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The Invention of Failure, with Prof Cathy N. Davidson

The Invention of Failure, with Prof Cathy N. Davidson

Last night at the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge, Professor Cathy N. Davidson presented a workshop on "The Invention of Failure." She addressed a number of issues: what is the relationship between the assembly line mechanics of "making the grade" and "grading" as a summative practice of assessment in higher education? What is the role of "failure" as a concept in formal education in general and in informal learning practices? How is failure racialized by standardized testing?  How are both racial and economic inequality mirrored and masked in the language of meritocracy in higher education? What is the difference between "experimentation" as a learning model and "failure" as a model? Finally, the talk ends with some practical suggestions designed to support the success.  How can success, rather than failure, be built into the undergraduate syllabus from the start?  For doctoral students:  what is the relationship between "professionalization" and "risk"? And how does "playing it safe" in one's research influence the shape and success of one's future?

Cathy Davidson is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Duke University, and Distinguished Professor and Director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center, The City University of New York.   She is cofounder of the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge and the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University.


Here are the slides from her presentation: 


Video of the Capuchin monkey fairness experiment




Thanks to everyone who came out for my talk at the PhD Lab this week.   I want to give a special shout out to Erin Parish who formulated two very profound questions that need to be asked in tandem.  Together they generated a wonderful discussion:


!.  What would you do if failure were not an option?


2.  What would you do if failure were the only option?



Think about it.  Therein lies courage.  And innovation.  And creativity.  Interestingly, both absolutes promote going all out, full speed ahead . . .   Why do we live so much of our lives in the "in between"? 


I like to flip the order of those questions, because 2 is something we actually know an answer for, and based on the answer we know for 2 we might be able to make some informed guesses about 1.

If failure is the only option your behaviors associated with trying and improving your situation are extinguished.  This pattern of failure leads to depression and a potential set of other psychological conditions.  (Seligman, 1967, 1975)

I think that not having the option to fail, however, is just as bad.  Maybe it helps to start with, "What would not having the option to fail look like?"  Are we saying that it is okay to fail in the short term so long as we persist until we succeed, or are we instead saying that any option that leads to failure as an outcome is prohibited?

The first of those two scenarios is a good one.  Failure is part of a natural cycle that permits reflection and recursion.  The better one learns to fail, the more likely they are to achieve success more greatly and sooner.

The second of the two scenarios leads to an outcome of never attempting anything new.  I witness this professionally in higher ed where, within some groups, there is such a stigma against failing that nothing is ever attempted.  Issues sit in committee forever and are not acted upon until such a time that they can die on the vine.  Seen in an individual this expresses as either paralyzing indecision, or an abnegation of everything.

In these respects I think that either absolute involves a static quality of inactivity; and in fact we know it to be true in the case of #2.

Those of us who are successful live our lives at the in-between.  We make a best possible first attempt as early as possible so that we can fail sooner and begin to reiterate on our designs/strategies/plans.  We learn how to fail gracefully - failing sooner often means you get to fail smaller.  We learn to dissociate our emotions from our reasoning and reflect critically on why a thing might have failed.

Inside of higher ed  I believe this makes a compelling case for providing opportunities to improve upon any type of assignment where a student thinks they might be able to do better, and they should be encouraged to pursue that opportunity.  The traditional methods of handing out a grade and moving on to the next item is a basic waterfall methodology, and in the end all that will ever succeed in doing is setting them up for future failures because of missing scaffolding, and teaching them to emulate the same type of waterfall methodologies in whatever else they do through modeling.


The talk was really great! I'm excited that so many people are starting to talk about Failure.


Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Matthew.


In an event this week, someone asked me about these two things, after reading the blog, and asked for examples.  Since I'm quoting Erin here, I'm hoping she will chime in but here are the examples I gave: 


What If . . .

!.  What would you do if failure were not an option?

Ex:  if you have reached the summit of a mountain on a climb and have to walk back and suddenly, seeing how high up you are and how steep the road, you freak out--you still have to get down successfully.  (I just heard this at a dinner the other night.)  What do you do?  In other words, when you are in a situation of "no turning back" and you feel huge fear, how do you succeed?  There are both inner things and externals in a situation of importance where failure is not an option.    Those lessons can carry you in other situations where failure doesn't mean falling off the cliff edge!

