Headshot of Shawn GrahamBy Cassandra Hendry, TLS Staff Writer

Often, failure is something that fills students with dread. In a university course, failing is often synonymous with negativity. But in history professor Shawn Graham’s courses, failure is not only acceptable, but positive.

“I try to make it safe for them to fail,” Graham says. “I don’t necessarily grade how well the exercise gets done; I assess their reflections on the process. I want them to be brutally honest about what hasn’t worked and why, and what has worked and why.”

Graham is one of Carleton’s 2016 Provost’s Fellowship in Teaching Award winners, and it’s not difficult to see why. As a professor teaching digital history, his courses and pedagogy are innovative in their approach to failure and exploring the digital world.

In one of Graham’s courses, students are given their own domain and web space to “explore the tools of digital history out in the wild.” He hopes that through this hands-on approach, students will be able to use the same materials scholars are using and make contributions to larger conversations.

The projects Graham’s students have produced are impressive: one built a web map detailing Canada’s atomic history, while another mapped the progression of events in a single day in St. John’s based on a daily newspaper.

One of the more humorous projects Graham has seen was a student who data-mined all of the edits being made to Wikipedia pages from Government of Canada IP addresses. While the student’s hypothesis of, say, the Department of National Defence making edits to military history articles didn’t pan out, they did find one dedicated public servant who enjoyed editing Hanna-Barbera cartoon pages.

Where failure comes in is in Graham’s online course, where exercises are pitched to different levels of ability. Students progress through increasingly difficult exercises until they get to their “fail point.”

“I removed the anxiety of failing by making that the entire point,” Graham says.

“I’ve had students whose final projects have completely and utterly fallen to pieces, but they’ve still done very well in the course because they were able to say why this happened and what the critical issue was.”

By allowing students the room to fail productively and learn from their experiences through written reflections, Graham helps his students to prepare for the world outside Carleton’s walls and to think like scholars.

“Once they trust that this is what I want from them, you find really penetrating stuff.”