Learning through failure is now a staple trope of progressive pedagogy, yet it remains one of the hardest elements to install into our classrooms and our own lives. Within academia, at least in the academic spheres I’ve been party to, the stakes are high, failures are very costly, and individuals are scared to step beyond the set parameters of societal and personal expectations.
Failures, however, are par for the course, and more than simply being scared to try new things, our attitude toward failure impedes our ability to reflect on and learn from mishaps in any meaningful way, or perhaps, it prevents us from capitalizing on the unintended consequences. Sometimes ‘mistakes’ turn out to be great opportunities. Cloaked in shame, fear, disappointment, and even rejection, it makes sense that our first reaction would be to deflect responsibility, divert attention, or simply deny the realities of our mistakes. I am imploring my students to think of failures differently, and I have several assigned readings on the topic, including Scott Adams’ How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, but this is not enough. I have to lead the way by modeling the attitudes and behavior that I want my students to adopt and that I believe will benefit them in the long run. The following is my reflection on a mistake that I have made recently.
In August 2016 I started a new job teaching a subject I love at a large university in a fabulous city. I moved away from my family to a new country for an opportunity that I believed was too good to pass up. I have only been teaching in university for a couple of years as an adjunct, and the learning curve has been steep. (Notice how we always need to contextualize our situation to soften the perceived accountability of our impending actions. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, as I believe most of our mistakes happen purely out of lack of experience and not on account of sinister intentions, but it seems to me to highlight the enormity of the fear surrounding failure.) I was hired to teach Interdisciplinary Studies, an area with which I am intimately familiar and that I believe should be the bedrock of education for the contemporary world. Interdisciplinary Studies focuses on the necessity of addressing complex problems that demand creative, innovative, adventurous, and unconventional thinkers. A whole program dedicated to fostering these qualities was/is a dream come true for me.
But here’s where I went wrong (this of course is not the only mistake I’ve made, but I think it’s the most significant in this context). I know what interdisciplinarity involves, so I thought I knew what an interdisciplinary student would be like, and I set out to build my courses accordingly. Here are a couple places where this mistake was most prominent.
The Interdisciplinary Studies program requires students to set out their own course of study according to their goals and interests, and so I thought these students were highly self-motivated and self-directed. For the most part, however, they are not, and I would argue that it’s largely not their fault. For many, the unfortunate reality is that this is a degree of last resort (I say “unfortunate” because I believe that if students really understood power and promise of Interdisciplinary Studies it would be their first choice), and many are shouldering the scars of rejection by and failure in a consilience of systems in which the deck has been largely stacked against them. I have learned a lot about the education system that has produced these students, and like most traditional education systems, the rules are set and rigidly enforced. Not only have students not been given opportunity to develop capacity for self-direction, they have been bludgeoned by a culture of conformity through aggressive systems designed for successful test-taking and quantitative assessments. Their grammar is impeccable, but their originality is abysmal.
I used to construct my assignments with an intentional vagueness with the goal being to provide enough structure to guide students through the assignment while maintaining enough openness to allow students to bring their own voices to bear. I regret that the vagueness of my assignments may have caused panic–not what I intended, of course. Taking their feedback very seriously, I made a few changes: I now provide much more explicit instructions in terms of structure and more detailed prompts. For example, I state how many paragraphs I expect to see written, and what specific questions they might explore. I encourage students to simply write more. I believe that simply writing more facilitates an intentional stance towards moving beyond prescribed perspectives and ‘correct’ answers. I put very little weight on writing mechanics, and in fact, instead of adopting a punitive stance for writing errors, I have started giving students an opportunity to revise for full credit. I believe that removing focus from the writing mechanics to the content will install a necessary degree of freedom (besides, their writing has already been policed enough in other courses and previous education). I am contemplating including a journaling component with prompts in the next iteration of my courses.
I want my classroom to be a safe space for students to ‘try on’ different perspectives and to gain the confidence to explore their own minds without repercussion. This semester, I have largely avoided lectures and have moved to games and exercises as the primary delivery mode, but not all of the students are comfortable with this. There is safety in the familiar, but I’m not convinced that the familiar is in their best interest. I am contemplating the question as to how I can promote self-direction and self-motivation in ways that allow students to explore and fail safely. As always, suggestions and feedback are very welcome.
Interdisciplinary Studies promotes problem-based learning–complex problems–to be specific. According to The World Economic Forum, the ability to address complex problems is the most in-demand job skill in the contemporary economy, and the complex problems that are being tackled by the intellectual forces of our global society are both awesome and inspiring. I am so excited for my students–they are on the cusp of stepping into this revolutionary world at an amazing moment in human-natural history. How cool is that? I expected students in the Interdisciplinary Studies program would be animated and enthusiastic, but instead I have found a heavy and relentless apathy. My mistake has been to spend more time bemoaning apathy than cultivating empathy.
Students have good reasons for apathy, I’ve discovered after many long conversations with them and others. Many, if not most, are facing a depleted job market with huge debts that will follow them for the remainder of their lives. I’ve learned that debt-forgiveness programs are few and far between and the repercussions of not being able to repay loans can be severe. I’ve noticed that many students are working long hours for low wages to try to reduce the chains of debt. I’ve noticed that many of my students talk about their marriages, children and spouses even though they seem rather young still (they volunteer such info in class discussions, for example. I would never ask students about this). It appears that many get married and start families at a young age for a number of reasons, some perhaps related to cultural/religious beliefs, and perhaps some related to the realities of financial pressures in regards to healthcare and living expenses. Whatever the reasons, the added pressures of work and family life during the completion of a university degree surely contributes to a dampened enthusiasm.
I am still struggling with how to address this problem. The one thing that I know for sure is that I do not want to be complicit in the systems that exacerbate the problem; yet I fear that in my course structure I may have implemented the very types of authoritarian policies that these systems espouse. I have strict deadline policies, for example, and (usually) an attendance policy. I want to empower my students not deplete them any further, but I am scared of being perceived by the governing bodies as being too ‘soft’, not being academic or rigorous enough, or simply not making my students work hard enough. Interdisciplinary Studies in particular has been plagued with these very types of critiques. Whose side am I on? I want to be fair yet sensitive to my students’ needs while maintaining the integrity of the institution. Part of the problem is that the academic institutional structure is out of touch with the realities of the demands of the new economy. Creativity is the new conformity, and new frameworks for academic standards and values are desperately needed. Faculty should not be in the position of having to ‘choose’ between the best interests of their students and the demands of institutional protocol–but this is and will continue to change. In the meantime, what do I do?
One thing that I have been trying is to encourage students to think about what projects/issues/topics they find inspiring and focus on figuring out how they contribute to those as a means of finding meaningful work. In other words, I ask them to think about what they they want to work on as opposed to what work they want to do. I have been curating and showing videos and talks that might inspire them and I am actively working to bring in guest speakers from various fields. I would like to have more individual conversations with students about their own goals and aspirations, and I am making an effort towards this end, but with four classes each semester, it’s a bit difficult. And, most importantly, I am rethinking every class policy I have adopted. I am going to do things differently. I am keeping my eyes peeled for ideas and suggestions.
From now on, I will approach my students with a much more open mind. I will seek to learn about who they are and attempt to make my courses responsive to their specific needs, rather than seek to impose my ideas of who I think they should be. I will admit that an authoritarian stance is in many ways easier, but it feels terrible and it’s absolutely no fun.