Book Review: "Failing Gloriously and Other Essays" by Shawn Graham

Quinn DombrowskiNovember 18, 2019
Book Review:

After 15 years of doing DH in some form or another, opportunities to sit in the company of fellow “veterans”, swapping tales of bygone years and campaigns won and lost, are a rare and wonderful treat. “Remember ‘Second Life’?” “Ugh, it made me so angry to have to virtually walk around to access information when we had this great thing called the ‘web browser’ where you could just search.”

In these conversations, there’s little explanation needed (everyone remembers how it was), and especially after a drink or two, people will start opening up about failure. There’s no criticism or judgement, just commiseration.

The ritual of these conversations is always restricted to “insiders": there’s enough academic job precarity in DH that most people are reluctant to talk about their failures, outside the closed circle of colleagues who are guaranteed to understand. Even among the fortunate tenured crowd, there are promotions to be had, grants to be won, keynote invitations to be accepted. While a more diverse set of voices have gained visibility in DH, the crowd of “old-timers” is still overwhelmingly white and predominantly male, with implications for who gets to see and benefit from this “veteran’s view” of DH. It’s hard to describe my delight in discovering that in his new book, Failing Gloriously, Shawn Graham has captured the kinds of stories that one often shares in these insider conversations, framed in a thoughtful manner that invites the reader’s self-reflection on their own mistakes.

I count Shawn Graham among my Twitter friends — the kind you can rely on chiming in with a helpful idea when you’re venting your frustrations about a technical problem. I’ve learned a good deal from his trials and travails, too. Right before I left on vacation in September, he posted something about finishing the draft of a book with the title Failing Gloriously, and I couldn’t resist inquiring if he might be open to sharing a copy. If there’s one thing I’m known for, it’s probably failure — and it’s been hard to get anyone else to talk about this favorite topic of mine. I started reading it on a plane to Las Vegas, and couldn’t put it down.

The format of the book is unusual: it could loosely be described as a series of essays, but in reality, the material is much more diverse. Some of it is adapted from Graham’s digital archaeology blog, where he has been writing since the early 2000’s. A couple chapters are academic ephemera— an email to a student, a “learning journal” from a graduate student pedagogy program— which Graham has annotated with the wisdom of hindsight. There are more personal pieces, reflecting on the place where Graham grew up in rural Quebec, Canada, and the community there. And there are pieces that are more academic than narrative, like the chapter on the open-access journal he started, Epoiesen. He ties this mix together — in some places more clearly than others — with a common thread of failure.

Graham acknowledges upfront the privilege that underpins his ability to talk so openly about failure. He’s a white man with tenure, which counts for a lot, even if his path to getting a tenure-track job was circuitous and plagued by an ongoing case of imposter syndrome. He also pushes back on the culture of uncritical failure without safeguards, as found in Silicon Valley: “[Failure] is a political idea, and it’s a dangerous idea. It is dangerous in that without a strategy for dealing with the things that break, a strategy for failing productively, a fail is indeed a disaster and causes harm. For instance, the modern university puts all of the risks of innovative teaching on the instructor, with few supports in place. “Move fast and break things,” Facebook’s early mantra, has caused untold damage to civil society. It is political in that who gets to fail and suffer the consequences (or not) is a function of identity and power.” (p. 2)

His opening essay, “Failing Gloriously”, explains the framing of the book as a whole: "Now that you’ve benefited from that privilege, what have you done with it? This volume is my attempt at figuring that out.” Graham also references two frameworks for classifying failure, which he uses throughout the book: Brian Croxall and Quinn Warnick’s, from their piece on “Failure” in Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities, and my more meandering thoughts on the matter, from a talk I gave at the University of Alberta’s symposium “On the Benefits of Failure” in 2018, which I meant to be my DH “swan song” before leaving the field forever. (I posted a write-up of the talk, “Towards a Taxonomy of Failure” on my blog.) Croxall and Warnick’s taxonomy is a progressive list going from technological failure, to human failure, to failure as artifact, and finally to failure as epistemology. It covers a majority of the examples in Failing Gloriously, though Graham ends up drawing on some of the more interpersonal facets of failure, such as failure to do right by others, from my musings on the topic. (This book may also be the first example ever of a work that draws on two taxonomies by people named Quinn, which I think is delightful.)

