On failure

The teaching term at my school ended last Thursday afternoon, and since then I’ve been reflecting a great deal on the power of failure.

End of term is the time when students rush headlong into final essay writing and exam preparation, so their anxiety about grades yet to come is at an all-term high; meanwhile, they are eating too little and drinking too much, needing far more care than we can (or even should) offer. At this time of year we are all – professors and non-academic staff very much included – profoundly exhausted, and not sure we can make it home on the rush-hour subway one more time, let alone through the next few weeks of testing, grading, celebrating, crying, and appealing poor marks. In many ways the end of March is a time of flagging energy and failing spirits all round.

This year, however, end of term also heralds Passover and Easter celebrations, and I find this a valuable time to think more, and more broadly and deeply, about the social power of failure and loss. In this weekend’s Guardian, columnist Giles Fraser – Priest-in-charge at St. Mary’s Newington, near my own home in South London – reminded me of how difficult, how ambivalent even, this time of liturgical celebration can be for Christians (and, I’d wager, for Jews too). Dr Fraser reflects on the human value of ambivalence over conflicting emotions; in relation to Christian ambivalence over the death of Jesus Christ, he writes,

“…ambivalence is survivable. Ambivalence is the experience of having contradictory feelings about the same thing, in particular the presence of both love and hate. Understandably, the conjunction of these emotional reactions feels highly unstable. If you love you do not hate. If you hate you do not love. That is the commonsense position. The one seems to cancel out the other. Yet even (perhaps especially) in our most intimate relationships, both are present.”

“Ambivalence is survivable”: more than that, it’s completely normal. It’s an exceptionally human experience. And it can be a source of powerful self-reflection. To feel neither good nor bad (nor properly indifferent): that’s a hard thing to imagine. To feel lost; to feel loss. Perhaps our fear of the ambivalent emerges partly from an anxiety over those things that are not-quite-imaginable; those things – like loss – that lie outside our immediate control.

Dr Fraser’s words got me thinking in fresh ways about failure, a word we typically associate with catastrophe, but which I’d like to reframe here as something that creates – that at its best, should create – a useful ambivalence.

I’m a type-A, succeed-at-everything kind of person. For me, the catastrophe of failure generates a fight-or-flight response: to survive the moment of the fail, I (or my loved ones, acting in support) imagine risings-up-out-of-the-ashes, fresh starts and better-luck-next-times, the (near-immediate) promise that everything is going to be ok and you’re going to get through this and next time you’re going to get that A+. Failure throws me into a tailspin: the astonishing sinking in the gut, the sense of being toppled off balance, the power that swell of feeling produces to make my vision blur. What I want, more than anything, in the moment I recognise my own failure is to get back to neutral, to wipe away the memory of the fail through which I’m still living, to conquer the feeling of loss and the attendant anxiety that I’m still fighting.

There’s nothing new in thinking about failure as a potentially productive experience; fretting about (the failure of) failure is a kind of meme these days (for an excellent example, see Jessica Lahey’s recent “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail” at The Atlantic, the latest in a string of articles about the significant potential for harm in ‘helicopter parenting’). Plenty of studies now indicate how important failure (plus strong support in the face of failure) is to students’ learning and psychological growth.

I am in broad agreement with this literature, but I’m talking about something else here. Yes, we need to allow our students to fail. But more than that: we need to teach them to live in the moment of failure – not to rush away from it, not to seek immediately to bury the fail, nor at all costs to re-exert the control (over their terms, their plans, their futures) that failure has seemingly wrenched away. There will be time to recover from this loss. I believe we need to encourage our students, first and foremost, to live with the loss failure brings, to navigate it, to experience their world as doubled over, undone, uncertain for a period of time. This is, for me, a terrifying but essential part of becoming a thoughtful citizen and an empathetic human being.

