Failing badly, failing well

When I go to conference panels on the digital humanities or public humanities, I find that many presentations begin with a dismissal of the kind of assignment where a student writes a paper merely for the audience of a teacher. In many ways, I share this suspicion of the two-person academic conversation; though it has value as a means of practicing formal writing and receiving a careful response, we can replicate and add to that value in collaborative, public-minded projects.

As a community, however, we may not have fully appreciated another advantage of the traditionally graded paper assignment: it fails well.

Students, of course, encounter all kinds of obstacles, from false starts in their research to personal or medical problems to competing priorities. When I assign a traditional paper, I can respond to these situations with a set of tools that I have learned to handle reasonably well: extensions, incompletes, a B-. Whatever has gone wrong, and however I respond, the problem remains mainly between the student and me.

The more I create assignments based on teamwork, editorial practices, and audiences beyond the classroom, the more I find I create models that fail badly. One student depends on another meeting a deadline; mistakes become public; the boundaries of the semester limit my ability to alter deadlines and other expectations for collaborative groups.

Now, as I encourage colleagues to try new kinds of tools and practices, I feel another layer of responsibility here: I need to be able to help develop pedagogies that both succeed and fail well. How have you worked to make collaborative and digital projects fail better?

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