Our Fail Year

If we want our students to take chances, we faculty members hold the levers that would make such risk taking a risk worth taking, writes Kevin Dettmar.

May 21, 2019
 
 
Humanities Studio view at Pomona College

It all began rather inauspiciously. Or perhaps auspiciously: when failure is your goal, success is a complicated thing to define. We’d just been cleared for takeoff. It was mid-March 2018, and I had convinced our new president of the need for an initiative to address the growing disciplinary imbalance in our student body (read: we were lurching heavily STEM-ward). We didn’t have much lead time, but we would, come hell or high water, launch the Humanities Studio at Pomona College on Sept. 1, 2018.

And then in my hastily issued call for faculty fellows … I made a typo. When the error was pointed out to me and I issued a mea culpa and a correction, a faculty colleague wrote, “Oh, I assumed you did it on purpose!” (It turns out that committing to study the idea of failure in your inaugural year is, among other things, something of an insurance policy.) To paraphrase Samuel Beckett’s private detective Moran (and he’ll be back -- not Moran, but Beckett): thus was inscribed on the threshold of the Humanities Studio affair, the fatal failure principle.

The oldest liberal arts college humanities center in the country, at Wesleyan University, opened its doors in 1959. We’re pretty late to the party, then, and our tardy launch meant that our studio would need to respond to a rather different set of conditions and needs than those our colleagues in Middletown, Conn., grappled with six decades earlier. At Pomona, we figured out some time ago how to involve undergraduate science students meaningfully in quite sophisticated research with faculty members: doing something similar for students and faculty members in the humanities would require real imagination. In our proposal for start-up funding to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we had outlined an ambitious menu of programming, including a visiting speakers series and a slate of professional development opportunities for students, faculty and staff. At the heart of the studio’s design was a yearlong joint student-faculty seminar -- meeting for three hours, weekly, for the full academic year -- that would bring together six undergraduate seniors and six faculty members, along with two postdocs, around an annual theme.

The theme for our inaugural year -- for reasons both intellectual and personal -- was “Fail Better.” In a sense, we had not so much chosen as inherited it. During the run-up to our launch, a longtime English department colleague and exemplary interdisciplinary humanist, Arden Reed, passed away quite unexpectedly; we decided to dedicate our inaugural year to his memory. The previous spring Arden had delivered the annual address to our Phi Beta Kappa chapter and had taken “fail better” as his text -- words, dear reader, taken from Beckett’s 1983 novella Worstward Ho, page one, paragraph four: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Investigating failure from the perspectives afforded by different scholarly disciplines proved to be a fruitful and fascinating line of inquiry. During the year just ending, we brought 10 speakers to the campus to give public lectures and meet with the seminar group. And slowly but surely, two different interpretations of failure emerged.

The first is the one tendered by our reigning spirit, Samuel Beckett. His hortatory “fail better” is a sort of paradoxical and perverse categorical imperative: it insists not that we succeed, but that we do a better job of failing -- that we own failure, embrace failure, have the moral courage to fail utterly and resist all temptations to rationalize or instrumentalize the experience. His best-known articulation comes in the 1983 novella -- and has, as we’ll see in a minute, become something of a cliché -- but he’d been urging it for decades. In my favorite formulation, he says in the “Three Dialogues” with Georges Duthuit that “to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail … failure is his world and the shrink from it desertion …”

It’s an extraordinarily demanding standard, of course. In looking for analogues, the seminar studied together the Book of Job, in Stephen Mitchell’s poetic translation. The failure that Job experiences (before the credulity-straining happy ending of Chapter 42), and the way he experiences it, is (if you’ll forgive the anachronism) Beckettian: utter, abject, irremediable. And as such, it’s also utterly un-American.

