Blog Post

Introduction...and some thoughts on failure

Hi all.  My name is Erin Parish. I’m a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology and a member of the PhD Lab in Digital Humanities at Duke University.  I'm excited to be a HASTAC Scholar and have a topic I would like to discuss this year.  Failure.

As teachers and students, we are confronted a lot with the idea of failure, but what are the structures that form these notions?  How does this shape how we think, write, research, and teach?

For most of us in graduate school, failure is not about getting an F on a multiple-choice quiz.  Unless you are a little crazy and taking a class you have no background knowledge on like I’m doing.  Then this might be a weekly occurrence. 

But usually, the fear of failure can keep us quiet in a class, prevent us from putting our ideas out in print, can make us feel unsure about using our own words to say what we mean.  The fear of failure is all over our educational experience.  Some of it is useful and unavoidable.  But some of it actively holds as back from being innovative and excited, creative and collaborative, brave and bold.  And the fear of failure can certainly hold us back from having fun.  That’s no good. 

Perhaps it is impossible to talk about failure without also examining the metrics we use to measure success.  So let’s talk about that too. 

How has failure shaped your educational experience—for better or for worse?

Have you ever been in a classroom environment in which you strongly feared failure?  Have you been in a classroom in which you didn’t?  What were the differences between the two?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions, or any other ideas that come in mind!  Looking forward to the conversation and learning from everyone this year.







Hi Erin, failure is a very interesting topic and I'm glad you are exploring it here on HASTAC. I think school puts a lot of emphasis on grades and NOT failing, so it becomes almost traumatic for a student when s/he gets a "bad" grade, nevermind an F. In my personal experience, I have had a hard time participating in class and taking academic risks due to my fear of bad marks and judgement (I think many students believe that poor grades will lead them to a "bad" college, which will land them a "bad" job, etc.). This may be a reason why students don't want to major in disciplines (like the sciences) that may have lower GPAs, because they do not want low grades (and who can blame them). I can't remember a class I have taken in which I felt it was OK to fail.

Do you have any thoughts about how failure can be an accepted part of education? Do you think educators should be fostering failure?



Hi Lisa!  I don't know if it's as much fostering failure as fostering a lack of fear of it and that has to do in large part with how we think about success and what we teach success to be.  I haven't read Excellent Sheep, but I did read Deresiewicz's article in the New Republic and I recognized a lot he was saying there about particular forms of education creating students who wanted to seem smart and seem the picture of what success should be far more then they explored learning for the love of it.  I don't think I have any simple answers to how we can foster failure but I do think a beginning is exploring in the classroom and in university institutions what students, faculty, and administrators view failure to be.  And, I think we should absolutely abolish multiple/multiple choice quizes because those are horrible.



Working backwards from failure sounds like a great way to begin! Being able to create a safe space within the classroom for students to take risks would be a good goal going forward. When my own students get very anxious over a test (usually their final exams), I try to remind them that it is only a test and it will not define them, but I know how they feel. I am with you for abolishing multiple choice tests! I'm not sure that we will get rid of them that easily though.


I was actually talking to some undergrad and grad students yesterday about failure in their educational experience and that I was thinking about pulling together a class on failure, a sort of Failure 101.  And everyone perked up and had stuff to add!  So maybe I'll work on crowd-sourcing a Failure 101 syllabus and if others wanted to teach something similar, that could be fun.  No multiple choice quizzes allowed.  And what I was actually talking about abolishing was multiple-multiple choice quizes, which I had no idea existed until this year.  They are multiple choice questions embeded within a single multiple choice question and they are a particulary brand of sickery that makes the world a worse place.