J.21 “Failing to Learn and Learning to Fail”
Reviewed by Marc Scott (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chair: Asao Inoue, California State University, Fresno
Justin Thurman, LaGrange College, GA, “A Safe Place to Fail: Learning How to Lose with Our No-Zero Students”
Allison D. Carr, University of Cincinnati, OH, “Portraits of Failure”
Shane Wood, California State University, Fresno, “Feedback as Failure and the Fatality of Composition”
Respondent: Bruce Horner, University of Louisville, KY
Failure has been on my mind lately. Despite the successes that I'm sure occur in the courses I teach and in the writing center I direct, I recently realized that I spend much more time focusing on what doesn't work than spending time with what does. Lesson plans bomb and research projects fizzle out, yet despite its ubiquitous presence, I find myself ignoring the topic of failure when talking about my work. It seems very much like the uncomfortable, awkward elephant in the room. There are scholars in the field, however, who have initiated an important conversation about failure that may change how we conceptualize the study and teaching of composition. For example, Asao Inoue's recent article in Research in the Teaching of English questions an emphasis on quality that privileges texts from a typically white, middle-class perspective. Allison Carr's 2013 essay featured in Composition Forum helps us reconsider failure not just as the absence of success, but "an affect-bearing concept" that "incorporates feelings of anxiety, desperation, confusion, and shame." She eloquently encourages writers, instructors, and scholars to cease avoiding failure, but instead acknowledge it, know it, and study it.
People in the field seem interested in failure. Nearly fifty people crammed into a small room at the JW Marriott to attend session J21, “Failing to Learn and Learning to Fail.” The conference program listed Asao Inoue as the session chair, Carr, Justin Thurman, and Shane Wood, as presenters and Bruce Horner as the session respondent. Inoue informed us that, unfortunately, Allison Carr was unable to attend due to transportation issues, but Thurman, Wood, Horner, and Inoue provided us important ideas about failure and how we approach it in our classrooms and writing programs. Below I'll review some of the major points made by each author, and because Allison Carr graciously shared a version of her presentation with me, I'll also include some of her thoughts about failure.
Justin Thurman, an Assistant Professor at LaGrange College in Georgia, discussed the need to understand failure in writing classes and create what he describes as, “safe places to fail.” Rather than encourage students to “play it safe” with what he referred to as tame problems, he encouraged wicked problems that underscore the messy, complicated, and frustrating aspects of learning and communicating. To accomplish this, writing instructors should present students with opportunities to take on difficult and "unsafe" writing assignments and ultimately, “get gritty and learn how to lose.” Drawing on his own reflections and an informal survey of student thoughts toward failure, he noted that students saw failure as a product of laziness. Instead, he suggested that we introduce the idea of failure as a natural process and a process all writers must acknowledge—if not embrace—if they wish to improve.
Thurman argued that students want to collect good grades while avoiding experiences of failure, and many of us teaching writing can anecdotally support what he's saying. In their defense, however, we can't really blame students for looking at their education in simplistic terms if the national conversation continues to revolve around simplistic perceptions of learning: standardized testing, one-size-fits-all policies, and a general failure to look at the complexities of writing and what it means to be a literate person at this historical point in time. Although I would have enjoyed more discussion about the survey and details about what a "failure-prone" assignment might look like, Thurman's well-written and thoughtful essay provoked me to rethink “safe” assignments and consider how I might scaffold projects where students take risks.
Shane Wood discussed feedback and the failure that some feedback can provoke in students. Wood, a graduate student at Fresno State University, began his talk by telling a short story about negative feedback he received in his undergraduate studies which made him question his ability to pursue graduate work. The anecdote underscored the power feedback possesses, and his talk sought to persuade writing instructors and composition scholars to "reconsider the nature of feedback" and consider its consequences.
Wood's talk focused on what he calls, "feedback failure theory" which asks writing instructors to rethink the process by which they produce feedback and better understand the student perception of feedback by negotiating its intent in writing conferences. Wood suggested that instructors can ask questions about student perception of feedback in order to understand how the responses were interpreted by the writer. Wood argued that engaging in this form of negotiation generates a dialogue where "the teacher could begin to understand where the feedback might be failing for that particular student." The specifics of Wood's thought-provoking theory lacked details in places, but he arrived at an important question for future studies of failure: "What role does instructor response have in failure?" Our feedback can operate to encourage student success and to make use of instances of failure, but it might unintentionally reify failure for students in a way that they begin to see failure as a static, innate aspect of their academic identity—rather than a transitory period necessary for growth.
Bruce Horner briefly responded to the panelists by interrogating the success/failure binary and argued instead for the term labor. By emphasizing labor rather than placing energy and time into identifying and sorting the failures from the successes, Horner argued that we might arrive at a way of evaluating student work in a less linear fashion. In other words, we might see failure less as a fixed end-point, and doing so might keep us more focused on the labor of student activity in our classrooms. As I mentioned earlier, Allison Carr was unable to attend the session, but she did share materials with me that she planned to present. Her work interrogates an obsession with success in classrooms and argues for “a pedagogy of failure” which deemphasizes extrinsic motivation that rarely leads to deep learning. Rather, she advocates for a pedagogy emphasizing more intrinsic motivations by inviting safe conditions for failure that “invite students to take greater risks in their work, potentially setting them up for failure that is safe, because it is expected and welcomed, and productive.” Carr’s essay helped me reconsider failure not as an experience to avoid or quickly forget; instead, failure can operate as a place of “wonder” that can inspire and fuel invention.
Carr’s absence opened up a significant amount of time for smart and interesting questions. For example, a lecturer teaching at an institution with a mandatory exit exam wondered how he might fight against a failure-inducing policy given his marginal position. Horner responded by suggesting that he and other educators impacted by the exam might collectively argue against the policy. Asao Inoue suggested that the teacher develop another evaluation or assessment measure that did a better job, test it, and provide proof of its effectiveness to those in power at that institution. Another attendee wondered whether or not students fear failure because they experience too much success in terms of grade inflation. I appreciated Clancy Ratliff's questions about failure from a more programmatic perspective. Failure isn't just an issue relegated to individuals and interactions between teacher and student; it can occur in what Ratliff referred to as, "failure in the aggregate." A failed program for professional development in a writing program, for example, might be an underlying cause of student failure. To play that string out a bit further, failure to adequately fund and support a writing program might be the more accurate cause for student and program failure.
Asao Inoue brought the conversation to a close with an appeal to rethink how we assess and evaluate student performance. While many of those in attendance left the room, several remained to ask the presenters questions. I was particularly happy to see people approach Shane Woods and encourage him in his research and his graduate studies. As I waited to chat with Shane, I thought about how important these informal conversations were in 2005 when I attended my first C's in San Francisco. Like Woods' story at the beginning of his talk, I—like many—experience moments of doubt and failure. Because doubt and failure are a natural part of our professional and personal lives, maybe we should see them differently by acknowledging how our successes are often built on so many bombed lesson plans and fizzled out research projects.