So is Kenneth Lonergan’s rejection of the Hollywood ending in his 2016 film, Manchester by the Sea. We were fortunate enough to have Lonergan with us for two days -- to discuss his work in an onstage public interview with our resident novelist, Jonathan Lethem; to participate as an audience member and discussant for a student production of Act I of his play Lobby Hero; and to join us for three hours of conversation in seminar. There, we talked about his two most recent films: Margaret, released in 2011, and Manchester by the Sea. What the two have in common -- the crisis at the center of both plots -- involves what philosophers call “moral failure”: “situations,” in the words of Lisa Tessman, “in which ‘I must’ is conjoined with ‘I can’t’ -- that is, situations in which one apprehends a nonnegotiable moral requirement that one cannot fulfill, and thus also faces one’s own inevitable failure to fulfill it.” For instance, a parent attempts (and fails) to protect her child from harm, as suggested by the cover art of Tessman's book. In this account, life is full of “unavoidable moral failures from which there can be no recovery and in which there is no redeeming value.”

If you’ve seen Manchester, you know the plot point answering to that description. Arguably, though, that’s not the film’s most difficult scene to watch. I would award that distinction to the moment when Randi (Michelle Williams) and Lee (Casey Affleck) -- divorced after the house fire that claimed the lives of their three young children -- unexpectedly encounter one another, years later, walking down the street. The scene is one of the most unflinching depictions of Beckettian failure in all of Hollywood cinema. When Randi asks whether they might get lunch sometime, every fiber of the typical moviegoer -- well, OK, my every fiber -- is leaning into the screen and mouthing, “Yes.”

But Lee says no. He understands that some failures can’t be redeemed, that “there are no second acts in American lives” (Fitzgerald), that from the ashes of some tragedies no new life can arise. Sometimes failure isn’t a stepping-stone -- it’s a headstone. That’s a pretty tough standard to lay on a 20-year-old (or a 60-year-old, in the event). And it’s not as if closing the books on his past life sets Lee free. Instead, having “accepted” his failure as a husband and father, he now regularly goes to bars where he gets drunk and becomes belligerent, seemingly with the goal of getting himself beaten up. (In this, at least, he succeeds.)

Of course, Beckett doesn’t hold the copyright on failure. If he did, surely his estate would move to shut down the truly unctuous version that’s coming out of Silicon Valley. For those in the go-go tech sector, Beckett’s bleak “fail better” has been rehabilitated -- they’ve managed to turn Sad Sam’s frown upside down and put it on a motivational poster. This is “fail better” the meme, #FailBetter -- and it means almost exactly the opposite of what it meant in Beckett. Indeed, it’s no longer failure at all.

Let me be clear: this is not the second interpretation of failure to which I alluded earlier. Rather, it’s a canny move designed to explain failure away, pretending that what looks like failure is actually success. It’s complete bullshit. Novelist Ned Beauman provides the best description of this weird hijacking of Beckett’s text: “Watching a liturgy from such a gloomy and merciless author getting repurposed to cheer up midlevel executives is like watching a neighbor clear out their gutters with a stick they found in the garden, not realizing the stick is in fact a human shinbone.”

Rather than failing more resolutely, more unreservedly, the relentlessly positive tech bros counsel us to “fail forward”: pull up your socks, learn from your mistakes, brush your shoulders off. Their point isn’t simply that failure is not inimical to success -- every schoolchild knows as much. (“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”) The claim is not that failure can lead to success, but rather that failure is success. “You should fund me, venture capitalist, precisely because my last venture failed so spectacularly. I’m a disrupter. It takes real courage, real vision, to go that big and lose that much.”

As I write this, we’re just coming to terms with the fact that between 1985 and 1994 our business genius of a president lost $1.17 billion; in response, his enablers on Fox & Friends find this shows that “it’s pretty impressive, all the things that he’s done in his life.” Of course, in Orwell’s 1984, we’re told that war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength. But we’re not meant to believe it.

