The Cycle of Progressive Failure

Annie Halseth | Colorado State University

We’ve long lived with the idea that failure is not an option. But that is far from accurate. As teachers, we fail all the time, or at least more often than we’d like. And, furthermore, we don’t like to talk about our own failures. So, as I approached the opportunity of writing this blog post about failure, I experienced a certain kind of excitement tinged with trepidation. I knew I wanted to talk about the importance of failure as a teacher and what that might look like when we implement new technologies in the composition classroom. However, as a graduate student with a Spring 2022 graduation, I recognize the potential risk of writing about failure and entering the job market with hopes of finding a position teaching composition. I am plagued by the fear that my discussion and candid experience of failing as a teacher might disqualify me from certain positions. I love teaching composition, and I want to keep teaching composition. But I believe that in the process of improving my teaching practice I need to embrace the process of failing as I try new methods of instruction; particularly in regards to new and evolving forms of writing and technology. Yet, as I turn towards this discussion on failure I am faced with the obstacle that failing as a social stigma carries. I realize that as academics who are notoriously high achieving individuals, we often do not want to share our experiences with failure. But, in the field of writing studies and composition, we also know that writing is an evolving technology. As instructors, we want to teach our students how to successfully write and communicate with others. As we navigate this evolving field, we need to adapt our instructional practices. And adaptation will most likely include moments of failure.

This post is meant to start a conversation about our failures so that we can learn from each other and work to destigmatize what it means to fail as instructors. I want to share my own experience of failing in the classroom as an instructor who works to integrate new technologies into the composition classroom. I also want to invite all of us to participate in this conversation about failing and teaching. Hopefully, as composition instructors and scholars in writing studies and composition, we can embrace our own failures in the classroom and learn from each other. 

Failure as narrative and counternarrative
The word “failure” carries a negative connotation. The dominant cultural narrative equates failure with laziness and ineptitude, giving failure a distinct flavor of shame. Modern educational practices are focused on constant evaluation, and with evaluation comes success or failure; and there is rarely room between these two polarized judgments. Consequently, the maxim failure is not an option is ingrained into most classrooms for both students and instructors. Certainly, this is a narrative that is echoed in pop culture as well as education. I am excited by the counternarrative that “failure is fundamental a part of success” which has begun to emerge in societal discourse. Yet, in education, we still tend to treat failure like a permanent outcome instead of as part of the process.

In holding the line for failure for our students, educators become complicit in equating failure with ill-preparedness, inadequacy, and laziness for both our students and ourselves. There is a burgeoning conversation in writing studies to reevaluate failure in the writing classroom for students. For example, Allison Carr is an outspoken advocate for promoting a pedagogy of failure in the writing classroom and Shively et al. describe “failure as essential to the writing process.” Failing as a primarily negative experience needs to be transformed into an opportunity for learning. As composition instructors, we are uniquely situated to do this work since a majority of our college students are required to enroll in at least one composition course. In addition to the ongoing push for writing students to see failure as a key part of the creative process, the emerging use of digital tools for writing can help instructors reflect on the generative role of failure in that process. In answering the call to include new technologies in our classrooms—a process accelerated by the pandemic climate—we need to reconsider our own failures as instructors. 

We need to fail progressively with new writing technologies 
As writing instructors, we shoulder the mantle of preparing our students to write successfully outside of our classroom. Twenty years ago, that goal looked very different than it does today. When we teach our students about the rhetorical situation a la Bitzer (1968) or about the conversation model (Palmquist), we need to account for the increasingly digitized modalities many of our students are familiar with and use on a regular basis. Selber, in his book Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, cogently argues that it is “when teachers ignore technology and its contexts that the real pedagogical and social damage is likely to be done” (13). As technology transforms the way we communicate, educators need to consider how a failure to adjust accordingly can perpetuate social inequalities. Under these circumstances, there is a clear and desperate need for educators to re-envision the writing classroom using multimodal genres and an awareness of how our students navigate and write in the technosphere.

A smart phone screen is one with a group of social media icons open. Pinterest, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Clubhouse, and Facebook icons are all present.

