I fail. You fail. We all fail at some point.

I was initially drawn towards the topic of failure not only as a graduate student, but also as a relatively new undergraduate teacher that frequently encounters failure in the classroom. Halfway through the article by Carr (In Support of Failure), I had an Ah-Ha moment. The author describes how we can re-conceptualize failure to include not only the personal realm, but also to consider the sociocultural context in which the failure occurs. Students may be either “held back” or placed in “remedial” classes to compensate for their lack of understanding of course material. The personal failures of the student are punished by segregating them into another classroom, distant from his/her peer group. I agree that we should consider the sociocultural context of the failure, but we should also seek to examine whether the nature of the undergraduate classroom (specifically) can transform how students and we (as educators) understand and communicate our failures.

I recently handed back graded papers, in which most of the class scored around the C-range. Immediately after handing back the paper one of my student’s hands shot up. She wondered what the class average was. When I answered her questions with, “a C average” I could sense the release of tension in a room. Students frequently use social comparisons to determine the “degree” of their failures within the classroom. It seems that the sense of shame that Carr later discusses can be transformed into a group-shame dynamic in college that often lightens the burden of experiencing this heavy emotion. As teachers, we may give students the class grade distributions and consequently, we may be encouraging students to accept their failures in relation to their peers. Will this transformation of shame and the subsequent movement towards students’ acceptance of their failures lead to a classroom full of unmotivated/lazy students? If we are to encourage students to accept failure (as Carr suggests), this paradigm shift must permeate beyond my classroom and into an entire campus for it to be effective. I also wondered whether there were differences in “failure acceptance” across the CUNY campuses. Are some of our campuses promoting the acceptance of failure? If so, how are they doing it effectively without creating an underachieving student body?

Turning more inward, Carr also talks about giving ourselves permission to experience failure “on its own terms,” and many of the articles in the Journal of IT & P illustrate personal reflections from educators on failures they’ve had within the classroom. We’ve been taught to feel shameful of our behaviors, but why don’t we as educators discuss our failures in an effort to learn from each other? I’ve noticed that student teachers do this frequently through informal conversations in the hallways, but we don’t publicly discuss these failures. I’m not advocating for teachers to publicize all of their classroom failures, but I’d love to learn from the successes and failures of other educators. How do we get far enough past the shame associated with failure to discuss our personal classroom failures with other teachers?

7 thoughts on “I fail. You fail. We all fail at some point.

  1. Silvana Ramos

    Carr’s article and the discussion so far brings up a lot of thoughts and feeeeeelings. In my first semester of graduate school, I had quite the crisis of confidence (I’m not sure I’ve fully recovered yet). One of my professors met with me and suggested I speak with confidence in class (I didn’t know there was anything wrong with how I was speaking). I told her I that if I did not speak with confidence it was because I did not feel confident and that faking it was not something I was interested in (lest you think me a brave soul, I said all of this through tears). She then told me that if I did not speak as if I knew what I was talking about, no one was going to take me seriously. Yep, she said that. The message I received from her that day was that it was not okay to show weakness. This is the message many of us receive, and a possible reason why Aleksandra’s students refused to acknowledge their shortcomings, if they knew about them. Luckily for me, I had already learned the pitfalls of pretending and held on to that knowledge. If I was going to get through my crisis, it was going to be in an authentic way.

    Carr mentions wanting to explore the affective aspects of failure. She focuses on shame but does not mention anger. I’m surprised. I find anger to be often felt after shame — especially if the shame is a product of insensitive feedback. When I think back to my experience in my first semester of grad school, what I feel is anger. Christina, when you said a student asked what the average was and you said “C,” I was sure she was going to complain that you were too tough in your grading.

    A related thought I had about all of this shame/failure/feedback stuff is that in addition to normalizing failure, instructors need to understand that giving feedback should be handled with care. Although the instructor/student relationship is not the same as the therapist/patient relationship, I do often think of Roger’s notion of unconditional positive regard. Students pick up on when their instructors think less of them because of some failure. Showing students that they are okay in our eyes no matter what they do is important, methinks.

  2. Adam Wagner

    I mentioned in the other thread for this week, the negative connotation of failure but I’d like to point out to @Aleksandra Kaplon-Schilis ‘s post that I also feel that recognizing failure is not only a case of being afraid of failure but, I believe, a lot of time students may not have the skills and training to recognize failure. Consider reading a paper you wrote as an undergraduate that you might have received an A on and were proud of: who hasn’t re-read said paper and been astonished with just how juvenile some of the arguments and prose were. Therefore, I think the onus is on the instructors to spend more time pointing out the good and the bad to a paper and WHY those aspects are good and/or bad. As a philosophy major, most of my classes have been all lecture and a final paper with grading usually consisting of 80-100% the final paper and an occasional class participation grade. The problem with that is that I only get feedback on my work once a semester at the end and not even in person. I get my paper back with a few notes and a grade. The only times I have received sufficient critique is when I have submitted to journal publication, but even that is a one way communication as I cannot rebut. Essentially, at least in my experience, I feel the dialogue needs to be more open to allow our students to feel OK to fail or make mistakes.

