• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Finally!

Admitting failure.

January 11, 2019
 
 

I can’t tell you how gratifying it was to see a story, finally, about something a college tried that failed, hard.

Stories like those rarely see the light of day. Success stories are legion, but stories of failure are rare, and usually hidden behind anonymity and/or the fog of years.  Secrecy helps failures proliferate, because people looking for useful lessons miss out when others are afraid to admit or own failure.  Nobody wants bad publicity, and it’s considered an iffy career move to be closely identified with something that fell flat.

I’m referring to this piece from EdSurge, about a decade of disappointment that Tallahassee Community College has faced with various early alert systems. It’s a genuinely refreshing piece because it situates failure where it often actually happens: in the gaps between good intentions and shaky or partial execution.

Apparently I’m not alone in my craving for honest discussions of failure.  A new piece in Vox profiles Julia Rohrer’s new Loss of Confidence Project. It’s aimed at social scientists who want to admit that they no longer believe in one or more of their previous research findings.

You’d think that would be commonplace, but it really isn’t.  It should be.

We teach students that the scientific method consists of hypothesis testing, and that new information can disturb previous beliefs.  Yet within academia, we’re terrible at doing that. Discredited or outdated beliefs can hang on for generations. The old joke that “science advances one funeral at a time” is funny because it’s at least partially true.  

At my own college, we’re working on improving the ways that we do early alerts.  In that context, it’s useful to see that faculty at another college hated the system there because they never heard anything after they referred a struggling student.  They assumed, rightly or wrongly, that the alert fell down the memory hole. After a while, a sense of futility kicked in.

I can hear the flaming now: “why don’t you just ask people first?”  Because, as any good social scientist can tell you, people aren’t very good at anticipating their reactions to things that haven’t happened before.  (The classic literary portrayal of that is Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham.) Some lessons become clear only through experience. Hearing from places where something was tried, and failed, offers a credibility that speculation -- no matter how self-assured -- just can’t.  Sometimes you have to try it before you know whether you’ll like it.

As the Vox piece coyly notes, intellectual humility isn’t always rewarded in our culture.  President Trump, for instance, appears entirely immune to it, and that hasn’t stopped him. I’m always a little disappointed when I see people fall for bluster and punish honesty, but more so within academe.  As the guardians of the scientific method, critical thinking, and academic freedom, we should really know better. We should use failures as teachable moments not merely for students, but for ourselves. It’s one reason that my favorite interview question is “tell me about a time you messed up, and how you handled it.”  I keep waiting to see conference panels about failed initiatives at colleges; they remain few and far between.

I don’t want to cheerlead for failure, exactly, but I’ll happily cheerlead for candor. 

What’s the catch?  As a wise person once said to me, “you first.”

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