Indeed, there are educators who are integrating new technologies successfully into their classrooms. For example, Lilian Mina published a critical study that examined writing instructors’ pedagogical use of social media platforms in first-year composition courses. Her findings reveal that these innovative methods of instruction resulted in community building, student engagement, and support in understanding rhetorical choices (Mina). These new methods of instruction are incredibly inspiring and their successful implementation is well documented. However, the process of achieving these incredible successes is often excluded from the story. Often, when we first try something new in the classroom we cannot be so confident in its immediate success and there is certainly a tacit understanding that a degree of trial and error is necessary when introducing new instructional methods. The moments of failure are completely omitted from most published success stories. So when we attempt similar methods and experience failure ourselves, it can create self-doubt in our own teaching practices. And, at its most damaging, can dissuade us from embracing the opportunity to explore new forms of writing and writing instruction.

If we accept the need to develop new instructional strategies to evolve with the new ways our students are writing, we need to become comfortable trying new and creative designs for our courses—and that means we might fail. Anne Lamott writes that “almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere” (25). I believe the same is true with teaching. Teaching is an art and a science that is developed and refined over time. However, to be bold and creative in the classroom requires a willingness—perhaps even a goal—to fail spectacularly. Allison Carr brilliantly states that “to fail willingly in writing is to be empowered by the possibilities that emerge. It is to trust oneself and one’s ideas” (76). Putting aside for a moment the heavy weight that the term failure carries in our social and institutional context, it is worth considering the potential ramifications that we fear accompany failing in our instructional practice. Personally, I fear failing my students. I don’t want to deprive them of a rigorous course that would provide them with a strong composition foundation. To that end, I think it is reasonable to say that we care deeply about our students’ growth in the classroom and our desire to see them succeed. Consequently, we strive to be efficient and effective instructors and often rely on pedagogical and rhetorical theory to help us achieve those goals. However, as mentioned previously, what is often missing from those research-supported pedagogical strategies is the process of failing that occurs in order for those educators to find the most effective moves. While I was inspired by these innovative researchers, I found when I first attempted to bring blogging into my creative writing course, I was frustrated by my perceived failure and their overwhelming success. 

My experience with failure
When I first attempted to use Blogger, the Google-powered blogging tool, in a creative writing class, I found that some students were blocked by the institutional wireless network for inexplicable reasons in our first class. My hours of preparation did not account for this first obstacle. So, in a quick bid for flexibility, I switched to WIX, a platform that also allowed for more personalization. This unexpected shift provided opportunities for discussions on design and purpose – which felt exciting. The initial failure with Blogger had turned into an opening for a deeper discussion about rhetorical design. Despite my initial flustered frustration with the failed attempt using Blogger, WIX provided new and exciting instructional opportunities. This switch to WIX was initially fast—it happened in the same class period that our initial Blogger failure occurred—but it was the time spent reflecting on the Blogger => WIX transition that allowed me to find excitement and space for these deeper instructional moments. 

Tiles from a board game spell out the words adapt or fail.

The second big failure in this attempt at introducing new technology in this course came very shortly after the WIX switch. I found that so much of my time in class and during office hours was spent troubleshooting errors with students that everyone in the course was frustrated. In a move to salvage the blogging project, I created heterogenous student groupings where students who had found success in navigating WIX could support their struggling peers. After one class period of this new arrangement, I found that everyone in the class had successfully written, designed, and published at least one blog post. The byproduct of this new class design was the collaborative work and intuitive peer review that was organically taking place within these small groups. By no means was this the final failure in this first attempt to introduce WIX to this class, but I do find I often return to the blogs this class created when I am again feeling frustrated and alone in the process of failing. Because as unavoidable as failure is, it can feel really lonely and just bad. However, transforming the idea of failure as a permanent state into a part of the creative process can reveal the generative potential of failing as a composition instructor.

