Blog Post

Failure: The Culture and History of an Idea

I'm posting the syllabus for my Fall 2015 first-year seminar course on the history and culture of failure that I'm teaching at Duke University.  This is part of a larger project on the productive possibilities failure provides in learning and creating as well as the injustice inherent in the differential consequences of failure.   We're trying to create an International Failure Institute (IFI for short) that explores the role failure plays in a wide variety of personal and professional experiences.  Conversation and participation are very welcome! 


Failure: The Culture and History of an Idea

Cultural Anthropology 89S-02 | Tuesday-Thursday 8:30-9:45

Instructor: Erin Parish,

Office Hours: Smith Warehouse Bay 4 PhD Lab, Wednesday, 9-noon or by appointment

“We are more afraid of failure than we are of regret.”

–Duke senior several weeks before graduation



Everyone fails.  Yet, the costs of failure affect people differently.  Who and what does failure serve? Is failure a privilege or an expectation?


In this class, we will examine the roles failure plays in education, economics, engineering, experimentation, the environment, and your own emotions.  We will investigate the history of failure as an economic and social construct beginning in the mid-19th century and chart the changing meanings failure has had as both a negative label and a positive space for innovation and experimentation. 


How can failure be productive and instructive? Is failure an end or a beginning?    Through interdisciplinary study and creative exploration, this class will challenge you to explore how the idea and structural reality of failure shapes your own lives and those of others. 




Learning Objectives:


  1. Students understand the historical roots of failure as a cultural, political, and economic construct over two centuries in the United States, with a particular focus on the role of failure in educational and economic policy.
  2. Students understand the differential consequences of failure in the United States across race, class, gender, and sexuality and the role this plays in structural inequality.
  3. Students understand the political implications and cultural dimensions of standards and measurements.
  4. Students understand the constructive role failure can play in innovation, creativity, and their learning process.
  5. Students and instructor create a safe environment for risk-taking and reflection in the classroom that embraces failure as a necessary element to learning and playing.
  6. Students gain tools to incorporate mindfulness in their educational experience that help them identify and mitigate anxiety.  


Products through Process:

  1. Students and instructor will collaboratively plan an event for the launch of the International Failure Institute (IFI)—a new collective of artists, educators, activists, and innovators dedicated to the study and practice of failure--the weekend of October 24-25, 2015 (or possibly October 31-November 1).
  2. Students and instructor will collaboratively create a website from class reflections for the International Failure Institute (IFI).




You might be thinking—can I fail a class on failure?  If you show up and do the work, you can’t fail.  But a lot of this depends upon what you consider failure to be and what I/we consider showing up to mean.  So, there’s that. 


The class consists of a series of small steps rather then the big leaps of tests and term papers.  I believe consistent creative work will help you learn and retain more then several big high-stakes events such as exams.   That being said, these small steps will lead towards the two shared goals of an IFI event and website. 


Your work on the IFI event and website will be worth half of your class grade.  Your class participation and journal entries make up the other half of your grade.  Here’s how this breaks down:

Class Participation—20%

Journal Entries—30%

IFI Planning and Event—20%

Final website curation and design—30%


1.) Class Participation: I’d love for you to attend class everyday prepared and excited to learn and share with your fellow classmates.  But life also happens.  I get that.  You can have four absences in class.  Anything more then that will start leading to deductions in your participation grade.   Once you show up, you also have to actually show up and participate in some way.  There will be a lot of in-class activities that I want you to actively engage in.   Talking a lot in class is not the only way to participate.   You can also send me questions, ideas, images before class and I’ll do my best to incorporate them into the discussion and/or lecture.