A More Productive Failure

As is probably clear by now, I find the philosophical rigor of Beckett’s failure enormously attractive -- and the fatuous funhouse-mirror version that Silicon Valley peddles utterly dispiriting. But there is of course another, much more common -- more popular, more hopeful, more American -- understanding of failure, our second interpretation of failure, in which failure is an interim, not a final, grade. For while Beckett provided the brutalist version, and the entrepreneurial class its anodyne clone, most of our real-world failures happen somewhere in the middle -- between apocalyptic failure and failure as success in disguise. And the great majority of what we read and listened to and watched and talked about over the course of Our Fail Year offered a vision of a more hopeful, a more productive, failure.

Art historian Sarah Lewis, author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure and the Search for Mastery, spoke of failure as an unavoidable step on the way to mastery in the careers of artists, inventors, explorers and innovators. Scott Sandage, an American cultural historian, insisted on failure as an event, not an identity: people fail, but only businesses are failures. (It’s a category error that arose in the 19th century, he argues, with the invention of credit-reporting bureaus -- and lives on, larger than life, in our president’s penchant for the term “Loser!”) John Cage biographer Kay Larson helped us to explore the way our famous-though-fugitive alum courted failure by stripping himself of agency in his work through the use of chance operations. (Cage left Pomona after two years and went to Paris, never returning to the college.) Experimental-music writer Geeta Dayal later connected Cage’s work to that of his pop music inheritor, Brian Eno, and his deck of Oblique Strategies cards. Video-game journalist Austin Walker spoke of the constitutive role of failure in the video-game experience -- and introduced us to the world of “empathy games,” which encourage players to understand the “failure” experienced by others with greater compassion by having us navigate the world under the conditions of their precarity.

So what is the understanding of failure that we want for our students? Perhaps more to the point, why do we want to raise the topic with them in the first place? There’s an obvious reason to talk about failure at a selective college: our students typically come to us by succeeding, not by taking chances. Fear of failure results in a fear of trying anything new, anything risky -- which also means, of course, that one is unlikely ever to do anything very cool. In the “Three Dialogues,” Beckett describes one painter’s fear of failure as resulting in his “doing a little better the same old thing … going a little further along a dreary road.” Or as we call it in college, a solid, if unexciting, B or B-plus.

Failure is often a way station on the road to success -- to deny as much would be either churlish or disingenuous. What would it mean, then, to think about our colleges and universities as places where it’s relatively (if not entirely) safe to take chances -- to fail without completely self-destructing? In engineering, a fail-safe is a system designed such that, in the event of failure, minimal harm will result. Much ink has been spilled in recent years defending (from the left) and ridiculing (from the right) the notion of campus safe spaces. What if we thought instead, or as well, about fail-safe spaces?

The world outside the college gates can be quite unforgiving of failure. A study earlier this year by Prosperity Now reported that 40 percent of Americans are one missed paycheck away from poverty. But for a student’s four(-ish) years, at least, colleges and universities can make redeemable failure possible. The affordances in place at various institutions and in various classrooms range from an ungraded first semester (or first year), to pass/no credit grading, to ungraded assignments, to multiple (even unlimited) rewrites on assignments -- the possibilities are many. (We’ve perhaps unwittingly created some other inducements to intellectual risk taking, too: grade inflation, for instance, surely softens the blow.) If we want our students to take chances, to risk failure -- and I think we agree that we do -- we faculty members hold the levers that would make such risk-taking a risk worth taking.

At the very least, I now realize, the Humanities Studio at Pomona College can be that kind of fail-safe space on our campus. Undergraduate fellows receive one credit for their full-year participation, but the course is pass/no credit, and no graded work is submitted to me during the year. Our seminar meetings -- conversations with visiting speakers, discussions of readings, workshops on student and faculty work in progress -- are supplemental to the senior thesis projects that students are writing in their major departments (which are graded). And our seminar discussions take place “off the record,” outside the hearing of those who will later evaluate the work. Our space, then, is something like a humanities think tank, where students and faculty can come together, take chances, make mistakes -- where we fail safer. Our campuses need more such spaces.

Bio

Kevin Dettmar is the W. M. Keck Professor of English and director of the Humanities Studio at Pomona College.

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