The cyclical process of reflective failure
Since that course, I have continued to work towards integrating different forms of technology and writing into my classes—with varying degrees of failure and success. I suppose there is a driving force behind my determination in continuing to fail and grow as an instructor—and it is that fear of failing my students. It is becoming imperative that writing instruction adapts to incorporate new forms of language and writing as our students are writing and participating in new forms of discourse that have evolved. However, the teaching process—and the failing process—would not be complete without the necessity of intentional reflection. kathleen blake yancey, in her post to the FEN blog writes, “Reflection doesn’t so much provide answers as point to and open other ways of seeing and being.” As instructors who embrace a willingness to fail, we also need to intentionally reflect on our failures to see the opportunities and possibilities they expose. To that end, the failing process—like the writing process—becomes cyclical. 

The diagram below is my attempt to visualize and share my progressive cycle of failure. By no means is this post meant to advocate for last-minute attempts at innovative teaching; but rather to view failure as an integral part of improving our instructional practices. This cycle’s foundation of research and planning incorporates failure as a means of progressing towards new and effective methods of writing instruction. This cycle begins with inspiration. One of the most exciting moments as a teaching scholar is reading about a pedagogical theory or instructional strategy that I want to try. The field of writing studies is full of innovative research and dedicated instructors who publish such inspirational work. As I consider an approach I want to try, it is important to thoroughly read scholars’ accounts of their work as I formulate my own ideas. Of course, context matters. Someone else’s classroom is most likely going to be a different environment than my classroom. I need to consider the needs of my students and my own instructional strengths and weaknesses. This next step of developing and planning may include more research and—my favorite—collaboration with a colleague. Talking through our ideas with our colleagues is, in my opinion, one of the highlights of working as a composition instructor. And the input and perspective of others is always a benefit! Next, I have to put the plan I developed into action. There will most likely be moments of success and failure. However, it is the moment following both success and failure that reflection is necessary. Considering why something worked and why something else did not provides openings for growth and new opportunity. It is with intentional and consistent reflection that I have come to embrace my own failures as a part of my growth as an instructor and a person.

A chart outlining the Progressive Cycle of Failure. Step 1 is Start with inspiration; Step 2 is research; Step 3 is Formulate your own ideas; Step 4 is Develop and plan your practices; Step 5 is Put your plan into action; Step 6 is Failure or, alternatively, Success; and Step 7 is Reflect on your practice, look for new opportunities.

Opening our instructional practices in the composition classroom to allow for new ways of writing—and failing—is certainly not limited to the necessity for multimodal writing and technology instruction. Clearly, the ways we communicate are constantly transforming and evolving. As writing instructors, we must be willing to fail spectacularly as we push the boundaries of traditional composition expectations. Because, at the end of the day, we are writing instructors. We teach writing as a way of knowing and being in this world and, as such, must provide our students with the tools they need so they can interact meaningfully and successfully with the world around them. And this is a constantly evolving world that requires our imagination, creativity, and a willingness to fail, reflect, and talk about our failures so we can best serve our students.

A red background with white text saying keep calm and fail on topped by a crown.

Works Cited
Brooke, Collin, and Allison Carr. “Failure Can Be an Important Part of Writing Development.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 62–64. 

Carr, Allison D. “Failure Is Not an Option.” Bad Ideas about Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe, West Virginia University Libraries, 2017, pp. 76–81. 

Carr, Allison. “In Support of Failure.” Composition Forum, 2013, https://compositionforum.com/issue/27/failure.php. 

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. Anchor Books, 1997. 

Mina, Lilian W. “Social Media in the FYC Class: The New Digital Divide.” Social Writing/Social Media: Publics, Presentations, and Pedagogies, 2017, pp. 263–282., doi:10.37514/per-b.2017.0063.2.14. 

Palmquist, Mike. Joining the Conversation: Writing in College and Beyond. Bedford/St. Martins, 2010. 

Selber, Stuart A. Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. 

Shively, Lauren, et al. “Failure as Essential to the Writing Process.” Arkansas English Resource, Department of English at the University of Arkansas, 12 Dec. 2020, http://aer.uark.edu/doku.php?id=failure_as_essential_to_the_writing_process. 

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “The Meaning-Making of Reflection.” Composition Studies, 12 July 2021, compstudiesjournal.com/2021/07/12/the-meaning-making-of-reflection/. 

Zanatta, Eduardo. “Failure is a Part of Success.” YouTube, uploaded by TEDx Talks, 30 April 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bujIb_sQZvQ.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s