I’ve always been afraid to fail my students, even when failure is plainly warranted: the result of failing a student is, more often than not, a panicked or angry email, phone call, or office visit, played in an accusatory key: why did you give me this grade? Why did you do this to me? (I’ll bracket for now the possibility that this visit will be made by a parent; luckily, I’ve not had this experience first hand.) I don’t like confrontation (this is related to my fear of failure, of course); I don’t want to have to navigate my students’ trauma, and I don’t want to face the possibility that I too have somehow failed them. My fear of failing has translated neatly into a fear to fail. And in this fear, I’ve lately discovered, I rob us both – me and my students – of a crucial learning experience.

Two weeks ago, I received one of those panicked emails from a very bright student who had received a bare pass (a D-) on her major paper for a class from last term; she passed only because the paper, within its almost incomprehensible prose and thoroughly muddled structure, showed real promise, the strong thinking of which I knew she was capable. The email made me angry: I had not failed her, as she claimed; she had failed herself. I steeled myself to meet with her, feeling knotted and anxious as the hour before her visit ticked down. I prayed she’d simply not come. When she did, however, she surprised me utterly. She had spent the time before our meeting re-reading her paper, and could now understand some of my comments. We talked openly and generously about where her weaknesses lay – in grammar and punctuation; in planning her essays; in organising her time – and we began to make a plan to get her some help at the library. Most significantly for me, we reflected, as author and reader rather than simply as student and teacher, about why the essay had not accomplished its goals, and we talked frankly about the feedback I had offered her: where it was clear, and where it was not. To my astonishment, I realised that I had assumed my typed comments were crystal clear, yet sitting with this student I could plainly see that they were vague and baffling to her in places. Together, we reflected on both of our failures: hers to translate her exciting thinking onto the page, and mine to explain the problems in her essay cogently and comprehensively. We sat for half an hour in the moment of failure, thinking and talking about what it meant to understand the experience of not doing well both from our own and from another person’s point of view. I learned a lot, and I felt stronger and lighter after the student left my office.

A few days later, another student reminded me of the importance of living with precariousness. We had been talking about Judith Butler’s Precarious Life (2004) in the seminar in which I taught her, and I’d referenced Butler’s fellow-travellers, the continental philosophers Giorgio Agamben and Emmanuel Lévinas. Each of these thinkers takes me back to Dr Fraser’s remarks, and to the ethical importance of embracing, even if just for a moment, the ambivalence that follows the moment of panic provoked by failure. So: let us not simply “allow” our children to fail, “allow” ourselves to fail our students; let us teach one another what it means to experience failure as a kind of teaching, as a way into the worlds of the others to whom our failure is attached. Can I recognise myself as not perfect, as not even good enough sometimes? Can I understand how my not-good-enough might reverberate for those around me – those depending on me? Can I reflect on my failure as both a loss, now, and a potential future gain?

Very best to all,


4 thoughts on “On failure

  1. Such a gift to read this as I sit at my window on Easter morning reflecting on my own failures, and griefs and losses since moving to Canada, all enlarged in brilliant jagging through the prism of my daughter’s griefs and losses since her own move to a new country a year ago, and heart achingly shared on Skype last night.
    And recognizing, finally, the barrier that inhibits me from publishing properly, a huge burden of grief and loss that grows all the heavier for being ignored, shoving at me, shouting at me, as I frantically push it away in order to write a ‘real’ academic article and chapter.
    Ambivalences? Such very deep ambivalences..Solidarities real and false, the edges sharpened by the disruptions and fragmentations and yes, betrayals of budget cuts and program closures and presidents declaiming over terrified colleagues and internal cannibalizations and bewildered anxious students trying to cope with looming end of semester exams and tests and now – what?
    UWA, that’s what. University Women Acting Up. At last. Though not, apparently, during Easter.
    But those anxious bewildered glorious students from whom I daily learn so much?
    They’re still out there, thank god. And thank you, Kim.

      • Indeed I have! Fantastic colleagues whose strength and determination and refusal to give up inspires me daily, blogs such as this which lift my spirits with inspiration stories, photos, quotes, and the fact that the geese are back 🙂 Thanks Kim. All joy to you in your work and play.

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