2.) Journal Entries:  You will have fifteen journal entries to complete.  These can be purely written or incorporate other media such as audio, video, drawing, dance, building models.  Really, if it works and you can justify it, I’m game.  You’re going to have to justify it by writing though, so every journal entry will require some writing.  Each entry is worth 2 points.  One point is for the creativity of thought, effort, and originality.    The other point is for technical ability.  (Yes, it’s like figure skating.  Yes, I was thinking about that when I made up this rubric.)  By technical ability, I mean: the skill with which you incorporate class themes and/or readings and how polished your work is.  Don’t be sloppy, no matter the media.   If an idea fails, that’s fine.  Just explain to me why.  Presentation matters and being able to pivot a failure into a learning experience is what this class is all about. 


3.) IFI Planning and Event/Activity: About two-thirds of the way through class, we will put on an event and/or engage in a series of activities inspired by what we’ve studied. You could invent something no one ever needs, make an art installation somewhere no one will ever see, write a poem in invisible ink, or put on a failure field day (extra points if it rains!)  The sky’s the limit. The only rules are: you need to find a way to document this activity and it must pertain to the theme of failure in some way.


Every person could choose to do something different on the same day or weekend, people could partner up or get in small groups, or we could decide to do something as a team.  We’ll see where we are when we’re there.  Half of your grade will be on your proposal and the other on the activity and post-activity analysis and documentation. 


4.) Website Curation and Design: At the end of class, we will go through our journal entries, the archive we created from our IFI event, materials from class readings and lectures, and whatever outside materials you find and select what we want to feature in an International Failure Institute website. 


The syllabus is a guide—a series of suggestions (carefully curated) on the topic of failure.   If you start reading something and think there could be something better, read a bit more.  And then make your decision.  If you still think there’s a better choice, great.  Find it.  Read it instead.  And tell the class about it. 


I will do this work with you.  We’re in it together.  This is all an experiment.  Thank you for taking part. 


Week 1:


Class 1, August 25: Failure and the Art of Attention


Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”


Journal Entry 1: Respond to the following two provocations:

 Tell me about a time you failed and felt excited.

 Tell me about a time you succeeded and felt let down in some way.

                        Post responses on Sakai by 8/27.    


Where Are We and How Did We Get Here?


Class 2, August 27: Anthropomorphizing Anxiety: Monkey Minds, Excellent Sheep, and Hidden Bluebirds


William Deresiewicz, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” The New Republic, July 21, 2014,
“Column: Effortless Perfection?,” The Duke Chronicle, October 23, 2003,
Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz, Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win (New York: Tarcher, 2013), 23-39.
Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability, TED Talk (Houston, TX, 2010),


In class reading:

Charles Bukowski, “Bluebird”


1.)Nathan Heller, “Are Élite Colleges Bad for the Soul?,” The New Yorker, September 1, 2014,


Journal Entry 2:  Ask someone else the same questions.  Record (either on paper, using voice or video recording), and report back a written story of what their responses were.


Post responses on Sakai by 9/1


Week 2:


Class 3, September 1: Making the Grades: The Construction of Standards and Measurements


David F. Labaree, Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (Cambridge, Mass. ; London: Harvard University Press, 2012), 1-9. 
Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2000), 1-6, 9-16. 

3.)Ken Robinson, “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley,” (TED Talk, April 2013),

4.)“Moody’s Publishes Its New Bank Rating Methodology,”, accessed August 10, 2015,

5.)North Carolina State Board of Education, “2013-14 School Performance Grades (A-F) for North Carolina Public Schools Executive Summary: Statistical Summary of Results” (Raleigh, NC: Department of Public Instruction: Accountability and Services Division, February 2, 2015),


In class reflection:

Pete Seeger, “Little Boxes”


Journal Entry 3: Identify someone in a particular line of work who deals with failure in an interesting way.  Interview them about their relationship to failure in work.  Also try to ask questions about their relationship to failure in their personal life.  How does this impact their own sense of worth/value?  What about ambition? Also include in your questions a series of enquiries about their relationship to success, value, self worth, identity, ambition, efficacy, etc.  Draw out stories from them.  You can use the two questions you started with, but feel free to riff and think up as many questions as you like.


