Failure! The very word is like a bell...

The "what am I doing with my life" crisis is by no means exclusive to teaching, but teaching sure is conducive to it.  I've been eyeing an unappetizing stack of student essays for nearly a week now.  It's just been sitting there on my dining room table, and I have been finding multiple ways to put off grading it.  This isn't garden variety procrastination.  No, I've been avoiding this stack because I intuitively know that somewhere--maybe two or three papers into the pile--resides my annual existential confrontation with failure. 

It's something that happens every year (and increasingly every semester). Sooner or later, I must face the fact that I fail far more often than I succeed.  Sure, anyone who's taught for a while can point to a few success stories. But so what?  The truth remains that the majority of students who have passed through my classroom have been singularly unaffected by the experience. 

Only a fool would think otherwise.    

Ironically, I was talking to my First-Year Seminar students about failure just before Spring Break.  I had asked them to write about an academic experience in which they failed or under performed. They each spent a few minutes writing down their experiences (anonymously).   Then I asked them to provide an explanation on the back of their paper for this failure.  

Next we went over some research that showed that our explanations for failure correlate to our success. Those who attribute poor performance to a lack of innate ability (I'm just not a math person, I never understand poetry, etc.) are far more likely to give up and fail.  But those who attribute failure to changeable variables (I could have done better with more time or if I worked harder, etc.) were far more likely to succeed.  

In other words, a fixed view of intelligence becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.  This is one of the reasons I don't like pedagogy emphasizing learning styles (even that nonsense about Audio/Visual/Kinesthetic learners).  A kid hears one time that he's a "hands-on" learner and that's that.  He now has every reason he needs to give up in a history class.  

Anyway, after we went over the research (and watched a short video on the effects of fixed notions of intelligence in testing situations), I asked my students to mix up all their explanations of failure and then categorize them into the fixed or flexible camps of intelligence.  How many attributed failure to an innate lack of  ability?  How many to variables of effort, environment, time, etc?  The result was about half and half.

I know this research.  I teach this research.  And the idea that intelligence or ability is not fixed is practically my pedagogical religion.  Nevertheless, I also know that three papers into that stack will be prima facie evidence of my innate failure as a professor.  Okay, sure, maybe if I had had more time, or a different bunch of students, or worked a little harder, or found more creative and innovative ways to engage my students' minds, blah, blah, blah-ty frickin' blah.  No, stop kidding yourself.  You failed to teach this unit very well. You always do.  Maybe it is really just you...

It is one of the great ironies in life that the very lessons we teach are always--always--the hardest for us to learn. 

Now, then, where was I?  Ah, yes.  Back to my stack.


Anonymous said…
But don't you think the students share some responsibility to live up to their end of "the contract" that says they're going to work at it also?

I know that some of my students work hard, and some not at all. They don't study, they sleep or text during class, etc. Is it my fault, or all or mostly my fault, that I failed to "reach" these students? Often I try to tell myself that if only I did things better, I'd reach them…but I maybe I'm being to hard on myself.
Professor Quest said…
Sure my students share some of the responsibility, but--like you apparently--I'm always my worst critic. It tends to get worse this time of year, too. And then something will happen that allays my fears. A few minutes ago I just finished grading a response by one of my more seemingly disengaged students. She wrote on Paine and Hume's skepticism and--after nearly 13 weeks--she seems to have figured me out. The response was filled with inter-textual connections, good application of the ideas to her own experience and accurate, well-cited summary. So maybe I'm not as as bad as I think.

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