I wanted to share this commentary from the Chronicle of Higher Education
“Next Time, Fail Better” By Paula M. Krebs (May 6, 2012).
I think the point that Krebs makes in this article is worth noting for our own Writing Program pedagogy. Krebs compares the way that we think (and talk) about writing in the humanities to the ways that other fields characterize their learning processes as “failing (in order) to succeed.”
Krebs explains that while in a great many other fields (like computer programming) students learn fairly quickly that they will have to make multiple tries to succeed, but that in the humanities students still often feel that writing should be an activity that flows, logically and effortlessly from their ideas. Good thinking = good writing. But in fact writing, like any consciously “built” process, requires experimentation (and thus failure).
This idea is something that writing process proponents have been saying for years, of course. Many drafts are needed to get one product that succeeds. But the point that I’d add here is that in our program we’re (I think) moving beyond admitting that failure is necessary or saying that writing is a “messy” process. We’re seeking ways to train our minds to DO the experimentation successfully. Not just to struggle, and write drafts, and erase and then think some more; but to look carefully at how writing is put together in a particular situation. To understand the WHY — why this and not that, why this practice and not that practice. Why this skill in this setting, but not in this setting.
So rather than saying, “you have to fail to succeed,” we’re trying to lay down a framework that explains how to do the experiments that can help to lead to success. AND we’re saying, “that work of learning not just to experiment but how to SUCCESSFULLY experiment is the content of this class, and it’s what you’re being graded for.” But that also means that our rigor in grading comes from the quality of the experimental process (the learning to learn), which, although it can (and will) still lead to failure-of-the-product, can represent a successful learning experience.
That’s an understandably complicated idea — not always easy to explain or act out. But it’s interesting that it puts us in a location where we can step away from what Krebs seems to feel is a real problem with how folks in the humanities approach their learning. I also wonder if it’s not that humanities people have trouble failing productively — it’s that they seem to feel that the acts of failing should always take place in the mysterious, dark places in our souls and hearts and minds (in front of the computer screen in the middle of the night). So we know we have to fail to succeed, but we can’t actually look at how to fail successfully (i.e., to learn), because nobody is supposed to see that man behind the curtain.