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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


The Privilege of Being Adequate

I think students need to embrace failure as an ongoing part of learning, but that could be privilege talking.

January 23, 2018


I am a proponent of failure. I’ve written about it here often, its importance to my work as a writer and teacher. I describe the act of writing as an “extended exercise in failure.”

I am failure forward because I think failure has gotten a bad rap in schools as students have been conditioned to fear failure, often for valid reasons. But those of us done with school recognize failure as an inevitable occurrence and sometimes even a necessary precursor to success.

Embracing failure allows for risk, which enables fresh discovery and dare I say it, learning.

But there are risks to centering failure when it comes to learning. In a recent Chronicle essay, Rachel Judith Weil of Cornell University offers an important (to me, anyway) caution to not go overboard with all this failure talk. 

Weil criticizes some of what I think of as the “failure industry,” pro-failure TED Talks, growth mind-set, and grit, which presumes our goal must be not only success, but “greatness” with failure as a necessary precursor to that greatness.

Weil illuminates the virtues of mediocrity, which she rebrands as adequacy. Weil prefers “adequate” to “mediocre,” as mediocre connotes “a point on a scale midway between terribleness and excellence,” while “adequacy” is a binary, a threshold.

“To be adequate,” she says, “is to have achieved the basic preconditions for participating in an activity without ruining it for anyone else.” She believes we academics should “be able to explain more convincingly the benefits of doing something adequately. Because day in and day out in the college classroom, we are asking our students to do things at which they may never excel.”

Weil remarks that as a mediocre (though adequate) singer (as compared to Renee Fleming), she is still able to enjoy participating in choir. I can relate. I am a mediocre hockey player who is getting a little bit worse every year, but my skills remain adequate to play in an over-35, no-check league once a week. I am a mediocre musician, but there was a time in my younger days when playing collaboratively with some band mates, was good enough to play in front of people at clubs in Chicago.

Long removed from the band, I still plug my iPod into an electronic drum set and play along to whatever comes up. It’s fun. I am under no delusions that I’m a future rock star, but this is perhaps why it’s fun. There are no stakes attached to my mediocrity. I can pursue the exact amount of pleasure as I desire in these things I can do only adequately.

As much as I appreciate Weil’s message, it is the inevitable stakes associated with education which complicate her laudable goal. Adequacy has a label in school. A couple of generations ago we called it the “gentleman’s C.” With grade inflation, it’s more like a B-.

As long as adequacy in school carries a cost, it’s going to be a tough sell to students.

"Failure” too, which is why I’ve embraced a grading contract which privileges the doing over the having done.

Weil’s “adequacy” and my “failure” are ultimately not just two sides of the same coin, but essentially the same thing, a framework for encouraging students to concentrate on process of learning, rather than the product of grades.

This framework also encourages students to decide what matters for themselves. They can choose adequacy in some areas and strive for excellence in others. I find writing and teaching hugely fascinating, but my desire to be better than adequate at these pursuits also carries anxiety and frustration that doesn’t attach to those things where I’ve decided adequacy is sufficient.

Unfortunately, students do not possess the freedom and agency to embrace adequacy in the context of school. A necessary precursor to embracing failure or accepting adequacy is to be able to define what success means for oneself. By most measures, I’m a successful writer, and yet my success doesn’t match my goals. Most of what I write I identify as “failed” on one level or another (attention/sales/quality), but thinking of these as failures is a luxury afforded by the success I’ve had.

I can focus on what’s meaningful to me, which gets me back to the pursuit of doing better next time. I make my own measuring stick.

Weil was able to reframe a successful course by moving from the number of “brilliant papers,” which meant inevitable disappointment, to judging the “quality of the conversation in the room: Did students listen and respond? Did the conversation build on itself?...In short, did we make interesting intellectual music together?”

This is a wonderful way of thinking about teaching and creating an atmosphere oriented toward learning, but it is only possible in a system where Professor Weil is not subject to oppressive accountability regimes as are imposed on public K-12 teachers, or in the inherently precarious position of contingent faculty. Professor Weil is trusted as an expert and she can extend that trust to her students. She asks us to embrace “the feeling of being proud and grateful to be good enough to continue doing something from which we get pleasure and knowledge.”

It’s a beautiful thought in a world where “success” doesn’t seem so scarce, when failure doesn’t come with such a high cost, and when so many students and their instructors aren’t at risk if we embrace adequacy in all its glory. It's a school system oriented around students and learning, rather than competition and "achievement."

But most of us don’t live in that world.

I wonder if most of our students would look at it as a fantasy.





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