2.  What would you do if failure were the only option?

Ex:  It came up in the lecture. Aaron, one of the PhD lab participants, is teaching a class where one objective is for students to gain one million followers, while not doing anything that will be obscene or objectionable.   That is an impossible goal.  They will fail.  How do they proceed, even though they know the target is impossible?  What does having such a lofty, impossible target do to the process?


This is a great conversation. And what breath of fresh air to hear this being discussed in such a creative and thoughtful way. What immediately comes to mind for me is my undergraduate experience at Oberlin College. Yes, the Oberlin with a conservatory. And no, sadly, I don't play an instrument and didn't learn one while there. (What was I thinking?) My experience there, however, does  touch a small part of this larger conversation, though. It was transformative for me and helped make me who I am in many ways. I thought I'd share it.

An important thing to be aware of is the fact that Oberlin College is (among a great many other things) "the place where there are no F-grades recorded on transcripts." Despite the fact that I'd never gotten an "F" in any class prior to college, this "no F" idea turned out to be one of the biggest drivers of my decision to go to Oberlin over and above the other schools where I was accepted. It also changed my life.

Why? Because before that I was always afraid of failing in school. I felt like I was always on the brink of it in every class, every year, from third grade math all the way through high school. It hung in the air like a cloud. I dreaded it. What I did not know then, but have found out since, is that I had undiagnosed dyslexia and some form of attention deficit. But I'm old. Back then if you weren't wiggling off the chair or totally failing to read, most of the time the flags did not come up for these things. Maybe if I'd known I'd have created better strategies. It almost doesn't matter though. It was more about what I thought of myself, rather than whatever inability I possessed.

It's enough to say that I was bad at being a student. Really bad. I know that because it's something that came up regularly: I was "clever but did not apply myself." My effort was low and I was "skating." I was a procrastinator. The list goes on. I eventually came to expect that, on some level, I'd always be on the verge of not doing well-enough, despite putting forth what I considered to be a huge effort. 

So... the appeal of Oberlin (along with the rigorous academic environment, the ubiquitous politics, and that fact that - gasp - they let me in!) was that they had this mechanism by which I was allowed fail. Heck, they practically encouraged it, unofficially of course. I mean, they don't care - you paid for the class either way, right? (Said the snarky friends.) Well, they also didn't mind because it meant people like me suddenly felt free to go nuts and try things like forensic chemistry, acoustical physics, economics, symbolic logic. And the people who "normally" did that stuff found themselves in "my kind of class" - things like "Deviance, Discord & Dismay." 

It was glorious. And I failed a few. Big-time. But I risked a lot more than I otherwise might have and I made it more often than not. And, to my amazement, no one gave me attitude about it. Not until I left. That's when I started hearing things like "fraud," "rip-off," "flushing money down the toilet," "cheating other people who didn't fail and went to real schools." You name it, it's been said, but that's part of why we're talking about this... right?


I once wrote a think piece for the Duke Magazine in which I advocated that, every year, students pick one course out of hat and take it as a Pass/Fail course.  It could be Arabic III or Algebraic Geometry.   It would redistribute the whole curriculum and it would mean that, in every class, faculty would have to anticipate a certain number of students who did not have a single, solitary clue what was going on.  I think I argued (or maybe this is next level thinking subsequently) that no one would Pass the course unless everyone did.  So the people who knew Arabic like the back of their hands would have to work so hard to make sure the beginners knew at least enough advanced Arabic to squeak by.  What a great experience that would be for the best, most advanced majors!  And for the prof.  And for the person who had no business being in the class.  It would turn every course into a lesson in learning. 


Of course it was a fantasy---but I'm glad to hear Oberlin came closer than most to making it real.  Thanks for sharing that great story.


Hi Demos.  I had a very similar experience to yours at NCSSM in Durham (2-year residential high school).  They also did not give Fs, but they looked very sternly at Ds, and I got my fair share of those my first year.  While they made failure not an option, they made it very clear that a D was failing, and so I think they fundamentally missed the point of making the decision to not give Fs.  In any case, I improved a lot by my senior year, and even won over most of the faculty who had written me off as a lost cause the previous year.

