Last month I initiated a blog carnival to try to coax some sharing of experiences of failed attempts at public engagement, my idea being that rather than hiding our failures we should talk to one another about them in the hope that they can gain value as lessons in how (not) to do public engagement. I introduced the concept with one of my own failures – inadequately researching the mobile phone reception at a site for which I had written an augmented reality archaeology guide.
The response on twitter was enthusiastic, and the contributions I received were outstanding, so thank you very much to those of you who took part. I strongly recommend clicking through to read the individual pieces, however here is my best attempt at a summary
Hilary Sutcliffe rose to the challenge magnificently, providing four examples of work that didn’t turn out as intended. The first example gives a warning to be clear about the implications of data protection laws; the second to remember to budget for PR; the third example shows that co-creation, although a wonderful idea in principle, can fail to take off due to a lack of participation; and the fourth a reminder (I can’t stress how much I agree with this one enough) to avoid jargon.
Becky Hirst talks about her experiences as a new Community Engagement Officer in a local government organisation that perhaps wasn’t quite ready for the implications of the role. Her lesson is twofold – for individuals joining an organisation, delve into the workings of your new employer to see what processes they are comfortable with; for organisations, consider carefully what you expect from a community engagement role, how you will position it within your structure, and how you will support the role.
Nicola Hembrey identified self-confidence as a past point of failure -specifically in terms of insecurity of knowledge and experience, but also expressed a hope that the supportive community of archaeologists on Twitter might provide a forum to share such insecurities, and find that those of us who have them are by no means alone.
Not submitted to this carnival, but explicitly inspired by it (so I’m claiming it), comes a post from Lucy Shipley. In many ways this reinforces Nicola’s comment by confronting personal fear of failure, sharing that fear and demonstrating (normalising?) lapses of self-confidence as perfectly normal aspects of professional experience. We don’t like to talk about them, because they are bad personal PR (to butcher Lucy’s excellent wording), but they happen, and can be resolved into positive experiences. On this note, Lucy also mentions some excellent blogging on the experience of being a new lecturer by Sara Perry.
Finally, Shawn Graham has written about failure a number of times. This post in particular dissects the loss of a born-digital project, explicitly identifying mistakes that were made that digital humanist would be wise not to repeat .
Thanks again to everybody who took part
We learn from our mistakes, don’t we? Pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and chalk that one up to experience etc etc. We should learn from each others’ mistakes too. Especially when, for many of us, public engagement and digital engagement are new territories where it can (still) feel like we’re easily lost. I recently wrote a very short piece about evaluation. Formative evaluation, I said, was
…designed to improve future activities based on past experience. Carrying out an evaluation provides evidence of how successful your activity was, and provides a learning resource that can be shared with others.
which is great in principle. I don’t know if other people share this experience (Terry Brock and I discussed this recently though), but I don’t recall hearing about the failures. Sure, a paper presented at a conference about a project might be a bit self-reflective (academic sessions on public/digital engagement should never be mere show and tell), but surely there are complete abject failures out there that the rest of us can learn from? Or perhaps I’m just really bad at this.
I’ve made some errors. Did I tell you about the augmented reality information boards I made for a site I had never visited in rural Powys, south Wales? I used the (very straightforward) Layar app, consulted the local Historic Environment Record (via the excellent Archwillio) and wrote some summary text for various archaeological features in the landscape (an Iron Age hillfort, a couple of Bronze Age standing stones, the remains of a neolithic chambered tomb, and some amazing 19th century architecture), which would magically appear on a users’ smartphone screen when they followed the associated map and then pointed their phone cameras at the monument. I ran my text past an archaeologist who had been digging in the area for decades, who made some invaluable improvements. It wasn’t much, but I was quite pleased. The project went live at a music festival held in the area, as part of a wider suite of archaeological engagement events (which went quite well). Of course, not having visited the site previously, I was unaware that none of the UK mobile phone networks had reliable signal there. Nobody could use the augmented reality, because nobody could access the internet on their phones.
