2. Quinn Dombrowski’s early review of the book suggests that it speaks to folks working in the digital humanities in particular. Your background, though, is in archaeology. Is there something about DH and archaeology (and ancient history) that helped you understand failure? Or that made coming to terms with unsuccessful projects more important or productive?

We sometimes say that archaeology’s great contribution to human knowledge is that it offers vast time scales to reckon with: that we think about what it is to be human over very long stretches of time and this perspective is (somehow) unique to archaeological knowledge building. In which case, archaeology is often about collaboration in the present, but it is also about collaboration with our colleagues from the past, whose notes and data and archives and decisions we have to deal with and account for. There’s no use getting mad at them for not having done x because we only just figured out in the last twenty years that it would’ve been a good idea. Right? Having to collaborate with our colleagues from long ago and learn to roll with the consequences – both for good and for ill – of their decisions I think instills in the archaeologically trained mind a willingness to cut some slack. So where is the failure here? We look at what they’ve done, we see where we can find the value or the new insight. We learn from what they did, and we build on their work: flaws and all.

At least, that’s my theory.

The DH side of things… the flavors of DH that I like best are when people are making something, and thinking through the consequences of that making. To my mind then there are natural affinities with experimental archaeology.

3. The other main theme in the book is teaching, and I found many of your frank insights on students and learning particularly compelling. I’m curious how you reconcile an educational tradition that often represents someone’s first experience with the concept of failure (not to mention a FEAR of failure), with your own more constructive take on failing?

The first essay I wrote in university was a C, and it utterly crushed me. I had come from a CEGEP (Quebec junior college, between high school and university, two years just to figure out what it was that I wanted to study and do) where I had done very well. Whereas in CEGEP I’d been encouraged to take chances and try things out (try things on!) that first class at university was all about the formalisms of academic writing, and returning a vision of the prof back to himself. I was not a particularly happy student as an undergrad, and sought to undermine things when and where I could, taking contrarian stances for the sake of it and so on. I imagine it was pretty insufferable, to have to grade S. Graham’s work.

But as the book shows, in the chapter with my first teaching diary, what did I have to fall back on? So I taught the way I had been taught. And this I think is what my experience with the welding class proved so transformative. These guys…. well, ‘fail’ doesn’t mean sweet F-A when you’ve already fallen through the cracks and everyone has already written you off as a failure. It holds no more fear. So what could I do to motivate guys like that? What can teaching be like, if we’re not worried about a letter grade at the end? Jesse Stommel has it right when he notes that ‘grades are not good incentive; are not good feedback; are not good markers of learning; don’t reflect the idiosyncratic, subjective, often emotional character of learning; encourage competitiveness over collaboration; aren’t fair: and they will never be fair.’

So how do we reconcile? I think people like Jesse Stommel and Cathy Davidson and Kathleen Fitzpatrick (check our Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s review of Failing! — ed.) are pointing the way. The first experience with ‘failure’ in a university setting is too often a high stakes all-or-nothing situation. We’re all smart people: surely to god we can devise something else? Daniel Paul O’Donnell’s ‘unessay’ assignment has taken off in recent years, which is a good sign. Let’s start with that. Let’s start by examining how we ourselves were taught, and tease out the good from the bad and, remember that the day is this wide:

and we only see our students for this much:

So let’s make that interaction count for something more than flippin’ grades.

4. I really like this especially in theory. Without giving away the entire book, can you give us a few suggestions on how we can make the classroom a safer place to fail? How do you do this?

Partly, this is about meeting student anxieties around grading and credentialing. It helps that I now have a body of student work (and my own work) that I can point to and discuss with the students how that work came together. People like Cathy Davidson (and by extension, the larger HASTAC universe of affiliated folks) and Jesse Stommel (and the larger Hybrid Pedagogy universe) share creative exercises they’ve done with students that foreground the trust you have to have in your students, for all of this to work. I draw a lot of inspiration from them.

I tend to do at least two things, sometimes within one class, sometimes just one thing or the other – ungrading, and process notes. I show the students a ‘regular’ syllabus, with all of its nickel-and-diming for grades, and I offer them alternative: they can create some kind of ‘letter’ to me at two points in the term (our terms are much shorter than American terms) assessing where they are against where they want to be (or have gotten to). I ask them to consider (and we do exercises in class to underline the point) how they have grown and changed as scholars over the term. In the light of that growth, they can then suggest to me what ‘grade’ their progression through the materials warrants. If I disagree with them, we sit down together to talk it out and negotiate. But 9.5/10, when I’ve disagreed, it’s been to *raise* the grade, not lower it. Students undersell their work.

Concerning process notes – I get the students to keep a kind of open notebook (where ‘openness’ is within what’s safe for the particular student) into which everything goes – reading notes, hypothesis annotations, error messages, the ‘paradata’ of their work in the course. They can draw on these notebooks to figure out – and to see! – their own development (and they’re also handy if a student has to come back to the work in the future). These process notes can be bullet points, videos, whatever system works for the student. In the end, my students do a lot more writing than they normally would, once you factor all of this together. In some classes – like, which is only 6 weeks long – I look at each week’s process notes for completeness along various axes, and offer weekly feedback as we go. Other times they generate a kind of omnibus of their evolution over the course from this material. Once we get into this habit, there’s a lot we can draw from it.