Unfortunately, when I started at UNC I still didn't really know how to fail, or maybe I had become too comfortable or nonchalant about failing, having convinced myself that that is what it meant to fail well.  Coming in with over 20 hours I still managed to barely graduate after 5.5 years, but by the end I had finally learned to successfully fail.  One of the things that is tricky about learning to fail is that I think it is a very personal experience, and while there are a few general tips, there's no manual that will hold true for everyone.

Fast forward 6 years and I was able to leverage those experiences into gaining entry into the MSIS graduate program at UNC.  And man, what a difference those 6 years made on me as a student.  Looking at my transcript you'd think the real me was abducted and replaced with a smarter me - where undergrad was mostly Cs and Ds with a smattering of As and Bs, graduate school was mostly Hs with a smattering of Ps.  This kind of comes full circle with HASTAC because Cathy Davidson gave the commencement address at my graduation in May 2012.

The best realization I had in looking at those two versions of myself was that once I truly became good at failing, not just comfortable with failing, but really good at it, the number of times I failed diminished to almost nothing.  I think the same is true for most people who truly learn to fail well; I think they discover that once they really take the time to look under the bed and into the closet they find the monster is no longer there.


I love the idea of being good at failure and that the ability to fail well, or fail better, leads to successes. I think a big part of this discussion is about taking away a stigma of not doing things "right." At some level there is the practical idea of failure - the thing you tried did not work as anticipated - but that should only lead you to trying it again and more fully the next time. In schools we are often not given this opportunity, or it's a luxury save for "progressive environments." In the world of commercial products and ideas, especially within agile and repetitively successful companies - and particularly in tech - it's a way of doing business and it's a path to repeated wins.


Last week, I told some of my students that today [Thursday, January 29] they did not have the skills to successfully accomplish the major assignments for the course.  However, they should not fear failure because the course was designed for them to learn the skills that would give them the ability they needed to be successful.  I told them that if they already had the necessary skills during the third week of class, there would be no need for them to take the course I am teaching. 

Failure remains an option in my classes.  However, in order to fail, a student needs to make the decision to fail by not completing the easily manageable steps that will lead to success.  Unless they choose to fail, I have no doubt that these students who did not have the skills needed for success last Thursday will write insightful HASTAC blogs, contribute meaning posters to a statewide conference, and do other incredible work as the semester progresses.


Striving is important... Good points here, Steve. I think the one thing I have personally tried to do throughout - even when I was scared of not making it - was to let people know I was trying. This can be done in the simplest of ways - like showng up, doing routine work (even if you are "bad" at it), and asking for help. Too many people give up or don't engage when confronted with things they on't like or can't do right off the bat. Not taking action (choosing to do nothing) in that moment is a choice. Making it known that you're having trouble or that you're taking a risk and feel unsure is, at the very least, a sign of engagement.


What I loved most about the Oberlin approach was the fact that we could fail - and we got the grade and the critique at the end of the semester to prove it - but that we did not have to be haunted by it for years after the fact. I think the school was well aware that many graduates would be asked for transcripts throughout their lives and that a single F might cast a shadow on an otherwise exemplary run of academic effort. So, we were allowed to have the failing experience, which I think can be very important, but it was done without the overhead / concern for the future that might otherwise have plagued us as students. 

It seems to me that this is the best of both worlds for the students. I'm sure it would not work universally, and it was certainly a risk that the school took as an academic entity, but it proved valuable to many folks I spoke to on several fronts: being encouraged to the on a challenge, being allowed to fail as a learning experience, and being freed of worry about one's future despite doing so. I also found that few people took it lightly. Certainly part of this was the cost and the time, but there was also somewhat of an informal honor system in place. 

Generally, people did not try to fail or just give up to keep their transcripts clean. I'm not sure why, but in my experience folks tended not to simply walk away from classes where they were not excelling (which one might expect them to have done). I saw plenty of friends take a "bad grade," which ended up on their transcript, rather than taking the easy-out, for example, doing a no-show at the final (which would likely net you an F on the semester report but give you a clean transcript.) In other words, anecdotally at least, I did not see the students abusing the system, which was genuinely encouraging and pretty inspirational.