We Must Teach Students to Fail Well

By Leah Blatt Glasser

This commentary ran in the May 1, 2009, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (Volume 55, Issue 34).

A poster titled "Freshman Counseling" hangs on the wall in the least conspicuous corner of my office. I inherited it from my predecessor as she gleefully departed. The image, in dungeon-and-dragon style, is daunting.

A tall guard, perhaps the executioner himself, stands masked and towering above a meek first-year student. The guard holds the end of a long chain around the student's neck; on the other side of the desk sits the homely and obese dean in hooded medieval garb, hunched over, with feather pen in hand, skeptically awaiting the student's explanation. A book entitled Career Paths leans against the leg of the Gothic desk.

I recall one semester when that poster, merely a source of amusement for me on my busiest days, took on new meaning. On the first day of classes, I sat in my office on the third floor of the imposing ivy-covered administrative building at Mount Holyoke College, awaiting my first "probationer." The student--let us call her Emily--entered with her head hanging low. Her eyes avoided mine quite deliberately as she gripped the letter outlining her poor performance and the terms of academic probation.

Emily was already shrugging her shoulders and expressing despair, shame, and apology, even before reaching the seat on the other side of my desk. She glanced over at the poster. Ironically, the ominous image served to put her at ease, and we had a good laugh for a moment. "I feel just like that kid," she said. What she learned over the course of the next six months was how to get rid of the executioner and the chain around her neck, the one she had conjured up in her imagination as a result of her failure.

In my role as an academic dean, I frequently meet with students on probation who have not yet learned how to fail and are consequently paralyzed academically. One of the most pivotal skills for a student who wishes to succeed in the academic arena is the ability to fail well.

"Good failing" requires the strength to make use of a self-generated mess. As Anne Lamott explains in Bird by Bird, "perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life." She urges her writers to "go ahead and make big scrawls and mistakes. Use up lots of paper. Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist's true friend.... We need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here."

Of course after the mess, the learning can begin, and that is precisely what the students whom I work with discover. It is a lesson more valuable than the lessons learned in the courses in which they will ultimately earn A's. The energy, even courage, to rethink a failed piece of work, write, rewrite, inquire, and respond to the comments and questions of a critical reader is crucial for anyone aiming to excel in college. Moreover, the shame and embarrassment of producing a less-than-perfect paper or exam becomes a handy shield against the hard work it takes to build on failure.

Unfortunately, more often than not, students placed on academic probation because of a poor performance in their first semester of college resisted turning in an imperfect paper, completing a flawed exam, or appearing in subsequent classes because they were too paralyzed by criticism to prepare or move forward. Their self-defeating actions stem from fear of criticism. In short, they are bad at failing.

How can we turn such students around? To be sure, no matter how much we advise, they may continue to perform poorly in a discipline that doesn't tap their interests or abilities. But the first year of college is a time to discover strengths and weaknesses. The role of a good adviser or dean is to engage the student in dialogue, to encourage her to examine the causes of failure, to give her room for honest self-assessment, and then to guide her toward taking responsibility for improvement.

Simple questions work: What do you think went wrong? What will you do differently? Did you meet with the professor or only communicate through e-mail messages? Did you go to the writing center? Seek the help of the reference librarian? The goal is to help students listen to themselves and make the needed connections so that their failure fuels success.

A good example of "bad failing" is the pattern Emily confessed as she sat before me in shame during our first meeting. In her first semester, Emily said, she had stared in shock at the grades for her papers and exams in each course, and subsequently internalized the low grades (not yet F's) as symbols of her inadequacies rather than as opportunities for growth. While on probation, Emily learned that criticism is the best gift college can provide. Failure can and should be the key impetus for success. A quick review of her experience will serve to demonstrate my point.'

I asked Emily which of the courses from her first semester was her favorite. She selected the course for which she received a C-minus. That impressed me. "Great Books," a first-year writing-intensive seminar, opened Emily's eyes to a range of interpretations and analyses of classical texts, and challenged her to read and write more often than she ever had in high school. She loved the reading but dreaded the writing. When her first paper came back with exclamation points and question marks in the margins, and the words "we need to meet" at the top of the first page, Emily hid. Her professor continued to urge her to come in, but that was the last thing she could imagine doing. To her mind, he was the equivalent of the judgmental figure behind the big desk in my poster, and only some guard pulling her along with a chain could have gotten her to that office. Avoiding the professor was her way of erasing the reality of those marked-up papers.

It was as if she had convinced herself that if she ignored the comments on her papers, somehow they weren't really there. So she dutifully continued to hand in her assignments, and each one was worse than the one that came before. Her final grade seemed to her something tragic from which she might never recover. Literature was, after all, the field in which she hoped to major.

A decision had to be made now about whether or not to continue into the second semester of the seminar with the same teacher. "How will you feel if you drop it?" I asked. "Will you miss the discussions and the readings? Were you excited about what you were learning even though the grades were low? Tell me about what you learned."

Emily went on for 30 minutes, describing details about what intrigued her and how these texts related to the books she had just picked up for her second semester courses. We determined together that Emily would stay in the course, but that she would no longer be invisible. She would make use of her failure as a vehicle for success. She agreed to meet with her professor on a regular basis, and learned what it meant to visit a professor during office hours. This became a new strategy for all of her courses, and the transformation yielded remarkable results.

At the end of the semester, the two of us chatted about what had happened to Emily, or rather, what she had made happen, and we glanced up at the gothic poster on my corner wall. "You know," she said, "the best thing about probation is getting rid of the chains that hold you back."

Leah Blatt Glasser is dean of first-year studies and a lecturer in English at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of In a Closet Hidden: The Life and Work of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (University of Massachusetts Press, 1996).

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