Saturday, September 29, 2012

Academic Failblog

by JONATHAN HSY

Greetings ITM readers: This special guest posting proposes a great idea for a new blog (dreamed up by Asa Mittman and Shyama Rajendran). Here's what Asa writes:

ACADEMIC FAILBLOG

The conclusion to my dissertation is clever. It is sharp and witty and pulls together many of the strands that run through the work, as a whole. It is also simply wrong. I bungled the etymology, and conflated a few Old English terms that I ought not have -- those macrons get me every time. Luckily, I sorted all this out before it became my first book, Maps and Monsters. Since hardly anyone (thankfully) has read the dissertation version, hardly anyone knows about my error, there. I benefited from having figured it out, but nobody else has benefited from this error.


The recent BABEL conference contained many moments of brilliance, as have been evoked by Jeffrey and Mary Kate and Eileen and Steve Mentz and Maggie Williams.

It was, though, not an unmitigated success. There were moments of failure, of stumbling and faltering, of awkwardness and outright error. And this is how it ought to be. If we are serious about embracing experimentation, we must also be willing to accept that not all experiments succeed.

In his plenary on "How the Hippies Saved Physics," David Kaiser discussed Neils Bohr, who was famously wrong in his model of the atom. While he was utterly mistaken about how atoms are composed, his errors were generative, spurring a generation of physicists and their research.

In discussing this subject, Shyama Rajendran and I came to wonder about the utility of being wrong. In the sciences, when an experiment fails, the results are often published so that the scientific community can benefit from the errors, can learn from the errors, be they algebraic or conceptual. In the humanities, we are less often demonstrably "wrong," since much of what we offer is interpretive rather than factual. You might disagree with my reading of the Donestre in the Beowulf Manuscript's Wonders of the East, but you would be hard-pressed to conclusively invalidate it. Still, we falter and fail all the time. However, many of us in the humanities are still in our 19th-century paradigm of the lonely scholar, toiling in the solitude of a garret, perhaps with a glass of absinthe at the elbow. And so our failures are solitary, which renders them of less use than they might otherwise be. When I head down a wrong-headed path, I (hopefully) learn something. But you don't, unless I share my failure with you.

Shyama and I therefore propose to create an Academic Failblog, as it were, a place for any and all of us to post our scholarly missteps for all and sundry to read and learn from. These might be related to research, teaching, job searching or any other aspect of the academic world. We have 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"

Ben Tilghman offers "Fumblr."

Mary Kate Hurley suggested "Scholarly Facepalms."

All are probably wrong, but perhaps one or more is productively so.

Shyama and I offer this post to accomplish three things: First, to see if there is interest in such a venture. Second, if so, to garner suggestions for titles. Finally, assuming 1 and B go well, to get the discussion rolling forward, so that when we have the site up and running, we have a stable of eager participants. What say you? Care to stumble with us?

24 comments:

Karl Steel said...

Oh hell yes. Count me in. I have a few to offer already. You could probably just call it "Karl Fucks Up" and have a year's worth of content already in the queue with more certainly to come.

M.K. Foys said...

Fumblr is so sublimely apt and so-not-full-of-fail as a nom de boom that it almost isn't appropriate for a site about failing. Almost.

ASM said...

I love the idea of calling it Karl Fucks Up. That would be awesome. In this scenario, "Karl" would be the collective id of the medievalist community. With a mustache.

lizz said...

Ben FTW in the Title Contest. This is a great idea, and will be an important thread in knitting the Collective. Also, what Martin said.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

A compromise on all sublime suggestions: "Fumblr: 'Karl' Fucks Up!"

Yes it must have an exclamation point. Error demands emotion.

I mean, error demands emotion!!

Jonathan Hsy said...

The 'Stache should be the Academic Fail Blog mascot.

kg said...

Archivalia is already a failblog ...
http://archiv.twoday.net/stories/6461507/

Jonathan Hsy said...

LOL "Fumblr" is full of so much WIN that we just might have to disqualify it. But if we do, does it count as failure?

Eileen Joy said...

OhMYFuckingGod: I wholeheartedly embrace this idea/blog/failure! Fucking awesome!

Eileen Joy said...

Fumblr is GENIUS. With the subtitle: Head, Meet Desk.

Eileen Joy said...

I personally have so many stumblings, I've lost count. Count me in as a wayward contributor. I've contacted Anna Klosowska, too, since the 3rd issue of postmedieval for 2013, that she is co-editing with Nicola Masciandaro, is titled "FAULT," and the contributor list is not yet finalized. She'll be in touch, too, with Asa and Shyama.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

kg: you know what? Why not give Fumblr a patina of old fashioned philology and christen it in German as well? "Auch Fehler sind lehrreich" (as that Archivalia post is entitled) pretty much says it all!!

Rick Godden said...

Wow, what a great idea. Something I'd be an overachieving contributor for!

More seriously, this is a good idea. I love it.

Shyama R said...

Thanks, everyone, for all your enthusiasm about this! My personal favorite currently is Eileen's mashup of titles- "Fumblr: Head, Meet Desk." Fumblr in general is made of win as a title. (Maybe we can put the stache on top of the F?)

Chris said...

Is there a difference between failblog and flailblog, and can we embrace both?

ASM said...

Got the quote I was after via David Kaiser:

"Nick Herbert's erroneous paper was a spark that generated immense progress."

-- Asher Peres, "How the no-cloning theorem got its name," Fortschritte der Physik vol 51 (2003): 458-461.

That is about as high a goal as we might strive toward. I'd love it if something I did RIGHT got that kind of praise, never mind something I'd gotten wrong.

Christopher said...

Please count me in; I just gave a paper at a conference that got no response (well, two questions, but one was about the image on my handout). That paper is so faulty I think I need to contribute. Fumblr: Karl Fuck's Up is a great title!

Melissa La Porte said...

I think Fumblr: Head Meet Desk is pretty great but there is also something about fucking upwards that seems appropriate too.
Either way, I'll begin collecting my varied wrong turns and downright failures for all to see.

Jennifer said...

All these titles sound great to me. Glad to see our previous discussions about this topic have contributed to developing this new enterprise!

Ryan Judkins said...

What an awesome idea. I love the titles, especially "Fumblr" and "Fucking Upwards." "Phailure" also comes to mind: Productive Failure, Ph.D. Failure, and so forth.

ASM said...

Hey all! Seems that FUMBLR is coming up as the favorite. I've heard this on this post, on Facebook, and in some emails. We've also had a great response from lots of interested folks, so we'll give it a go! Keep your e-eyes peeled over the next few days for an official launch, and start writing your posts, today!

Big thanks to the Material Collective -- it is out of the MC ethos that this idea grew, as well as to ITM for hosting this initial discussion, and of course to Shyama for collaborating on this. Lets fumble together.

Lara Farina said...

I think I can help substantiate a "Willful Wrongs" subsection. You know, the things that have never worked for you in past, but you insist on doing them anyway? Yeah.

ASM said...

Ok, all of you who said you had plenty of material: SEND IT IN! We are live:
http://academicfailblog.blogspot.com/2012/10/welcome-to-fumblr.html
Best,
Asa

tenthmedieval said...

Can't help but mention a quote I heard Paul Edward Dutton vouchsafe at Kalamazoo 2010 when someone asked him if a particular theory was verifiable or not and he admitted it wasn't really: "but, the best we can hope for is to be wrong in new ways". Get in touch and see if he will let it out as a maxim for you all :-)