Fostering Failure

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I’ve been reflecting on my recent experience chairing our department of Visual Arts and Art History, and in particular the work I was able to do on a thesis committee for one of our MFA students.  I found it deeply intellectually rewarding (and also a bit of a luxury) to think about his work and the way it engaged the world, and it was stimulating to have conversations about the ideas behind that work (many pieces connected to issues of queer identity) with colleagues from another discipline.  One of the most surprising and interesting things the other committee members repeatedly suggested was that the student try to fail more.  And that’s the suggestion I’m contemplating now.


Indeed, from chats I’ve had with colleagues in the Studio Arts, failure is one of the primary goals of graduate study towards the MFA, and with good reason.  Failure means that an artist is trying something new, stepping beyond the safe boundaries of already-mastered practices.  Failure means finding out what works by finding out what doesn’t work.  Failure means exploration and experimentation.  By failing and by making mistakes (sometimes on purpose) graduate studio artists often make surprising discoveries they can then bring back to their body of work.


I’ve been thinking how truly wonderful it would be to use this approach to failure in the writing classroom.  Failure in my classes has a completely different valence, mostly because FYC is a requirement for students at my school and failing anything in the class means risking failing the class as a whole, means a delay in progressing into their majors or a delay in graduation even.  The truth is, we don’t really have time or space in our class to fail playfully.  Writing is due every week, most of which is graded and all of which contributes to the final grade.  When we would have time to fail on purpose?  And how could I encourage students to take that kind of risk?


Still, I would love to have an assignment that asks students to write a really bad paper.  Not only would it encourage them to take risks, but in demonstrating they know what “bad” is when it comes to papers, they also reveal that they know what “good” is as well.  I suppose this could be scaled down a bit to some in-class work (maybe even group work) asking students to write a really bad argument.  And I often like pairing this work with discussions of readings so I suppose I could also ask students to locate the argument of the current reading and then make it a bad argument.


I guess I would call this an exploration of micro-failure.  It’s rather contained though, isn’t it?  I think what’s missing is the free-flowing invitation to dangerous experimentation that comes in the studio arts.  I’m just not sure how to promote that in the writing classroom.

Any ideas?

About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.