Write up a report and post it on Sakai by September 8


Class 4, September 3: No class

1.)Scott A. Sandage, "Prologue: Lives of Quiet Desperation," in Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Harvard University Press, 2009), 1-22.

Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” in Walden.  There are several annotated versions you can use, including and  Please find a place outside to read Walden.  I recommend finding a favorite spot in Duke Gardens or Eno River State Park.   Sennet Hole is awesome, I will give you directions if you’d like.  But anywhere will do, as long as it’s outside and not attached to a commercial establishment. 


Week 3:


Origin Stories: On Panics and Publics


Class 5, September 8: Everybody Loves a Winner

Sandage, “Going Bust in the Age of Go-Ahead” and selections from “We Are All Speculators,” in Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, 22-43, 70-83
“Gregor MacGregor,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, August 10, 2015,
Brené Brown, "Connection," in The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, 1 edition (Center City, Minn: Hazelden, 2010), 19-23.   


In class reflection:

William Bell, “Everybody Loves a Winner”


Journal Entry 4:  Identify something you think is impossible to do but that you would like to do. Attempt it once every day this week.  Write about your attempts.  If you succeed, keep doing it.  Do not change the goalposts.  Do not make it harder for you.  Keep doing the same thing.  See how it evolves.  Write about your attempts daily and post in a journal entry on Sakai 9/15.


Class 6, September 10: Education: Birth of the Common School—Creating Citizens, Controlling Time


Labaree, Someone Has to Fail, “Founding the American School System,” 42-79. 
Louis Althusser, “Reproduction of Labour Power,” “The State Ideological Apparatuses”, and “On the Reproduction of the Relations of Production” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001).  Access online at:
James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 1-3.
Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, 2nd edition (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 156-62.


In class reading:

“Things I Didn’t Know I Loved,”Nazim Hikmet


Journal Entry 5: Start a daily practice.  Write down one thing per day that you never knew you loved.  Tweet them daily for at least a week with the hashtag #ThingsIDidntKnowILoved and tweet it at @FailingAllOver.   If you can’t find one thing per day or you think love is a strong word, fine.  Tell me about it in a journal entry and post on Sakai 9/17.



Week 4:


Class 7, September 15: Going for Broke: On Safety Nets, Iron Cages, and Shells as Hard as Steel

Edward J. Balleisen, Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America, 1 edition (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 1-48.

2.)Jill Lapore, “I.O.U.: How We Used to Treat Debtors,” The New Yorker, April 13, 2009,

3.)Max Weber, Peter Baehr, and Gordon C. Wells, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: And Other Writings (Penguin Classics, 2002), 8-19; 120-2.


Journal Entry 6:  Keep doing your impossible task from the week before.

Write about it.  Again, if you succeed, keep doing it.  Do not change the goalposts.  Keep doing the same thing.  Write about your attempts daily and post in a journal entry on Sakai 9/22.



Class 8, September 17: Engineering and Innovation: Building and Breaking Bridges

John M. Barry, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, 1st Touchstone Ed edition (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 21-66.
Henry Petroski, To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design (New York: Vintage, 1992), 1-10, 53-74.


Week 5:


Standards and Measurements, Part 1


Class 9, September 22: Standards: Who Counts? What Counts

Cathy Davidson, Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century, Reprint edition (Penguin Books, 2012), 111-131.
Neil Baldwin, “McGuffeyland,” in Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate, (New York: Public Affairs, 2002), 1-7.
Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, 2nd edition (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 184-189. 


Journal Entry 7:  I’m assigning you partners for this task.  Think up a challenge you think would be impossible for them to do.  Give them that challenge.  Accept one from them.  Write a daily report about your attempts and post on Sakai on September 29.


