I’ve been following the Institute on Digital Archaeology Method and Practice at MSU this week, both on Twitter (#MSUDAI and @digitalarchaeo) and via their live stream on YouTube. And while all the talks have been wonderful, today I was particularly touched by Shawn Graham’s (@electricarchaeo) presentation on failure (the title of this post is from one of his slides). We don’t talk about our failures. We’re heavily discouraged to talk about our failures. And because of this, we rarely document our failures. And this in and of itself is a failure, because we are dooming ourselves, and others in our field, to making the same mistakes again.
There is also the issue of privilege when it comes to failure in Academia, Alt-Academia, and the greater Humanities and Social Sciences. A tenured faculty member can fail quite openly with very few, if any consequences for his or her career. Contingent faculty and those with contract positions (like yours truly) really can’t afford to fail openly. Everything we produce has to be perfect, functional, and necessary to the project or institution, otherwise we aren’t hired or re-hired. So we conceal our failures and scramble to turn them into successes. It’s the vicious cycle of Imposter Syndrome…the fear that if they see you blink, they’ll be on to you being horribly under qualified for your job. This is never true, but the majority of us in Academia experience it.
But you know what? Concealing failures is exhausting, and it does not help anyone, including our colleagues, projects, and institutions.
I cut my archaeological chops at the site of Poggio Civitate near Siena, Italy, an Etruscan excavation project that celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. And throughout my 12 years at the project I failed spectacularly, over and over again:
- None of us really knew how to use digital cameras or photoshop in 2003, and all of my garbage artifact photos had to be replaced almost immediately.
- I edited hundreds of images…but it turned out I was editing the thumbnails and I deleted the originals. This led to the director yelling at me and me crying hysterically for a period of time.
- Dropped and broke four previously-conserved terracotta roof tiles in one day.
- Put a pickax through the nose of a complete gorgon antefix.
- Failed to check the work of students doing data entry, leading to two full seasons of extra work re-inputting catalog data.
- Documented some, but not all of these issues.
A graduate student was at the site this year while I was visiting for the 50th anniversary celebrations, and she was doing “ethnographic” interviews about data management. I am THE person for Poggio Civitate, as my master’s thesis was a very practical analysis of the conversion of the excavation’s paper record into a digital one. And throughout this interview I felt pretty good that a lot of our process in the early 2000s was documented in my thesis…but I was also pretty worried about all the things that weren’t…many of which were fails. There is so much that only a couple people know, and I’m one of them.
Legacy data is always a problem with archaeological sites, especially long-running ones. It’s the data that is unintelligible to the outsider without knowledge of what can only be described as the “oral history” of the project. This information is not written down or codified, and I think a big reason for that is…it’s the information we’re embarrassed about. It’s the mistakes, it’s the wrong turns, it’s the corners we have to cut when working with a restricted budget and short amount of time.
We all say that you don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been. And we’ve all been failures. If we aren’t in positions to fail openly, I think it’s important that we at least try to document these failures in a sustainable way.
For those in secure career roles, can you help us by talking about failure more openly? If we can normalize it, we can have a much healthier relationship with our institutions and the field at large.