It’s called “humiliation,” and it’s the game described by David Lodge in his novel On Campus change of places. It is especially suitable for people from circles where literacy is valued. In turn, name a book that you have not read. Then, and this is the cool thing, you get a point for each player who reads that book. So, to win, you have to name books that a lot of people have read, but not yours — a demeaning activity for academics, hence the name.
In the book, the game is played at a dinner party for the English department of an American university. One of the employees, Howard Ringbaum, does not understand the rules at first, but after a few rounds he understands how they work. He hits his fist on the table, thrusts his jaw forward and plays his trump card: village.
Nobody believes it. Ringbaum insists, a fight ensues, and Ringbaum returns home, furious. Three days later he heard that his temporary contract would not be renewed after all. Because how could the English department give his position to someone who has publicly confessed village not read?
The humiliation would have been a big part of the Faal Festival program organized by Utrecht University last week, together with the Faalkunde Institute and the TivoliVredenburg Music Center. Famous Dutchmen have told their failure stories, visitors can make failed sketches or make a bad first impression at Stuntelend-Speeddate-Café. For example, the organizers wanted to normalize failure and encourage visitors to be open about their failures.
Should we be more open about failure?
Scientists also fail regularly – no human being is alien to us. Should we be more open about that? Personally, I love hearing about other people’s failures, because nothing cheers me up more than hearing my colleagues make as much of a mess as I do.
When our eldest daughter was a little girl, a college professor asked me if I had accomplished anything, work-wise. Without waiting for my answer, he said that in the years when his children were young he had never been able to produce anything of importance. I’m not quite sure what to say about me seeing it as a failure story, not parenting, but either way, I could use it for months. And I still take some comfort when I stare with sad eyes at my post list from the past few years.
But I doubt whether I should write in the paper exactly how empty this list is. I’m looking for new support money, and it might be easier to find if I wasn’t so open about what hasn’t worked in recent years.
Listening to other people’s failures is easy; Talking about your failure is not so easy. In 2010, brain scientist Melanie Stephan tried to start the conversation nature Invitation to share a “resume of failure”. On such a resume, you put everything that didn’t work out in your career: rejected essays, failed grant applications, jobs that didn’t get you. Stephan suggested that if scientists share biographies like this, we can see that failure is part of it, and better understand that we’re not the only scientist who doesn’t succeed at everything.
Seven years later, she was asked in an interview if she herself had made her failure appeal publicly at that time. she replied no. did not dare. She was a postdoc when she wrote the article, her term was coming to an end, she needed a new job, and publicizing her failures wouldn’t help.
She saw what Howard Ringbaum missed: Not all scientists are equally free to share their failures.
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