Saturday nights is when academics let down their hair on Twitter and ponder the larger questions facing higher education. This past Saturday night was no exception. We got into a long conversation (archived here  for your reading pleasure). Some of the important threads that came out of it was that a) we are, generally, hesitant to write publicly and openly about our teaching failures and b) failure means different things to different groups (instructors, administrators, students).
On the first point, we looked at how being on the tenure-track can work to silence talking openly about failures, as well as how dangerous it can be to appear vulnerable if you are already in a group that is seen as “less competent” as teachers (visible minorities, females). We also discussed how all of this discourages risk-taking in the classroom.
But we also found instances where we have written about our failures, such as over at ProfHacker  or my own descriptions of teaching a peer-driven learning class . Brian Croxall pointed us to a new, open-access journal that encourages submissions that talk about teaching failures , devoting an entire regular section to the topic. I also pointed out that many of the teacher chats that take place on Twitter, #FYCchat included, deal directly with “failures” in the classroom, while constructively crowdsourcing possible solutions to improve. I’d encourage you to share your own posts or posts that you have found in the comments section, in order to build a community where these types of critical examinations are welcome and encouraged.
Because I know how hard it is to talk about my failures in the classroom. Most comments I receive are supportive, but I do receive a fair number of comments that point to the admission of my shortcomings as a teacher as to why I don’t have a tenure-track job, that if I spent less time blogging I’d be a better teacher, that I can’t ever be a good composition instructor because I don’t have the right degree, etc, etc, etc. By admitting my shortcomings, I expose myself to these types of criticisms, as well as the perception that I am a bad teacher or that I am short-changing my students. I think it’s the opposite; by sharing and reaching out, I hope to get feedback and ideas that will help me in the long run.
As the conversation continued, we discussed who gets to define “failure” and how it differs depending on whose talking/evaluating. Do we rely solely on student evaluations to measure how successful a teacher is? Do we go the way of K-12 and base it on standardized test scores, or other measurements such as pass rates, retention, and time-to-completion? While this didn’t come up, we also need to discuss the uneven playing field that many of the different people who teach in higher education face: those off the tenure-track versus those who are on the tenure-track (not to mention those who are already tenured). Each group has their own set of unique challenges, as was pointed out in the chat, but I think that any discussion about our failures needs to be done within the context of how the failure happened (as I do here ).
One final point that was made was if we had any teaching failure stories that didn’t end happily. I’m not entirely sure those exist; as long as we learned something from the experience and integrated changes the next time, or even mid-class, then it’s never a total failure. Then again, depending on what matrix we’re using to evaluate if we’d failed or not, it might not end “happily” insofar as our students might be “happier” but the class itself is worse off because of it.
I’m in the middle of what could be considered a failure of rather important proportions, no matter who you are. In my Freshman Writing class (which I have already been writing about extensively, regarding their resistance to technology  and peer-review ), they just handed in their first major paper assignment. Or, more appropriately, little more than half have handed in their first paper assignment. If we’re talking about retention, then I have failed miserably. Was it because of the blogging requirement? Perhaps the first assignment (a rhetorical analysis) was not relevant or engaging enough? Is it because of the way I introduced the technology and/or assignment, rather than the things themselves?
Once these students disappear, I can’t really help them anymore. I’d much rather the student who hands in a terrible paper because at least they’re still present, still trying, whatever the level. One thing my students forget is that their first paper (which they often have the option of revising and resubmitting) isn’t going to destroy their chances of passing my class. To me, this many students giving up is completely unacceptable. While my university isn’t measuring these exact metrics just yet, it’s one of the priorities they have articulated and have begun pushing.
At the end of the semester, however, I’m almost certain my evaluations will be good. Any student who does stick around will undoubtedly benefit from the smaller class size and has already embraced blogging and tweeting. Plus we move, in my mind, to a much more interesting part of the semester in terms of our readings and assignments. In that regard, the class will be seen as successful. But, those students I’ve lost, that are gone, well, I failed them, and it might spell the end of their university careers, at least for now.
To me, there’s no happy ending there.