That particular example fell down essentially due to thoughtlessness on my part, which isn’t something I’m delighted to admit. Other engagement failures may be due to unforeseeable variables though – just because it went wrong, it doesn’t mean you did something wrong, but it’s likely there’s something we can learn from it. So, what I would like to try, if you’re willing, is to coax some of these learning experiences out of you via a blog carnival. If you’d like to take part, write a blog post on your own blog (or a comment below if you don’t have a blog), prefixing the title with [Let's talk about failure], and then post a link to your post in the comments section below. You can link back to this post to give your readers some context. Let’s set a deadline of Saturday, March 9th, after which I will post a summary with links to your posts.
Update: Polly Heffer has suggested we use the hashtag #letstalkaboutfailure on twitter, so let’s!
Just over three years ago I worked on an archaeological site at Meare in Somerset (sadly unrelated to the famous iron age lake villages). The ‘natural’ was a yellowish brown sand, known as the Burtle sands. These sands were laid down when sea level was much higher than it is today during the last interglacial (Marine Isotope Stage 5e – roughly 130-115 thousand years ago), the warm period before the most recent glaciation. While I was working there I picked up a shell from this sand, a flat winkle (Littorina obtusata).
Looking at the shell recently, I noticed it contained quite a lot of the sand, which I thought it might be interesting to look at
Under the microscope I could see these fragments of an attractive pink and white shell, the pheasant shell (Tricolia pullus)
There was also a very wave-worn foraminiferid, which I think is Ammonia beccarii var. batavus. Forams (foraminifera) are single-celled protozoans that live in the sea. Many of them – like this species – have a calcareous shell called a test which is often well-preserved. Different species of foram have particular preferences for where they live in relation to the sea – some are part of the plankton, some live on the sea bed on the shelf, others are intertidal but live very close to the sea, while others live quite high up in saltmarshes. This species is intertidal, living quite low on the shore, however it has clearly been moved from wherever it died by the waves.
Another shell I wasn’t very sure about. It’s a juvenile, and quite broken. I think it might be Lacuna vincta, another intertidal species.
I think the fact that the winkle shell is quite well-preserved suggests that it has not travelled far by sea, perhaps suggesting that the sand were laid down at a time that the site was intertidal. Really, I would need to look at a much bigger sample to be sure. The sand is probably the same as the Middlezoy Member of the Burtle Formation (see Hunt 2006 for details).
Hunt, C.O., 2006. The Burtle formation, in Hunt, C.O., and Haslett, S.K., eds. Quaternary of Somerset: field guide. London: Quaternary Research Association. pp. 173-86.
I just wanted to write a quick follow up to my last post, especially to promote part of Doug Rocks-Macqueen’s comment on it:
Ubiquity press has got some funding to do some Open Access digital books. you may want to hit them up to see if they would be interested in yours.
As luck would have it, Tom Pollard of Ubiquity Press was talking at the Digital Engagement in Archaeology conference at UCL yesterday (along with Victoria Yorke-Edwards who edits the Ubiquity-published Journal of Open Archaeology Data – which I think is a great idea, and I’m going to set about attempting to contribute asap), and he did mention that they were looking to move into ebooks. Ubiquity are doing great work with open journals – especially in archaeology, and are well worth investigating.
For those interested in self-publishing, the rest of Doug’s comment is useful as well.
And, rambling off-topic, but neatly closing a circle, Doug and I were both also presenting at the UCL conference - Doug some very thoughtful papers about finding the right platform for digital public archaeology and also about getting a presence online in minutes for free; my contribution – jointly with Colleen Morgan – was about what happens when your free (or paid) web host no longer offers hosting, using the closure of Geocities in 2009 as an example. The slides and videos (edited by Doug) will be online shortly, as well as Storify compilations of the conference’s Twitter back channel. The papers will be published next year, quite possibly via (who else?) Ubiquity Press.
