On failure: New book from UND’s Digital Press explores falling short

Failure in academia is often discussed only in whispers, but Shawn Graham has talked and written about it for years

Shawn Graham’s book “Failing Gloriously and other essays” chronicles the author’s personal failures as a commentary on societal views of shortcomings. The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota published the book this month. Photo courtesy of the Digital Press.

In his latest book,  “Failing Gloriously and other essays,” Shawn Graham documents his own failures. So it’s ironic that the book emerged because another project of Graham’s did not take off.

“I was contracted to write something else with a different press, and I was having a really bad case of block,” said Graham, an associate professor at Carleton University in Canada whose book is being published by the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

“I just could not get anything written, or nothing would come out on paper. And I started looking at all of these ephemera that I had written about failure  — blog posts and talks and different things. I saw that there was some connecting tissue there, and I started assembling it all and thought, ‘I have enough material here for a little volume.’

“So, this was the book that I wrote when I should have been writing a different book.”

From blogs to chapter

While Graham put together the initial draft of “Failing Gloriously” about a year ago, many of its chapters have materialized throughout the years, chronicling the author’s life.

Graham earned his Ph.D. in Roman archaeology from Reading University in Britain in 2002. That’s when his struggles to find a meaningful job began.

“It was, in fact, one of those very hyper-specific kinds of archaeology Ph.D.’s on a very particular kind of material, for which I found myself completely unemployable,” he said.

Thus, returning home to Bristol, Quebec — having failed to find work overseas — felt like a defeat. Graham became a substitute teacher in the high school he once attended. Then, he did some online teaching for a for-profit American university.

He also blogged — a lot. Years later, some of those posts made their way into “Failing Gloriously.”

“I started blogging as a way of performing to myself that identity as an archaeologist that I’d largely let go of as a viable way of life,” Graham writes in the introduction of his book. “I’d play with what archaeological data I could find online, and I would try things. It didn’t matter that no one read what I was writing. Online, nobody knew you weren’t a real archaeologist.”

Little did Graham know that what felt like disappointments at the time would culminate in a Digital Humanities position in the history department of Carleton. Graham is not a historian by training, but his expertise at the intersection of archaeology and digital technology made him the type of digital humanist the university sought.

Still, “my imposter syndrome was through the roof when I started working here, because I didn’t know how to be a historian and how to be a digital humanities person,” he said.

As a digital humanist, Graham wields computational power to pose humanities questions and, at the same time, asks humanities questions of digital technology.

“It’s got that two-way relationship,” he said. “You can have one without the other, but for it to be digital humanities, I think you need to have both in conversation with one another.”

His first project as a digital humanist underlines “Failing Gloriously.” The “HeritageCrowd Project” began in 2011, and was a crowdsourcing platform for local intangible heritage such as memories and tales.

“I had a nice little website that did all the tricks,” Graham said. But it got hacked and taken offline.

Then “in a fit a despair, I blogged about what had happened and what I had done wrong,” he said. “The response to it was really good, this idea that I shared what had gone wrong and people were taking lessons from that. The other interesting thing about that was that I — as a white guy on the Internet — wasn’t attacked for failing in public. My privilege enabled me to share openly what had gone wrong.”

Recognizing this unearned privilege has driven Graham’s pedagogy since, with a mission to make it safe for others to discuss their failures in their own personal contexts.

Shawn Graham is a digital humanities professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Photo courtesy of the Digital Press.

Failure in today’s world

In his newly released book, Graham is personal and candid about the things that have gone wrong for him. He does not gloat about how failing leads to succeeding, which is an easy bromide to resort to.

Graham’s book “allows us to recognize failure’s important place within our kind of collective development as a society, and also failure’s place within our individual developments as human beings and as scholars,” said William Caraher, UND history professor and Digital Press director and publisher.

Caraher and Graham have known each other for about a decade, collaborating on a digital journal that the Press puts out annually. Thus, the Digital Press felt like a natural conduit for ‘Failing Gloriously.”

Because of its intimate topic and digital-first nature (most chapters began as blog entries), the book manuscript underwent extensive peer reviewing and rewriting. In early December, the book came out, or rather, leaked out.

“It made sense for us to leak it out on social media first, then on Cyber Monday we did a big, big rollout,” said Caraher.

In its first week, “Failing Gloriously” had more than 500 copies either sold on Amazon or downloaded from the Digital Press’ website, generating “the kind of immediate positive response from so many people” that is impressive for Digital Press books, Caraher said.

So, after a decade in academia (which Graham once thought to be beyond his reach) and with a new book garnering attention, has Graham’s imposter syndrome waned?

“I don’t know if it’s ever something that you can overcome, because we’re human, after all,” he said.

“One of the foundations of imposter syndrome is the feeling that no one else can understand what’s going on. So I hope that one of the things people take away from ‘Failing Gloriously’ is that they’re not alone in these thoughts or in things that aren’t going well. I hope it gives people cover to discuss their own situations.”