Then there’s classroom management. Nobody wants to be the person who looks stupid. I do a variety of things in my lecture classes, from ‘entry tickets’ where every student comes to class with a few bullet points from the readings or the previous week’s lectures that bother/intrigue them; students pair up, read their items to each other, and then explore *why* those particular items resonated. We’d then build up into fours, then larger groups (depending on the class), and have these summarized for the class as a whole, using this to kick off discussions. We sometimes do in-class unconferences too. The idea is to provide multiple opportunities for discussion/reflection on what’s working and what’s not *without* the student being the focus of everyone’s attention – especially mine. I also regularly dissect things that I’ve done that have and haven’t worked, like the HeritageCrowd project; but I’ve also shown students articles I’ve written that have been rejected, and dissected the reasons why that may have happened. You have to be human, and build trust.

Said the white guy who benefits from generations of in-grained classroom dynamics of power and authority.

But you can read this, which was written by my students at the end of one of my courses, get their perspective:

5. Along similar lines, how do we make our disciplines safer for failure. Katherine Cook’s recent article in the European Journal of Archaeology really moved me and forced me to confront the privileges that I have as a white, tenured, male faculty member who can take risks with very few consequences. She made me realize that this was not universally true in academia. What can we do to change this?

You and me, well, we can be quiet, move to the background, and cede the floor. We can write the letters of support, we can do the service work and build more safety for others, we can use our positions to expand the pie.

6. Taking a slightly different direction, I want to think a bit about the Shawn Graham media empire for a moment! It goes without saying that I’m a huge fan of Epoiesen (and I was so excited to be invited to write a response in the latest issue). How does your work with Epoiesen, ODATE, and your various other projects fit together with Failing Gloriously?

‘Media empire’, ha, I like that.

You should see how many domain names I own; I have four separate accounts with reclaim hosting, too… Failing Gloriously is in someways the paradata for all those other projects. Without the evolution of my thought and my being-in-the-world that Failing documents, I don’t think I would’ve been in the right headspace to see the need, the possibilities, for Epoiesen, ODATE, and the rest of them. I very nearly had a postdoc not that long after my phd, back in England, to tend a GIS. If I had got that project? I don’t think I would’ve ever been the kind of archaeologist I am now (the fail that opens opportunities). There’s nothing wrong with being a GIS person; but if I’d gotten that project, it would’ve cemented my relationship to the possibility space, collapsed the phase space, as it were…

7. Finally, can you tell us what you’re up to next? How will you follow up on Failing Gloriously?

Happily, the next big thing is already done. It’s a book called An Enchantment of Digital Archaeology: Raising the Dead through Agent Based Modeling, Archaeogaming, and Artificial Intelligence. (For a preview go here — ed.) It pulls out the connective tissue between my initial scholarly forays in agent based modeling of Roman history and archaeology, through my archaeogaming phase, and into whatever it is I do right now where I’m playing with neural networks. Some have called neural network models of language just souped-up markov chains (where each link in the chain depends on the probability of the previous link: the probability that the word ‘failing’ will be followed by the word ‘gloriously’ in the writings of S. Graham) which may or may not be correct. But the upshot is: I can train a neural network on all of the writing, all of the ephemera, all of the scholarship of say Anglophone archaeology. I can then query my model to explore its understanding of archaeology _as written about by English-speaking archaeologists_. In fact, in one chapter of the book, I train a model on the work of Flinders Petrie in Egypt, and have a dialogue with my pseudoPetrie to explore his(its) understandings of say labour practices in 19th century archaeology.  I wrap this entire book in the notion of ‘enchantment’ as I learned it from Sara Perry; I hope I do justice to her ideas. If my ideas on ‘enchantment’ fail to convince, read her materials, she’s so much better!

Of course, if you call the book ‘an enchantment of digital archaeology’, you kinda have to explain why you find digital archaeology enchanting. And so I also explore the sources of disenchantment in my own archaeological work and training. Parts of the new book then can be seen as a companion to Failing Gloriously. Ha, true story – I was working on the Enchantment book first, but hit a period of profound writer’s block. In an effort to get the ball rolling again, I started digging through my own ephemera to see if there was a seed I could use to at least get words flowing again. It worked, in a way – except the seeds I found became Failing Gloriously! Anyway, Enchantment will be coming out in July 2020 with Berghahn Books (the seeds of *that* book were first proposed in my initial job application letter to Carleton in 2009. Versions of the book/idea were considered and dismissed – with good reason-  by other presses over the last decade, so it’s been a long time coming).

My other long-standing projects continue to tick along – my work with Damien Huffer on the trade in human remains has some really cool computational vision work that I hope will see the light of day in 2020, where we demonstrate a method that will let us say something about the peoples whose remains are being traded (in very broad strokes, but it’s more than what we can currently say), and all of that work might turn into a book too. Our work has also bled into advocacy, as we are founding members of the Alliance for Countering Crime Online which brings together researchers and activists who are documenting the many and varied ways platform capitalism is profiting from eg sex trading, antiquities trading, exotic animals, animal bating, romance scams, and more, and lobbies for change. Keep your eyes peeled for ACCO related news in the coming year!

I’m also starting some other related computer vision stuff with Justin Walsh (of the International Space Station Archaeology Project), for an archaeology of extremely hard to reach places; well, I say ‘I’ but it’ll be an MA student who we haven’t found yet. A lot of my work just involves finding neat things to think about and then pointing students at them and seeing what happens next. For instance, with my student Jeff Blackadar, we’re part of the Computational Research in the Ancient Near East Project and we’re trying to teach the machine to see like an archaeologist to generate its own reconstructions and guesses from partial materials.

Oh, and with Ian Milligan, Scott Weingart, and Kim Martin, we’re writing the second edition of the Historian’s Macroscope. Oh, and yeah, I’m part of the local organizing committee for DH2020 in Ottawa this summer. And my students are putting on a HeritageJam in April.

If I don’t burn up and shrivel to a crisp first.

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