Class 10, September 24: Double Standards: Race and Education


James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 4-32; 279-285.  
NAACP, A Study Of Educational Inequalities In South Carolina (1936), accessed August 12, 2015,
Smithsonian National Musuem of American History, “A Study of Educational Inequalities in South Carolina Video Transcript,” Separate Is Not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education, n.d.,
“American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many” (National Public Radio, May 12, 2008),
“American Indian School a Far Cry from the Past” (National Public Radio, May 13, 2008),


Week 6:


Unnatural Disasters, Part 1


Class 11, September 29:  People v. Nature or People v. People?  The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927


John M. Barry, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, 1st Touchstone Ed edition (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 173-6; 189-194; 209 (last line); 222-5; 228; 231-241; 245-8; 254-258; 261-6; 268-271; 363-377; 412-5; 421-6. 


Journal Entry 8: Can the environment fail?  Post your reflections on Sakai by October 1


Class 12, October 1: Crop Failure, Human Failure: The Dust Bowl


Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, Reprint edition (Boston: Mariner Books, 2006), 1-51; 73-80; 86-88; 101-2; 254-8; 265-72; 309-312.


Week 7:


Class 13, October 6: The Great Depression


Eric Rauchway, The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction, 1 edition (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 1-37. 
Egan, The Worst Hard Time, 91-101
Elizabeth MacBride, “Suicide and the Economy,” The Atlantic, September 26, 2013,



Class 14, October 8: What emerges? The Fertile Ground of Failure:


David Taylor, Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America, 1st edition (Hoboken, N.J: Wiley, 2009), 1-22; 161-188. 
Nick Taylor, American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work, Reprint edition (New York, N.Y.: Bantam, 2009), 1-4; 523-530. 
“Living New Deal | Still Working For America,” Living New Deal, accessed August 17, 2015,


Journal Entry 9: Find several WPA projects that took place either in some place you have lived or on a topic that interests you and reflect upon the legacy of this work.  Post your reflections to Sakai before class October 8. 


Standards and Measurements, Part 2


Week 8:


Class 15, October 15: Separate and Unequal


Diane Ravitch, “Race and Education: The 'Brown' Decision.”  Ch. 4 in, “The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980," New York: Basic Books, 1983, 114-144.
Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of the Nation : The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, 1st ed. (New York: Crown Publishers, 2005), 1-12.
“The Problem We All Live With,” This American Life (National Public Radio, July 31, 2015),


Proposal for IFI activity due


Week 9


Class 16, October 20: Leave No Child Behind


1)Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System : How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2010), 15-30; 93-112.     

2)Meredith Broussard, “Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing,” The Atlantic, July 15, 2014,

3)“Three Miles,” This American Life, March 13, 2015,


Journal Entry 10: Could you imagine a school system without failure?  What would this look like? 


Class 17, October 22: Re-Imagining Education


Crit your education.  Start with this class.


How am I doing?  How are you doing?  How are we doing?  What can we all do better?  We’ll spend class time running a crit on the class to see what’s working, what’s not, and what we could do better.


International Failure Institute activities (Time/date/location/content TBD—either the weekend of October 24-25 or October 31-November 1)


Week 10


The Art of Failure


Class 18, October 27: Experimentation, Improvisation, and Mastery:


Sarah Lewis, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, Reprint edition (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 3-36; 167-198. 


Journal Entry 11: What worked about your IFI activity?  What didn’t?  What worked about the project as a whole?  What didn’t?  Post your analysis to Sakai by November 3. 



Class 19, October 29: The Queer Art of Failure:


1)Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2011), 1-25, 87-121.


Journal Entry 12: Pick a move to watch about failure and the themes we’ve been talking about in class and report back to class about it and post a written version of this report on Sakai before class on October 29.  Some movie ideas are: The Big Lebowski, Finding Nemo, Jerry McGuire, Fight Club, and Half Nelson but feel free to pick your own, just make sure you can justify how it applies!  


Week 11


Unnatural Disasters, Part 2


Class 20, November 3—Katrina


Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (New York: Penguin, 2010), 231-313.
Mark Schleifstein, “Study: Corps Decisions, Not Orleans Levee Board, Doomed Canal Walls in Katrina,” Times-Picayune, August 7, 2015,
Michael Winerip, “After Hurricanes, the ‘Road Home,’ the Long Way,” The New York Times, October 28, 2013,


The Business of Failure


Class 21, November 5—The Great Recession


1)Charles Ferguson, Inside Job, Documentary, Crime, (2010).