Following the introductory essay, the first part of Graham’s book is an autobiographical tour of the mix of failure and good fortune that led him to his current position. While Graham finished his PhD well before the 2008 financial crisis that is often portrayed as a turning point in the academic job market, his story of stringing together adjunct jobs before eventually landing back where he grew up will likely resonate with many readers — either as their experience, or a real possibility looming over their time in grad school. After a couple stints in educational technology (one involving a failure with long-term consequences vis-a-vis interactions with the US government), Graham was hired as a digital humanist — despite not thinking of himself in those terms, or knowing exactly what that meant. Graham is emphatic in crediting luck and random chance — and the privilege to have the resources to be able to pursue opportunities as they arose— in getting his position. My failure taxonomy filed failure to get an academic job under “arbitrary failure”, and perhaps Graham’s story illustrates its inverse, arbitrary success.

The second part, “Getting over myself”, is a meditation on some of life’s bigger questions: how to live, how to be a good person. In the wrong hands, it could devolve into a tedious bit of moralizing, but Graham does a beautiful job of drawing out his points through poignant depictions of specific individuals, and the broader community in Western Quebec where he grew up. While the stories in the text are those of Graham and his roots, this section feels like an invitation to the reader for personal reflection: what models can you draw on, from your own origins, to provide a framework for the kind of person you want to be? As a small aside, I really appreciate how Graham introduces this section with Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, a literary reference that is unlikely to be found on a university syllabus. I would very much welcome more acknowledgement that scholars read books that might not be deemed Literature, but can nevertheless be both thought-provoking and enjoyable. (The character he references, Sam Vimes, is one of my oldest kid’s namesakes.)

The third part, “Fits and starts and fumbles”, is really the core of the book from a digital humanities perspective. Even if your disciplinary grounding is in something far removed from archaeology, part three transcends those disciplinary boundaries, very vividly conveying what it’s like to “do DH”, from the perspective of building projects, doing research, teaching, advising, and the experience of being that person everyone sends the misfit students to, if they ever express any interest in technical things. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s memorable, and at times it’s painful. “How I Lost the Crowd” is a piece I’ll be recommending to anyone who’s about to embark on a CMS-based project. I’ll be assigning “Research Witchcraft” in future iterations of my non-English DH course. “Horses to Water” is an important reminder for empathy when students take an assignment in a direction that is, on the surface, utterly bizarre and counterintuitive. “Letter to a Young Scholar” is a striking reminder of the many times when answering the question we’re asked is, in fact, the wrong course of action. “I Don’t Know How to Do This” brought tears to my eyes, reminding me both of my own struggles in how to support graduate students facing impossible odds in the job market, DH faculty facing an uphill climb for tenure and review, and the urgent need to connect with others in the same position. A colleague Graham didn’t know got in touch with him after he wrote the original blog post this piece is based on: "He was writing to express relief that he was not the only one who felt similarly without a map and compass. The post made it OK for him to acknowledge his concern about his students, to make peace with not knowing what to do, for he was not alone. Doing right by others: sometimes a simple blog post will land where it’s needed, not where you thought it was going.” (p. 97)

For myself, as a DH person supporting non-English literatures, I’ll confess that the fourth part largely felt like a tourist trip into another discipline, with a tour guide more accustomed to locals than visitors. I suspect there’s a lot in part four to appreciate that I didn’t pick up on, not knowing the landscape. If you’re an archaeologist, I imagine you might react to it similarly to how I felt about part three. If you’re not, there’s some interdisciplinary issues at play here that are worth reading about (e.g. about peer review practices in Graham’s open access journal), but at least for me, they were harder to viscerally connect with than the material in part three.

Once Failing Gloriously and Other Essays is published, I intend to keep a copy on my office bookshelf, and a second under my desk, in order to promptly replace the bookshelf copy when it’s been given away to a grad student, staff, or faculty colleague who happens to come by. If you’re a digital humanities “veteran”, you’ll laugh and cry and shudder alongside Graham’s tales of failure. If you’re a grad student or newer to digital humanities, Failing Gloriously and Other Essays provides a rare, honest, inside look into many facets of doing digital humanities.

As Eric Kansa notes in the introduction, openly talking about failure will not, by itself, make survivable failure more inclusive. But at the same time, the aversion to openly addressing failure in digital humanities is pervasive and longstanding: my article on the failure of Project Bamboo has largely gotten cited in the absence of much anything else focused on digital humanities failure. Brett Bobley, the Director of the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities, once recounted how he wasn’t able to find a single volunteer willing to accept a free trip to Florida in March in exchange for talking about DH failure at the 2008 IMLS Webwise conference — and I don’t think he’d have much more luck in 2019. There is much more work that needs to be done, on many fronts, to encourage, support, and reduce the personal risk associated with thoughtful analyses of failure, for everyone. But it’s hard to start working towards this goal if failure remains such a strong taboo in digital humanities. Shawn Graham’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays is one step towards that better future. It’ll be released on December 1st; go check it out.