Fail Better: Reflections on a Good Life

Baldwin_School_1905_postcardEarlier today, I attended my high school class reunion, where I was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Alumnae Association of The Baldwin School, in Bryn Mawr Pennsylvania. I was asked to give a short address to the Upper School, and this is what I said.

I am humbled by this honor, in part because Baldwin has meant, and does mean, so much to me; and in part because women with whom I attended Baldwin nominated me. I would also like to thank the Development Office and the Alumnae Association. I have labored in universities for most of my adult life, and I am aware of how many hours of how many people’s lives are required to make awards possible.

I accept on behalf of the Class of 1976. In thirteen years at The Baldwin School, we competed, laughed, kept each other’s secrets, and cared for each other. I don’t mean to idealize: sometimes we also weren’t very nice. Reflecting on such moments has also been part of the journey, and as Hillary Rodham Clinton could tell you, being nice isn’t always the most important thing. For better or worse (as I said two weeks ago when I married Nancy, my partner of thirty years) I am bound to the Bicentennial class forever.

An award is also a moment to reflect on what it means to have a good life – and on how you get there. Here’s what I know: it’s trial and error, trial and error. To quote playwright Samuel Beckett, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.”

For over thirty years, as a historian, teacher, and writer, I have tried to fail better: for the last decade, I have failed better in a field called Digital Humanities, otherwise known as DH. If you’ve never met one, DH scholars are humanities Ph.D.s who can’t stop playing with their computers and mobile devices. We do project-based work that makes humanities research, narrative arguments, data and metadata visible on the Internet. Our job is to create open access to knowledge.

Currently, I work with six undergraduates in The Digital Humanities Initiative lab I founded last year at The New School in New York City. One of our programs is called Digital Across the Curriculum, in which we teach the use of computerized research and social media as twenty-first century literacies. In other words, we believe that all of the literacies that are critical to citizenship – critical, ethical and logical thinking; writing; numeracy; visual thinking, research and argumentation – must now grapple with the reality, and potential, of digital communication.

At the DHI, we help students translate traditional humanities assignments into digital projects. We help faculty imagine born digital pedagogy, as well as how to use whatever fresh hell of a course management system has been delivered that year. We run two LGBT history sites, OutHistory.org and the United States of AIDS. This year the Provost’s office commissioned us to create a platform called The Collaboratory, where faculty and students at The New School can create exhibits from their community based research projects; and we are preparing to launch a new site that will support a book series containing the complete works of the first African-American novelist, Charles Chesnutt. Next year, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, two students and I will re-create the former Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village as a digital game. People who play the game will learn about radical social activism through virtual interactions with former political prisoners like Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day, Ethel Rosenberg, Andrea Dworkin, and Angela Davis; as well as the ordinary working-class women who were routinely incarcerated at the House of D between 1932 and 1971.

Doing DH requires imagination, and thus, the courage to fail. It combines a humanities sensibility with standards of investigation, collaboration and accountability that are more common to science. This is why we call our spaces labs, and like labs, an ethic of investigation puts students on an equal intellectual footing with teachers. I often describe myself as their shepherd rather than their teacher. As my students put their projects together, they learn presentation and research skills, budgeting, project design, and grant management. Our work is punctuated by the question: what is the problem, and, how do we solve it? When something goes awry it isn’t a calamity, it’s an opportunity to learn more about how to do it right.

Fail better.

Baldwin was where I learned to fail better. In September 1963, my parents enrolled me in kindergarten at the Baldwin. For the first few weeks of school, I was under the impression that our teacher was in the British Army because she was both very scary and because she had white hair that appeared to be fixed in place like the Redcoats I had seen in a Disney movie about the American Revolution. First grade, it was said, was a piece of cake once you had made it through kindergarten.

I now realize that this teacher had only two important jobs: to make us into readers, and to teach a group of uncivilized tots how to go to school. The reason first grade seemed easy was that kindergarten was an endless stream of confusing new tasks at which one inevitably failed; learning to cope with that made grades 1-12 possible.

Fail better.

Identifying what had gone wrong, teaching us how to scrutinize our own work, and inspiring us to fail better was the pedagogy practiced by our best teachers at Baldwin. Lois Goutman taught us to inhabit a character with confidence, and work with others to make a play happen. Believe it or not, that’s not so different from working in a university: all my different hats – scholar, committee member, department chair, and consultant – are all different characters that have to be performed. In weekly meetings, our English teachers went over our essays line by line, showing us how to identify what was wrong and re-write. My history teachers, Martha Hammer and Liz Schall, taught me the difference between spitting back other people’s ideas and having the courage to formulate, however imperfectly, my own. Biology lab reports written for Joan LaVan and geometry proofs for the late Priscilla Swan taught me how to make narrate and visualize arguments.

My coach, Margot Cunningham, taught me how learn from a loss as well as a win, and commit myself to success. Although I always struggled with math, Baldwin teachers firmly sent me back to my mangled equations to do them over: Doris Balant, my third grade teacher, and Carol Dahl, who suffered through two years of my scrambled lab reports in high school, demanded that we examine what had gone wrong and re-do it.

Fail better.

Every day, I find myself drawing on, not on what I learned, but how I learned here at Baldwin. So to you, the young women of today’s Baldwin School, I say: Lifetime Achievement awards, like Digital Humanities projects, are not the work of an individual. They are the work of teams, of commitment to others, and of a lifetime of gifts from your teachers and comrades, gifts that you may not recognize as you are receiving them. To you I say, waste no time after this assembly to get back to your class, your team, your play, your club and fail better.

Let me know how it goes.

 

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