I’ve been working on a book, not a deeply academic volume at all, more a practical handbook for professionals and students. Slightly more specifically, it’s a visual identification guide. It has a long way to go, but I’m hoping to have it finished early in the new year. I am very keen for it to be open access when it does come out, possibly with a paid print on demand version if needed. My idea was to publish it via WikiArc – possibly as WikiArc Press or similar, and then if the process isn’t too arduous (or someone else is willing to help) to make the imprint available to others who might want to do something similar. Specifically I thought I would create a static version – available via pdf and Kindle/ other ebook formats, have an associated wiki area on WikiArc to allow user revisions, and to make print on demand of the static version available via Lulu or similar. Although it isn’t a major piece of scholarship, I would like it to be seen as a “serious” book, with ISBN etc., and I do intend to ask various people to scrutinise the work before it is released. Does this all this seem worthwhile?
A number of people I know have experimented with archaeological self-publication – Guy Hunt, for example, who used Blurb for his photographic collection The Dig, and Martin Locock, who originally made 10 Simple Steps to Better Archaeological Management available via Lulu (if I remember correctly, my apologies if I don’t). More recently (in fact, currently!) Alun Salt is working on self-publishing an ebook on Archaeoastronomy.
So what I’m looking for from this post is advice, or comments. Is it a quite a good idea or a horribly bad one? What is your experience of self-publishing? Will potential future employers (in other news, I’m a paid academic with an office and everything now) look at a self-published book on my CV with derision, and should I care if they do? If I did make an imprint for open access archaeological handbooks, would you be interested in contributing (hint: you wouldn’t make any money)? Let me know what you think.
I have just returned from a month in California, mostly spending time with family and friends, very much taking a break from PhD work. I couldn’t resist making some mental notes about the river mouth and brackish lagoon at the beach in Carmel, however, nor picking up the shell above when I saw it in the garden of the house we were staying in. It is an Oxychilus cellarius, interesting to me because it is a European species, familiar to me from my PhD and commercial work, and now well-established in various parts of the United States. It has previously been reported in landscaped areas of San Francisco, along with a number of other European species (Roth 1986). Invasive snails are an ecological problem in the United States, where European and African taxa, including giant African land snails, have made themselves at home to the detriment of native fauna.
In contrast, few American snails have been introduced to the UK. While working on some wood recording at the offices of the Newport Ship project, I noticed a small population of the American freshwater snail Physella acuta living in the water tanks. These are now well established in Britain. Probably the most famous ecologically troublesome introduction from America is the grey squirrel Sciurus carolinensis, which has almost entirely displaced the native red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris. A number of American marine molluscs, such as the Atlantic oyster drill Urosalpnix cinerea and especially the slipper limpet Crepidula fornicata, were accidentally introduced to Britain in the late 19th Century along with the oyster Crassostrea virginica. This was deliberately introduced at a time when oysters were exceptionally popular and stocks of the native oyster Ostrea edulis were declining. The accidental introductions have caused further difficulties for native oysters.
Part of my PhD research is to look at when new species of snail or marine mollusc arrive in the Outer Hebrides. Building a database of well-dated archaeological contexts in which a known non-native arrival is present or absent allows that species to be used for relative dating of nearby sites, the same way pottery sherds or lithic technologies might be used to give a rough date for a context.
Roth, B., 1986. Notes on three European land mollusks introduced to California. Bulletin of the Southern California Academy of Sciences, 85 (1). pp. 22-28. Available online here
Some time ago I posted some photos of clay imprints of the inside of shells. This week I came across the imprint of the outside of a shell (I think this is also Discus rotundatus – but I’m open to being told otherwise) preserved in tufa:
Tufa is especially fascinating for me. It is a calcareous precipitate, in this case formed when spring water which has passed through limestone emerges and evaporates. In prehistoric Britain it seems to have formed in swampy woodland under the more humid climatic conditions that were present in the Mesolithic. It would often form extensive deposits across the landscape, many of which were several metres thick. These would have been visually striking, as the tufa would coat everything it came into contact with white, effectively petrifying plants. At Cherhill in Wiltshire, John Evans found tufa imprints of plant leaves in his snail samples (Evans & Smith 1983). It does still form in Britain, but on nothing like the same scale as in prehistory.
Here is a juvenile shell of Pomatias elegans covered in tufa:
Evans, J.G., and Smith, I.F., 1983. Excavations at Cherhill, north Wiltshire, 1967. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 49, pp. 43-117.