Editing Modernism in Canada


April 16, 2015

Productive Failure

I have been asked to reflect on my experiences as an EMiC funded RA. This post looks at my ongoing involvement with the critical edition of Dorothy Livesay’s Right Hand Left Hand. In my previous post, I thought through my work with Canada and the Spanish Civil War (CSCW). 

In a panel last April called “What the eFs!?!: Why Our Research Matters Now,” Hannah McGregor talked about how digital humanities work taught her how to fail. If I recall correctly, she described the necessity of failing in digital work: errors in code can crash a website, or you can spend an afternoon trying to perfect a PHP script that still refuses to function, but at the end of the day its alright. You will start again tomorrow, with more help and new ideas, and move a little closer to success. In contrast, failure in the humanities is terrifying. I don’t want to write about what failure looks like in the humanities–it is the stuff of anxious dreams, and that is where it should stay.

What is essential about failing in digital humanities is the trying: each time you try something, you learn a little more about what doesn’t work, and inch closer to what does. When I began working as a research assistant for the critical edition of Dorothy Livesay’s Right Hand Left Hand, I experienced this failure with a great deal of frustration. A new scanner meant I had to rescan Livesay’s work. Errors in file naming meant a great deal of manual renaming, or wrestling with unreliable file naming programs. OCR readers, in all their imperfect glory, required me to carefully reread and correct text. And through it all, programs crashed, mistakes were made, equipment and files were (quite literally) stolen, and I did it all over it again. Every time I failed, I became more vigilant, until I was checking and rechecking obsessively.

As frustrating as this was, it was productive failure. By the time I advanced from RA to co-editor, I knew the material from every angle. I had read Livesay’s words again and again–I knew them so well that as I wrote my own thesis on literature of the Great Depression, I felt compelled to cite Livesay constantly, as all my research echoed her memories, poetry, and journalism. As I moved onto new DH projects, I was constantly surprised at how much all those failures had taught me about working carefully and effectively, about data management, and about digital research tools. All that failed work that had felt wasteful paid off in the long-term–at least for me, and I hope for the projects as well.

Now that I work mostly on Canada and the Spanish Civil War, I am confronted with another kind of failure: the failure of the international movement against fascism. It seems to me that this failure reverberates in the lives and work of so many Canadian modernist authors. I don’t have much to say on this yet. I know that addressing this particular failure has been the most challenging part of my thesis work. I know that failure will continue to be a challenge in every aspect of my life. But it is heartening to know that, in its own small way, DH work makes failure more familiar and less devastating.


Three years after I began my RAship, the Right Hand Left Hand text is almost ready for submission. When I look at the single document that lives in my dropbox, I think of all the documents, folders, spreadsheets, bibliographies, and files that brought this edition to life, and of all the work that was undone and redone to bring this single text to life. And, of course, building on my last post, I think of the team of people that made it happen: Bart Vautour, Dean Irvine, Emily Ballantyne, Leslie Gallagher, Karen Smith at Dalhousie Special Collections, the staff at the University of Manitoba Archives, and many others. Ultimately, their knowledge and support made this project a successful one.

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