2)Michael Grunwald, The New New Deal : The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era, 1st Simon & Schuster hardcover ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012), 1-24. 


Journal Entry 13: Compare the measurements and consequences of failure in business and those in public education.  Who and what are deemed too big to fail?  Why is this the case?  Who and what seem to consistently fail?  Why is this the case?


Week 12


Class 22, November 10--Puerto Rican bankruptcy


Ed Morales, “Puerto Rico’s Dance With Debt | Jacobin,” Jacobin, June 2015,
Virginia Sanchez Korrol, “The Story of U.S. Puerto Ricans--Part Four: The Great Migration at Mid-Century,” Center for Puerto Rican Studies, n.d.,
Sidney Wilfred Mintz, Worker in the Cane : A Puerto Rican Life History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1974), 12-26. 


Journal Entry 14: Design a WPA for Puerto Rico.  Post your ideas on Sakai before class on November 10 and report on them during class.


Class 23, November 12: Fast Failure: Technology, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship


Tom Kelley and David Kelley, “Reclaim Your Creative Confidence,” Harvard Business Review, December 2012,
David Kelley, David Kelley, How to Build Your Creative Confidence, accessed August 22, 2015,
Amy C. Edmondson, “Strategies for Learning from Failure,” Harvard Business Review, April 2011,
Neil Patel, “90% Of Startups Fail: Here’s What You Need To Know About The 10%,” Forbes, January 16, 2015,
Martin Erlić, “My Startup Failed, and This Is How It Went Down…: We Went from Fashion-Tech Prodigies to Flaming Heap of Jichael Meffries-Inspired Detritus in 1 Short, Emotional Year.,” Medium, June 10, 2015,
“Entrepreneurs Don’t Have a Special Gene for Risk—they’re Rich Kids with Safety Nets,” Quartz, accessed August 18, 2015,
“The Technological Disobedience of Ernesto Oroza | VICE | United States,” VICE, accessed August 16, 2015,


Week 13:


Class 24, November 17— Bouncing Back, Plowing Through: Disaster, Development, and Resiliency


1)Martin E. P. Seligman, “Building Resilience,” Harvard Business Review, April 2011,

2)Karen I. Sudmeier-Rieux, “Resilience - an Emerging Paradigm of Danger or of Hope?,” Disaster Prevention and Management 23, no. 1 (2014): 67–80.

3)Melissa Chadburn, “Resilience Is Futile: How Well-Meaning Nonprofits Perpetuate Poverty,” Films For Action, July 15, 2015,


Journal Entry 15: Who and what earns the label of “bouncing back?”  Who and what doesn’t?  Why do some systems/people bounce back after failure and disaster and others don’t?  If you could create a method, system, machine to help systems/people bounce back, what would this entail?  Think back to your impossible tasks here.  Post your thoughts to Sakai by November 24.


Class 25, November 19—Points of No Return: Dropping Out, Bottoming Out, Opting Out


Matt O’Brien, “Did the Financial Crisis Make Us Permanently Poorer?,” The Washington Post, May 9, 2014,
Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein, Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work (Boston, MA: Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2013), selections.
Elizabeth A. Harris and Ford Fessenden, “‘Opt Out’ Becomes Anti-Test Rallying Cry in New York State,” The New York Times, May 20, 2015,


In-class curation of website materials


Week 14


Class 26, November 24


1.)Astronaut Ron Garan and Muhammad Yunus, The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles, 1 edition (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015), 1-10.


In class reflection:

Ken Untener, “A Step Along the Way”


In-class curation of website materials


Week 15


Class 27, December 1


In-class curation of website materials


Class 28, December 3


In class curation of website materials and wrap-up


In class reflection:

Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness”


Final website presentation, December 11, 9-noon




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