Teaching with the Risk of Failure

11 Sep

By Tasoulla Hadjiyanni

Learning (and) Failure

In a New York Times interview, Tracey Matura, General Manager for the Smart Car unit of Mercedes, is asked: What questions do you ask when you’re hiring? She confidently replies that she “would also ask [job applicants] about a time they took a risk and failed.”

As she says: “I have not hired people who have told me they’ve never failed. You don’t learn if you don’t fail.”

As simple and logical as this statement sounds, failure is not something that academics—in both their teaching and researching roles—feel comfortable talking about. How does failure factor into our teaching? Are we as teachers willing to take risks and fail? And, on the other hand, how can we guide students through the process and growth that can accompany failing?

These questions are of particular relevance to faculty involved in internationalizing the curriculum as the breadth of topics that must be tackled can be overwhelming and faculty can fear that they are almost setting up students, as well as themselves, for failure.

What Does Failure Mean?

Delving deeper into the notion of failure warrants first asking what does failure mean? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines failure as “lack of success.” In turn, success is defined as a “favorable or desirable outcome.” As teachers, we structure our courses around course objectives and outcomes. Some of these stem from programs’ and departments’ efforts to develop holistic curricula, with courses that build off of each other. Others are tied to university initiatives, such as the University of Minnesota’s Student Learning Outcomes.

For a teacher, lack of meeting course objectives can be perceived as the ultimate form of failure and self-criticism can take the form of thoughts like: I must be the worst teacher around; I have just ruined the life prospects of dozens of students; I need to quit. If a student fails, we take it personally: what could I have done? How can I change the assignment or the lecture to better prepare my students? Exacerbating the feelings of failure can be student evaluations, which are used in decisions of promotions and merit raises—poor student evaluations can be detrimental to a faculty’s career prospects.

Investigating Fear

It is no wonder then that failure is intertwined with fear: the fear of being labeled a bad teacher; the fear of receiving abysmal student evaluations; the fear of coming face-to-face with your perceived inabilities. Academia, as it is, is inextricably linked to feelings of inadequacy and many academics lament the fact that they never feel “good enough” – there are always more papers to write, more people to please, more ways by which to approach a class topic, more to do in pushing a student’s imagination, etc. The question that confronts us then is that if failure can be “good” for both ourselves and our students, how can we design exercises and pedagogies that allow us to walk everyone through failure in a way that is safe to all?

Teaching DES 4165-5165 Design and Globalization in Spring 2012 brought me face-to-face with this question. In contrast to my lecture or studio classes, Design and Globalization is not a class I teach every year and therefore, my comfort level is not of the same caliber. What complicates things further is that in my lecture and studio classes, I feel in control: I can prepare ahead of time, I know the material well, and I am able to bring the issues we are talking about to life.

Design and Globalization, on the other hand, is discussion-based and this changes the whole story. No matter what I do or how much I prepare, a comment or a reflection raised by a student can take the conversation to a whole new level; or, if I am not alert and ready to take on this challenge, the whole class session can turn into a failure.

Take for example the session on objects, which focused on exploring the meaning of objects in our lives, with the goal of uncovering the multiplicity of factors that can impact how people live, who they are, and who they might become. I decided to spark the conversation through a show-and-tell exercise and asked students to bring objects they cherish or the immigrant group they were studying to class and talk about them. Thrilled for the chance to connect to their classmates though a personal experience, students shared the stories behind gifts they have received, family heirlooms, travel mementos, etc.

As we went around the table, the conversation came to a standstill when a student was frank to declare that he is not tied to any objects in his life and therefore, he had nothing to show. “Not even photographs,” he asserted. I could sense that everyone was contemplating, thinking of what to make of this moment. “What about your computer?” I pushed, trying to get to the why and the how behind the student’s feelings. “Sure,” he replied, seemingly wanting this interrogation to end.

How much do I push a student? Where and when do I engage students in a dialogue that can be so personal? What do I do if I offend someone in the process and this translates into abysmal student evaluations?

Evaluation Crossroads

The issue that we are facing is that student evaluations can place a faculty at a crossroad: they can be a medium of failure or a medium for growth and success. The fear of poor student evaluations can be stifling of innovation and creativity in teaching; they can be holding back faculty from taking risks and trying new teaching techniques and assignments, ones that push both the students and the faculty in new directions. Why risk a bad set of evaluations after you may have finally sorted out a plan that works, safely?

Taking risks takes courage and courage is tied into a willingness to let go, both in terms of control of students but also in terms of control of student evaluations. Determining new ways to quantify the value of an education or evaluate the extent to which a student’s view of the world has shifted can be ways to overcome this barrier.

Constantine Cavafy, one of the finest modern Greek poets, can give us a trajectory to follow. In the poem Ithaka, he writes about Odysseus’s trip back to his homeland:

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body……..

It is not the destination that matters, according to Cavafy; it is the journey.

As we prepare curricula, where are the Laistrygonians and the Cyclops that can “stir” our students’ and our spirits? Can we infuse failure into our classes? And can we do that with confidence?

What if We Allow Students – and Teachers – “to selectively fail”?

If failure is too scary of a word, I propose we try “selective failing.” Could we design exercises that allow students to “fail”?

Can we undertake teaching a topic we know little about? Can we venture into a new assignment that is not well formed? Participating in the university’s Internationalizing Teaching and Learning efforts has re-energized me to transform my classes, partly by infusing “selective failing.” Last Spring, in Design and Globalization, I introduced a video assignment similar to those created by Catherine Solheim from Family Social Science and Linda Buturian from Postsecondary Teaching and Learning who introduced video stories as a pedagogy at a recent University of Minnesota conference on internationalizing.  This was the first time that I tried this pedagogy.

Powerpoints, I felt, were too sterile a medium for students to express what it means to immerse themselves into Minneapolis’ multi-cultural landscape. The live imagery and sound opportunities afforded through video could give them the tools to better relate what they saw, learned, and felt. Furthermore, strengthening the technological side of the class would align the course with the expectations of this technologically savvy generation.

As it turned out, the short videos were intriguing and captivating to watch. The calls of the imam to prayer in the Somali mall gave voice to a sound that is typically silent and hidden in the city; interviews with Arab and Chinese U or M students as well as community members allowed a forum for their perspective to be heard; and the music and dance from the screen filled the classroom with excitement.  At the same time, concerns were raised throughout the process: different levels of experience with creating videos; having to learn new technologies; securing the hardware needed; coordinating with a team member; narrowing down the footage to five minute video, etc.

As I write this piece, I still do not know the student evaluations for this course.

But regardless of the outcome, I will welcome the Laistrygonians, Cyclops, and angry Poseidon in my classes for my sake and for my students’ sake.

Tasoulla Hadjiyanni is an Associate Professor in the Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel / College of Design at the University of Minnesota.

P.S.  If you are near the University of Minnesota and do want to learn about how to “put together an attractive, memorable, well-designed presentation using PowerPoint or other presentation software,” you can attend the first Just in Time Teaching workshop of the semester.  “Killing with PowerPoint! How to Avoid Death by PowerPoint with PowerPoint”  will provide a basic overview of designing slides and presentations that engage audiences, facilitate learning, and increase retention.   The workshop runs from noon to 1 pm on 25 September.  More information and a registration link at http://z.umn.edu/jitt. 

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