Right This Way to the Faculty Fail Fest!

Julia Williams


Earlier this week I received a notice about the upcoming Fail Fest Wabash Valley 2018, sponsored by our local economic development organization.  During a one-day event, college students can brainstorm new ideas for marketable products, test those ideas, perhaps fail, but then try again.  The premise of the Fail Fest is expressed well in the advertising flyer:  failure leads to insight, understanding, and innovation.

As I considered the allure of Fail Fest for undergraduate students, I was suddenly struck by a thought:  where is the Fail Fest for college professors?  Where is the safe, supportive environment that encourages creative, unconventional ideas?  Where is the place where failure to accomplish a goal results in insight and understanding?   Where is the place where failure results in moving a career forward?

It isn’t easy to envision where the Faculty Fail Fest would take place, since many of us in academic positions understand that failure in our workplace doesn’t usually result in positive outcomes like insight and understanding.

Try a new pedagogy?  If it fails and students record their dissatisfaction in their end of term course evaluations, you may be tempted to turn away from innovation and return to the standard teaching approach.

Explore an innovative research path?  The tenure committee may not recognize or understand the work, or a journal editor may send your manuscript back unread.

Put yourself forward for a new position in your department, college, or university?  As it happened in my case, you may find that the new position goes to another candidate, or disappears entirely because of budget cuts and constraints. 

As faculty, we are accustomed to succeeding:   we graduated from college, we wrote dissertations, we were awarded PhDs, we sought and won research grants, we get published.  We don’t often fail, and it is very difficult to look upon any stumble or misstep as anything but failure.  As I experienced my own failure earlier this year, I realized that I was unprepared for any other outcome than the one I had striven for.  In other words, I didn’t even consider that my hard work wouldn’t be recognized and rewarded.  I should have considered the possibility, slim though it was, that the outcome of the process might be different than the outcome I envisioned.

So, how do we prepare ourselves for failure and how do we celebrate the insights and understanding that come with it?  Emotional Regulation techniques that KC Dee explained so eloquently in an earlier blog are useful to plan and practice when one can anticipate difficult scenarios.  Susan Robison, who consults with academics as a leadership coach and is the author of the Peak Performing Professor, recommends grieving the loss.  I agree, and her advice is relevant to the work we do as change agents.  Loss and disappointed hopes are the price we pay when we take risks, challenge the status quo, and dedicate ourselves to change.  Just because the plans we made didn’t bear fruit doesn’t mean that we won’t see other positive outcomes at another time.

For my part, I am finding my way to the Faculty Fail Fest through a few important and intentional actions.  First, I am reading books like Robison’s and Jeffrey L. Buller’s Positive Academic Leadership.  There is a noxious cloud around failure, and these authors help me clear the air with a new attitude.  Second, I am keeping my focus on the reason I put myself forward in the first place:  to change the status quo at my institution and to help faculty create innovative pedagogies and programs that impact students’ learning.  Third, I am trying to encourage myself and others to emphasize the insight and understanding that comes from failure.

Now, I may not be exactly in the midst of the Festival, maybe I’m missing the cotton candy and corn dog, but at least I’ve bought my ticket, and I can see the Tilt-a-Whirl on the horizon!

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