Failed research ought to count

Failed research projects ought to count for something! It’s too bad they don’t. They just disappear into nowhere, it seems to me: into filing cabinets, abandoned notebooks, or forgotten folders on some computer. The data goes nowhere; nothing is published about it and no talks are given; no blog posts are written and no credit is claimed. You stop telling anyone you’re working on your dead projects, once they’re dead.

I’m imagining here that other social researchers are like me: they have a lot of ideas for research projects, but only some of them come to fruition. Here are some of mine:

  • Interview project on the personal experience of people applying to graduate school in English and Physics. (It got started, but didn’t have a successful strategy for subject recruitment.)
  • Interview project on student representatives to university Boards of Trustees in the Chicago area. (I got started with this, but didn’t have the time to continue.)
  • Historical research project on what I hypothesized was a long-term decline of organized campus labor at the University of Chicago. (I only ever did some preliminary archival poking around.)
  • Project on faculty homes in the Paris region. (I only had fragmentary data about this, and it was too hard to collect more, and never the main focus of my work.)
  • Discourse analysis project on “bad writing” in the U.S. humanities. (I did write my MA thesis about this topic, but it needed a lot more work to continue, and for now it just sits there, half-dead.)

One might even argue that my dissertation research project in France was a sort of “failure,” in the sense that I never really did what I set out to do, methodologically. The original project was going to be a multi-sited, comparative ethnography of French philosophy departments. But it took a long time to really get accustomed to the first department where I did research (at Paris 8); and although I did preliminary research at a couple of other departments, after 18 months I was just too worn out to throw myself into them. So I made my dissertation into a study of a single department instead. Most ethnographers wouldn’t call that a failure, exactly — it felt more like pragmatism in the face of fieldwork. But at some level, it wasn’t what I originally wanted to do.

This reminds me that failure is one of those ambiguous, retroactively assigned states. How do you know something failed? Because it never “succeeded”, so eventually you did something else, or stopped trying. You don’t have to classify as “failure” everything that doesn’t succeed; my dissertation research evolved into something different and more doable, and its very criteria of success shifted along the way. Some things are neither success nor failure, they just morph. Or sit in limbo, somewhere between failure and success. Maybe I’ll revive some of my failed projects someday.

But failure’s ambiguity doesn’t entail that there is no such thing as failure. And my point here is that, even though academics live in a world where they are supposed to constantly project success, it would be better if failure was treated more openly. I suspect a lot of us have failed projects. I think they should be something you can list on your CV. They’re a barometer of your ambitions, a diary of how you became a better researcher, a set of unfinished paths that someone else might want to follow. In short, failed projects are a kind of (negative) knowledge. As such, it strikes me that they ought to have a more dignified existence.

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