  3. Ian Phillips

    @Maura A. Smale – In reply to the question of how to encourage our students to embrace failure, I think one possibly way is to shift the systems of assessment in our classrooms. I see many of the grading, credentialing, and promotion systems that we’ve learned to navigate in life (especially in school and at work) to be based on outcomes. I’m sure we’ve all encountered students obsessed with the outcome of a class–the student that just wants to know what he/she needs to do to get an ‘A’–enough so that engaging in the process of learning becomes secondary to performing well on assessments. In a grading system where the final grade is calculated based on measures of what the student has learned (the outcome of learning), students will reject failure on any assessment because it will lessen their chances of getting that ‘A’. So, why don’t we just change our assessment systems to focus on the process of learning rather than the outcome?

    This idea is present in some of Carr’s suggested activities. If we can base student assessment on the process each student goes through in engaging with the material, failing, and learning from failure we might remove this performance-driven extrinsic motivation. Of course, this is easier said than done. But, if we can find a way to do it, we (students and instructors) may also benefit from what comes with really spending time with some ideas and failing–innovation. Now, this is a hypothetical, but consider this possibility: If we base our assessment on the process students go through in grappling with the material, students will be (at least) extrinsically motivated to put in the time it takes to learn. By really spending time with the material (rather than pulling all nighters writing or cramming) students will be more likely to develop their own thinking on it and may perhaps have some innovative idea. In my experience, having an innovative idea provides motivation to learn more (the intrinsic kind), which may relieve the instructor of having to continually supply extrinsic motivation to get students to do the work.

    Is this idea overly simplistic and perhaps too optimistic? Yes, probably.

    Is it worth giving a shot and failing? Yes, I think so.

  4. Maura A. Smale (she/her)

    This is a terrific discussion. To pick up on Michael’s point about contexts — do contexts structure all of our conversations about academic failure, even from the time we’re very young? The grading, testing, promotion system in schooling means that there’s only so much room for failure before there are real consequences: students might be held back, might not get into a good college, might not get a job. Once on the job failure also has consequences — a failure of enough magnitude could get you fired. But to add authority and expertise, it does seem like experience makes us more comfortable with the possibility for at least the occasional failure, and that those in authority may have more leeway for failures than others.

    If this is an accurate description of the system we’re in (which it might not be!), is there any way to encourage our students (and us) to embrace failure?

  5. Michael Mandiberg (they/them)

    These comments point out the desire to understand the difference between failure in different contexts or cohorts.

    @Aleksandra Kaplon-Schilis – Was there a time when you were substantially more afraid of admitting and discussing failure? If so, how did you overcome that? This is a question for anyone, really.

    @Pamela Thielman – Do you think the difference in your comfort level with failure has anything to do with hierarchy and authority? Your fellow students in your department, and your artistic collaborators are your peers, while a department head, work colleagues, or your professors all have power over you. In a way, discussing a failure with them potentially produces a kind of second failure? Or a second audience for the initial failure. It becomes a matter of trust, too. Do you trust these authorities? What if you phrased it as a question, where you explicitly asked for advice?

  6. Pamela Thielman (she/her)

    I think that the amount of time you have been teaching really does make a difference in terms of being able to admit failure in a somewhat public way. I feel very comfortable talking with other students in my department about lessons that absolutely did not go as planned and asking advice when I’m not sure how to handle things. I’m much more reticent to bring those things up in front of my department head, my work colleagues, or even my own professors.

    It seems really strange for me to admit that, because in my artistic life I am all about failure. When I work as a dramaturg the process in iterative, I go through draft, after draft, after draft with the playwrights I am working with. None of the drafts are “failures,” there are just ways to get to where we are ultimately going. Sometimes the art is bad and you say, “Okay, well, this is terrible. Let’s try that.” I’m not sure why that is so hard to embrace in my life as a teacher. What occurs to me though is that the stakes seem higher in admitting failure as a new teacher, because there is this fear that failing=bad teaching and bad teachers don’t get jobs.

    Comment Tags: failure, teaching
  7. Aleksandra Kaplon-Schilis

    Christina, after reading your post and Carr’s article I started to think about how the concept of failure applies in my classes and in my professional life. At the high school where I teach, we definitely discuss the successes and failures that take place in our classes. Moreover, we are encouraged to visit each other’s classes to learn from and with each other. However, we have all been working together for a while, have friendly relationships and feel pretty safe that these failures won’t be held against us.
    On the other hand, when working with my pre-service elementary teachers, I have noticed that many of my students are very afraid of failure, and do not accept the possibility that they have done anything wrong. After they student taught for the very first time, they were supposed to write a reflection based on their experience. I specifically asked them to focus on the negative aspect of their lesson. I wanted them to write about what went wrong, or what could be improved and how, etc. We even talked about possible things that they could focus on at their debriefing after the class. To my surprise, 90 percent of my students wrote how the lesson could not go any better, and they would not change a thing. This was their first time out and they all had much room for improvement. I had simply hoped that this would be a great opportunity to exchange feedback and for the students to begin to learn to self-reflect. I was astounded.
    Carr’s article opened up a different point of view for me. Are we creating students who are so afraid to fail, that they simply refuse to see any flaws in their performances? If so, will these same students risk being creative or thinking outside of the box with said fear? The greatest lessons I’ve had in my life have come from some of my biggest failures, and, being able to face them and learn from them. Where would I be if I too was so fearful that I shut my eyes to my flaws? The question now that I would like to answer the most is how can I as an educator of educators break this ingrained habit, and help open the eyes of my students to beauty of learning from our mistakes.

    Comment Tags: failure, teaching

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