Thursday, February 19, 2009


Error and Failure

Yesterday's IHE has a worthwhile story about 'reverse transfers' – students starting at four-year colleges and then transferring to cc's – becoming more common as students become more price-conscious. There's nothing terribly shocking in it, if you assume that recessions bring increased price awareness, even though it's a nice reminder that the traffic goes both ways.

What got my attention, though, was the first comment after the story. 'Judith' wrote:

My daughter finished her freshman year at Smith with a B- average and, upon being told not to bother to major in math, took time off to do remedial math work at a community college, intending to return to Smith. One day she said to me, “I’m not going back to Smith. They think that if I’m not already good at something, I shouldn’t bother to learn it. At community college, the teacher tells us how we will use what we’re studying in the future.” She got an AS with honors and is now back in a four-year school (not Smith).Community colleges teach.

It's a simple point, but it brought back a flood of memories.

Back in my own student days, I remember getting a very clear sense in both high school and college – hell, even through grad school – that I was constantly being monitored for flaws. (This may be at the root of why so many of my cohort thought that Foucault was really onto something with the 'panopticon' idea. 'Omnipresent and internalized surveillance' described our felt reality pretty well.) The whole prestige hierarchy/pyramid model – basically an inverted funnel – is based on weeding people out. If you buy into the model early and set a goal of succeeding within it, the entire educational process becomes a game of failure avoidance.

At some level, though, failure avoidance is a horrible way to learn (not to mention a horrible way to live). It rewards the wrong traits, and inhibits some pretty important ones.

At Snooty Liberal Arts College, I remember professors constantly being frustrated as their attempts to generate class discussion fell flat. They never seemed to clue in that, having bought entirely into the failure avoidance model, we were all petrified of looking stupid. Annoyingly, in any given class there were usually enough ridiculously-gifted people that if you weren't among them, nearly anything you did offer would immediately become grist for the mill. The fear wasn't irrational; when you were being graded against the preternaturally gifted, showing weakness was just too risky.

Grad school was even worse. At that level, a self-selected bunch of failure avoiders competed for faculty approval in a pretty airless environment for years. By the end, it took an act of will just to put together a declarative sentence. The most damning insult in grad school was “naive,” which was typically applied to anyone who actually made some sort of positive claim. (“Naive realism” was the worst, since it implied the unforgivable sin of claiming to actually know something about something.) Self-doubt can be taught.

In grad school, too, I recall the faculty being perplexed as to why so many doctoral students seemed oddly hesitant and overly deferential during oral exams. At one panel of grad student papers, I recall noticing that every single grad student started her presentation with “this is a work in progress.” Translated, that means “please don't attack me.” These habits are learned. Even now, I write with far too many parentheses, which is a form of defensive self-interruption. Old habits are hard to break.

When I landed a full-time teaching gig at Proprietary U, I was immediately struck by the different way I was treated. Instead of being the object of study, constantly under scrutiny and with the burden of proving myself against unspecified and arbitrary criteria, I was suddenly assumed to be knowledgeable about my particular subject area. As the only member of the faculty in my discipline, I was suddenly the go-to guy for issues in my discipline. It took a couple of years to get past both the thrill of unaccustomed respect and the nagging sense of being an impostor. Some people never manage to integrate the two experiences, instead switching between self-abasement and self-aggrandizement in a sort of acquired narcissism.

At the end of the process, you wind up with a greater-than-average proportion of hyper-critical shrinking violets who consider any attempt to deal with the realities of the outside world to be, well, naïve.

The application of this model to the typical college Senate meeting, I'll leave to the reader.

The model of teaching at the cc, and even at Proprietary U for that matter, is entirely different. It's not about poking and prodding the students until the flaws show up, the better to exclude them from the next level up. It's based instead on the assumption that most people can handle most subjects, if the classes are structured right and the students put in the effort. Success isn't assumed to be finite. It's assumed to be there for the taking, and the goal of the institution is to help the students take it.

Underlying that model is an assumption that students are worthy of respect, even with their flaws. There's something humane, and democratic, about that. Yes, sometimes that can swing too far, and go from 'supportive' to 'vapid.' Yes, upholding standards is a sign of respect, and any college worthy of the name needs to do that.

But I'd rather teach students by example that risk-taking is a part of growth than teach them that any sign of weakness bespeaks a basic character flaw. We're all flawed. That's not the point. The point is to accomplish things anyway.

Thanks, Judith, for crystallizing so succinctly something that had brewing in my head for some time.

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