Learning to fail

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I first encountered these words in my first year as an undergraduate – scrawled on a desk in one of the carrels in Liverpool’s Sydney Jones library. Bruised by two deeply unpleasant years of failure and bullying from a teacher, I found something tender, something hopeful in these words that could help me reconceptualise my failure and turn it into something less painful.

I think about them often, and especially as a lecturer. This semester I’ve been officially responsible for the pastoral care of some students and have had even more reason to think about them.

The students I am responsible for are, largely, clever and hard-working and driven. They have learnt, very well, to put themselves under enormous pressure – a string of As and A*s at GCSE, As at AS and A-level, and then they find themselves at university where they are surrounded by similarly hard-working, driven young people. They find that they are challenged to think and write differently, and some of them find this transition very difficult.

I worry about them, these bright, driven students. The flipside to their ambition is anxiety, and fear of what happens if they do not get their desired mark.

I suspect that part of the problem is that they have not been allowed to fail before, and therefore haven’t developed the skill of failure. Failure, to them, is terrifying, overwhelming, something that will irrevocably mark their record and from which they cannot recover. One bad mark means that you are shunted off your track to an A, to a First, to certainty and stability in a world and job market that is marked by uncertainty. I am not sure that they know how to deal with failure, how to recover rather than be crushed by it.

The things I have found myself asking in my meetings with my advisees are: tell me about yourself, what are your hobbies, what are you doing outside your university work.

I’ve been surprised that many of them don’t have hobbies, things that they do for fun. To the most driven, this is alien to them – a part of their lives that they left behind along with after-school clubs – and I worry again.

I have asked them to find something to do for fun, whether that is swimming or sketching or baking or a musical instrument or dancing or hiking. I encourage them to find something that they don’t mind being mediocre at so that they can hopefully start to untangle “pleasure” from “skill” and “external measures of achievement”. I would very much like them to find something that they can be bad at – and to learn how to embrace that.

In the spirit of openness and sharing my own failures, I am an incredibly mediocre violinist. I had lessons as a child, never progressed past ABRSM Grade 4 and playing in a training orchestra, and am only a couple of stages beyond “horrible squalling sound”. However, I suspect that part of the reason I was so mediocre was because I didn’t enjoy it. Playing the violin was someone else’s ambition that had been foisted on me and I resented the weight of it. I hated exams, didn’t want to take them, and announced that I wasn’t going to take my Grade 4 exam a week before I was meant to do so. Instead of practising my set pieces, I fucked around trying to work out the Star Wars leitmotifs by ear and eventually stopped playing altogether because if I wasn’t doing exams, what was the point?

A few years ago, heartbroken in the wake of a bad breakup, I went to a violin shop and bought a violin. I dug up some choral scores and began to play again. It’s not become a great love or even something I do regularly – I much prefer singing – but I find it soothing to retune the violin, useful to play an unfamiliar piece rather than try to sightsing it, sometimes satisfying to play something by ear and to let my fingers find their place on the fingerboard rather than think consciously about the notes. I bought a book of folksongs and sometimes focus on one and learn it.

It’s made me reconfigure my relationship with the violin, on my own and free of other people or exam boards. It’s made me think about what it means to me, about a history of resentment and obligation and yet, how it has shaped me. For better or worse, I think in terms of violin finger positioning when imagining notes.

It’s made me think differently about failure: by most external standards I am a failure at this, but are these standards important? Who defines success and failure? I have become better at uncoupling a sense of achievement from external validation and, indeed, skill.

It’s made me practice being mediocre, to not give up because I lack the natural talent, to do something because I enjoy it rather than because I’m good at it. It’s encouraged me to redefine what I think of as an achievement.

It’s taught me about resistance: to resist the idea that we should devote our time to things that we are naturally good at, to grapple with my own sense of frustration that I am not better at something, to learn what it feels like when something is not easy.

It’s taught me to embrace “failures” and the quiet, stubborn pleasure at working at something until I can do it.

I am tired of success being measured in terms of exam results, awards, publications, grant capture. I want universities to be better at allowing both our students and ourselves to fuck up and more space to learn from our fuck-ups. I want there to be more space in the university for making mistakes, for failing, for things that don’t quite work, for stubbornness and persistence over the fireworks of natural talent. I want there to be space to learn and practice resilience, and for institutions to commit to encouraging that resilience rather than seeing failure as undesirable weakness that must be dropped.

Failure is difficult, but can be just as richly educational as success. Sadly I cannot change university culture on my own, but I can encourage my students to go out and practice failing at small things so they are better prepared should they fail at big things.

why I won’t tweet my students’ exam howlers

Another summer marking season, another article in Times Higher Education soliciting student “exam howlers”. This is predictable and wearying and I can’t help but feel that we keep having this exact same conversation about why it’s bad to publicly mock and shame our students. Kirsty Rolfe wrote about talking teaching and making mistakes and I wrote about being someone’s worst student a couple of years ago, but apparently it bears repeating.

There was one respect alone in which Philip was recognized as a man of distinction, though only within the confines of his own Department. He was a superlative examiner of undergraduates: scrupulous, painstaking, stern yet just. No one could award a delicate mark like B+/B+?+ with such confident aim, or justify it with such cogency and conviction.

David Lodge, Changing Places: a tale of two campuses

Like Philip, I try to mark carefully and, being a perfectionist, probably spend far too much time thinking about whether a piece of work should be awarded a 62 or a 64 (let alone a 68 or a 70). Marking can be a joyless task but there’s only one paper that I’ve genuinely been annoyed at marking – one in which the student, in some kind of act of teenage bravado-slash-poor judgement, declared that he wrote the whole thing while hungover and didn’t care. After a week of solid marking, I have to confess that I, in turn, found it difficult to care about this student’s work. But that was a very rare case.

