Success at Failure

March 26, 2014 § 3 Comments

Last week I was in sunny California at the National Council on Public History‘s annual conference in Monterey on the central coast.  I was in a roundtable called “Failure: What is it Good For?”  The idea behind the panel arose out of discussions between myself and Margo Shea in the autumn, surrounding various community-based projects we’ve been involved over the years, as well as our wider experiences in public history.  At that point, Margo ran with it, and we proposed a roundtable to the NCPH, along with Jill Ogline Titus of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, Melissa Bingmann of West Virginia University, and Dave Favolaro of the New York Tenement Museum.  All five of us have a wide and divergent experience in community-based history projects in Canada and the US.

We were slightly nervous before our session, unsure if we’d have a full or empty house.  The word “failure” is one that our culture and society does not like very much.  We seem to go out of our way to avoid using the word, given it’s negative connotations.  I have been slightly bemused with Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s announcement yesterday that they were splitting up, they were “consciously uncoupling.”  A column I read somewhere on that term (which I conveniently cannot find today) poked fun at their pretentious terminology (aren’t all breakups conscious uncouplings?) as it is really a way of getting around saying their marriage failed.  I don’t find it surprising.  Failure is a bad thing, continual failure makes us losers, etc.

844651814We were very pleasantly surprised to watch the room fill up; by the time Margo began the introduction to our session, I counted 3 empty seats in a room that sat somewhere between 45 and 50 people.  What followed was amazing.  We had our audience play some Failure Bingo ™ to get our crowd involved in the session early.  And then we began to discuss the commonalities of our case studies, as well as some discussion about our particular cases.

One of the really neat things about the NCPH conference was that it was live-tweeted by several of the participants (myself included).  The conference as a whole was interesting for this feature, as at every session there were a handful of people glued to their phones, laptops, and tablets as they  live tweeted.  I had several interactive sessions with session participants on Twitter, carrying on discussions about their talks throughout the panel.

What followed during the roundtable was kind of amazing, as a number of participants were live-tweeting events as they unfolded.  After I was done with my bit, I sat back and resumed live-tweeting our session, engaging in dialogue with some of the audience members.  This led to a multi-dimensional discussion between us and the audience.  We had a live talk, amongst us in the room, we also used an app called Poll Everywhere to have people text their comments in, which then appeared on the screen behind us, and then there was the live-tweeting, which included interaction between me and some of the tweeters.

The discussion in this multi-platform setting was fascinating, and, of course, kind of hard to keep up with.  But that made it all the more interesting.  As a group we spent a lot of talking about how failure works in other settings.  In particular, medicine, science, and design.  In those fields, failure is a necessary part of the process.  It’s not too trite to say that in those cases, failure is part of success.  In order to be successful, one has to first fail.

But, of course, the difference between fields such as science, medicine, and design is that we, as public historians engaged in community-based projects is that we are dealing with other human beings.  So, while I think we must be more open to failure in the same way that medical researchers and scientists and techies are, we must also keep in mind the human costs of failure.  It can be embarrassing, humiliating and all other kinds of things.  Marla Miller, from UMass-Amherst, also noted the way around this:

But, either way, it is impossible to escape failure.  But,

As this multi-dimensional discussion carried on, it was hard not to feel amazed, looking out at such a passionately engaged audience.  I felt like we had at least succeeded at getting failure into the discussion.

The following day, more than a few people told me ours was their favourite session of the conference.  A few, tongue firmly in cheek, called me “The Failure Guy.”




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