Re-framing Failure

In April 2016, Johannes Haushofter’s CV of Failures went viral reminding academics everywhere of how success actually occurs. Failure. Lots of Failure. It is impossible to make any break through as a person– intellectually, socially, emotionally, spiritually– without trying something and having it not work out. As these Ted talks can attest (one, two, three, four), failure leads to discovery. Human innovation comes from need. Despite our awareness of the role of failure, many of us are afraid to take risks, because we are uncertain if we belong (imposter syndrome). I started studying the relationship between composition and failure recently, but the relationship was made evident early in my teaching career in my multimodal composition classrooms. Students did not want to try things out. At FSU, we asked our students to compose using basic computer programming (now obsolete) to create online deliverables. My freshmen resisted. The anxiety was palpable. They didn’t even want to try out this strange new thing. They hadn’t done it before. It could go horribly wrong. It could hurt their grade. I was increasingly frustrated as a teacher. I wanted my students to feel comfortable enough to dive in, try it out, and yes, possibly fail. I had built in safety nets, but the students didn’t trust them. I tried to cajole, encourage, show them the safety nets. I tried to tell them I couldn’t grade it if they didn’t at least DO Something, anything… And grading meant feedback, assistance, direction, not punishment or academic death. This fear hasn’t lessened over the years. I just spent 30 minutes of my office chours talking one of my A students down off her metaphoric anxiety ledge. I kept telling her that she was ok. It was only our first major assignment. There were more. There are safety nets. And a B even in my “easy” tech comm course, did not constitute the end of her life. I even shared with her my own failures to a degree. I didn’t get straight A’s in undergrad (I got close), I didn’t graduate from a top ranked ivy league school (I went to an R2 state school), and yet, I have successfully earned a doctorate through drive, hard work, and a lot of support from friends, family, and colleagues. So the question becomes, how can we encourage our students to let go of some of their fear and try? How can we get them to open themselves to the success of ‘failure?
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