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What does it mean to “want” to fail?

by on November 4, 2010

Laura drove me home from school today, and reminded me of what is one of my most-told narratives about failure. It surprised me that she remembered it. Even though the memory is etched in my mind as a turning point in my work as a teacher and student, I expected it to be one of those throwaway teaching moments for Laura, given that we barely knew each other at the time of the encounter. It’s weird to be writing about it now, here, but L reminded me of it this afternoon in connection with my work on failure–a connection I oddly hadn’t yet made. Anyway, here’s the story (and I’m putting a section break here because this story–and the ensuing discussion–got long):

It’s the third or fourth week of TCW, and L has recently handed back drafts of our first paper, the one in which we analyze our response strategies for student work. I didn’t spend much time on the draft, and felt some anxiety about this when I turned it in. But the draft comes back to me with an A on the back page.

I won’t go into too much background detail here, but it is important to note that during the fall quarter, I experienced the ultimate high/low of being praised by Joyce one day and getting eviscerated by Beth the next. By the winter–again taking classes with Joyce and Beth, in addition to L–I was emotionally exhausted and confused, having no idea how to self-evaluate or monitor my own scholarly development. (This is an emotional position I’d never been in before, having attended a small college where, like most graduate students regardless of undergraduate institution, it was easy to stand out.) In addition, my fall quarter students were some of the best I’ve had since then, and my winter quarter students were some of the worst… Let me rephrase that. My experience teaching in the fall was one of the best I’ve ever had, and my experience teaching in the winter was one of the worst I’ve ever had. I had a great deal of trouble connecting to students in what felt like a meaningful way, and I internalized this “rejection” pretty deeply. I couldn’t figure out how to teach them. On the heels of such a wonderful fall term, this felt like pretty tremendous and indecipherable failure.

So, I turned in the response strategies paper without giving it much thought, and in the interim between turning it in and getting it back, two things happened. First, I had one of the worst weeks of teaching ever. Second, Joyce observed me in the classroom for a second time, at my request. Why did I request a second observation? In the fall, when Joyce observed me the first time, she gave me glowing feedback–the kind of gushy feedback only Joyce can give (heart). But I didn’t know what to do with that, because I didn’t have any kind of critical approach to my practices. I was flying by the seat of my pants and acting on instinct, and it was, evidently, working. I asked Joyce to watch me again and to help me identify ways I could be better.

Two more things happened. First, Joyce gave me positive feedback again. Second, I got that paper back. L wrote many nice things, and I felt… I don’t know… Like I was being held to a low standard, or like J and L weren’t willing to be more critical or something. [I am, at this very moment, very aware of the weirdness of exposing my psyche in this way.] I asked L for a meeting to talk about the draft, and she told me to stay after class.

The classroom empties, and L asks me what I want. I planned to speak in a very rational and professional manner. Instead, I temporarily lose track of where I am and who I’m talking to. I unload. I confess that I hadn’t put much thought into the paper and don’t feel I deserve the grade. I say that I hate my students, that I can’t connect with them in the classroom, that Joyce’s feedback only helps me know how to recognize goodness but doesn’t help me know what to do with badness, that my responses to students’ writing seem like the only way I can teach them something and therefore that I need to be pushed harder, that L shouldn’t let me get away with this shit. And then I take a breath, regain consciousness, and immediately feel embarrassed and sick. What have I done? I think. L looks like she’s just been sucker punched. “I don’t know what to do with that,” she says. “I don’t know why I told you that,” I say. “You can re-write the paper if you want,” she says. “I’m going to do that,” I respond.

This is our first conversation, ever.

It will not surprise Christina or Laura (who know/have witnessed my most spectacular failures) to know that this particular story acts as a kind of cornerstone to the failures that have structured my graduate work so far. Most of my nausea-inducing moments of failure involve me failing to live up to standards I project on myself through the bodies of others…

I am reminded simultaneously a story Christina told me before class today about apologizing to Jim on Tuesday for not bringing a handout to accompany her discussion-leader time during class this week. He assured her it wouldn’t lower her grade, and she pointed out that she wasn’t worried about a grade, but was worried about disappointing him. Her word–disappointment–reminded me of my dad who never raised his voice at us but who forced us to endure/participate in discussions (conducted at a reasonable volume) of how much our behavior, rule-breaking, or failure to live up to family expectations disappointed him. I thought of Berlant likening citizenship to perpetual childhood, and thought of how much the anxiety of graduate performance draws from the parent/child relationship of the family, where (at least for me), my relationships with my mentors are predicated at least partially on a combination of admiration and fear, where most of my self-worth is wrapped up in whether or not I’m getting good feedback, bad feedback, or–worst of all–no feedback; where my greatest anxiety is being a disappointment, of letting somebody down, failing to live up to expectations. I guess as I write this out in words, the parent/child metaphor is something of a stretch (I’ve never tried to “impress” my parents the way I try to impress my mentors), but the emotions wrapped up in these relationships is closer to those embedded in the parent/child relationship than in any more public/professional authority-subordinate relationship I can think of.

When Laura reminded me of this little anecdote this afternoon, she said, “It’s like you want to fail at some stage.” It is like that, isn’t it? What does it mean to want to fail?

On one level, a failure signifies there is still work to be done. I am not yet at a stage of my work where I feel like I know everything I am supposed to be doing–but I feel like other people expect me to know and do more than I know how to know and how to do–and failure gives me the space and the excuse to pause, back up, rethink, rework.

On another level, failure gives me an occasion to direct my thinking inward as I evaluate my own processes and behavior. I’m given a chance, in some way, to remake myself. I am reminded here of yet another spectacular fail that I have written about before–this one last fall when I found myself unable to speak coherently to L about any of the several texts I’d read & written about all summer long. Again I felt sick. Again I confronted L, this time with an apology and a promise to do better, to get serious. In retrospect, I wonder if I self-sabotaged. If I subconsciously made myself fail knowing it would give me a fear-laced determination to do better work, to be worthy of my status as a doctoral student. That failure inspired a paper. That paper inspired an article (completed with grant money). That article is under review at Composition Studies right now, and will become–after considerable revision–a dissertation chapter. That dissertation inspired The Failure Project. The Failure Project helped me find a way to reach out beyond the University, to find public relevance to an idea I’d only imagined in an insular way before.

These failures alert me to a kind of “dead” performance of identity, force me to back up and look at my world differently, more critically, to ask (invoking Berlant), “How did it get to be this way?”

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