Most of the “exam howlers” seem to be inexpert attempts to apply frameworks and terminology, and while frustrating to see, it’s not something I think should be publicly mocked. I don’t think I have it in me to fault someone for trying – I try to only get irritated when someone truly doesn’t try. And it’s not like the people marking student work have never dropped a stinker themselves. I’ve really liked the #myownexamhowlers hashtag on twitter (storify here).

I don’t remember any specific exam howlers I made – I think I’ve blanked out the entire experience of exams with some degree of success – but a tutor did note that an essay took “a curiously scattergun approach”. I consistently left sweary, abusive messages (e.g. [LOOK UP THE FUCKING DEFINITION YOU FUCKING IDIOT]) to myself in draft chapters I sent to my supervisor (pro tip: use unusual punctuation marks around these to make it easier to use ctrl+f to locate and delete them later). Finally, when I was printing my ~350 page thesis, I dropped the entire thing, hurriedly tried to shove the papers in the right order, failed miserably, and duly presented one of my examiners with a thesis containing a wodge of pages in the wrong order. A true case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory!

Talking about our own exam (and otherwise) howlers opens up a far more interesting conversation. I don’t want to be an unassailable figure of perfection for my students, doing something they can never hope to aspire to. Instead I want to say that I, too, find some things difficult, have fumbled around trying to use the right terminology, have clumsily applied a framework or model, have missed something glaringly obvious. These days I have the luxury of sending my work to knowledgeable colleagues and friends, and my work will be peer-reviewed before publication. Students, especially those working under closed book exam conditions, don’t have that option.

So let’s think a bit more kindly of our students. How many of us working under those conditions, grappling with complex, unfamiliar terminology and ideas that we’d perhaps encountered for the first time only weeks ago, panicky and underslept and stressed, would turn out polished, publishable work? We’ve had years – decades – to hone our academic thinking and writing. They haven’t. If we can’t be kinder, let us at least be more discreet in our unkindness.

My worst student

Today I’ve been grumpily following the Same-Sex Marriage Bill debate, contemplating my thesis corrections and pouring acetic acid into my sore ear so I have to admit, I’m not in the best of moods. And then I saw that the Times Higher Education decided to encourage academics to share their stories of their worst students on twitter. Aside from the obvious problems about professionalism and ethics, I don’t like the sneering.

You see, I was someone’s worst student.

Not in university – I’d mostly sorted myself out by then – but in sixth-form. I was doing an A-level in something I’d previously been good at and for which I was in the top set at GCSE, but at A-level my grades plummeted from As to Es. I couldn’t understand the material – I tried so hard and it constantly defeated me. I tried reading around the subject; I tried talking myself through it; I tried just knuckling down and memorising it. It slipped away from me, no matter what I tried or how hard I tried. It’s a horrible feeling to be so utterly powerless – to feel like your intellect has abandoned you, that whatever you try you’re going to fail, that you are stupid and worthless and wasting everyone’s time. It felt like being dropped into a world where the rules were opaque and all-powerful and I was constantly one crucial step behind. Every lesson was an ordeal, something to just survive for the next two hours and, eventually, to resent.

Naturally, the teacher and I loathed each other. He’d taught me when I was actually good at this stuff and in retrospect, probably couldn’t understand why I was suddenly so appallingly bad at it. If I was in his position and a student had suddenly gone from being one of the best in the class to the very worst, I would have sought help for this student. He didn’t. Instead he alternately ignored me – it was a very results-focused school and I was clearly not going contribute to his clutch of As – and bullied me. Because I was 17 and a bit of a twat, I made it quietly clear that I resented him every bit as he resented me. One day I snapped and told him that I wished I could drop this subject (I was very polite in my twattishness!). The next day, my Head of Year pulled me into her office and berated me for hurting his feelings.

I threw up every morning before school from the sheer anxiety of once more stepping into that classroom and once more, being utterly, helplessly adrift.

I have never, ever forgotten that feeling of being so totally lost. Not when I found a subject I loved, not when I got a First for my BA, not when I graduated from my masters, not when my examiners shook my hand after my viva, and especially not when teaching.

I’ve taught students who were uninterested, resentful and hungover – it’s one of the problems of teaching a compulsory Language module when most of the students would rather be doing Literature. I’ve occasionally got frustrated when marking. I know I don’t have much experience, but I hope I never get worn down by it. I hope I create an atmosphere in my seminars where students can make mistakes, test ideas that might not work or admit that they don’t understand something. I hope I can be sensitive to the students who struggle, and I hope I know when I’m out of my depth. I hope I never belittle or sneer at students – not when they frustrate me, not when they apparently don’t try, not when they appear to be hopelessly bad at something. I hope I am respectful and compassionate to the ones who resent me. I hope I am patient when it matters.

As an academic, we tend to be working in an area we love and that we’re good at. We’ve probably never been crushingly bad at something we now teach. Given the kind of grades we’re expected to get to enter a degree programme, then a Masters, then a PhD, we may never have been crushingly bad at any academic subject. I, with my E in that A-level, somehow sneaked in. I’m not proud of that grade, but the harsh lessons I learnt in that classroom have shaped my teaching forever.

Other posts:
Caroline Magennis: On Teaching
Kirsty Rolfe: Talking teaching on Twitter (and talking nicely to students)