In her post, Sarah questions Scott Berkun’s assertion that the anxieties surrounding failure are uniquely American. I don’t think I can answer that questions of course, but I have been thinking about such issues as I’ve been getting to know this culture and especially its educational system over the past few years. And, like Sarah, I am a perfectionist who finds that this trait is very hard to shake, so these texts certainly resonate with me. As a teacher, one of my goals is to get students to let go of the fear to fail, and, if at all possible, to let go of their focus on and anxiety about grades. But truth is that for them so much depends on their final grades and GPA. Admission, financial aid, fellowships, etc.
Even though Allison Car wants to focus not so much on external evaluation and assessment, ie. failing a course, as on failure as an “affect-bearing concept”, i.e. “being a failure,” I think the need for external praise and the importance of assessment is such an integral part here, not just of the educational system but the culture as a whole, and plays a huge role in why failure and “being a failure” is such a shattering experience. And, in a way, being able to take risks and be creative as a student is a luxury, something you probably would not dare think about if your GPA and financial aid is on the line when you’re just a number in an education factory. A lot of factors play a role, and I don’t think you can pinpoint the exact differences between different ways failure plays a role in different societies, but I do know that in the Dutch school system everyone fails at some point. And that’s totally fine. Grading is different. Only 50-60 percent of students usually pass a course (in higher ed mostly, secondary and elementary school are a bit different but there’s a difference in how they’re structured too, with three different levels of high school and no public/private–happy to elaborate on that in class). So almost everyone fails once, or twice, or more. No big deal. Then there’s the question of (access to) resources of course. Here, for many students failing a course or lagging behind means an increased financial strain on the student or family. In a system with only public schools, equal access and quality of education, there’s some wiggle room to fail and try again. Life doesn’t end there. Oh, and there are no class rankings, honors rolls, etc, all a result of the way in which secondary and higher Ed is structured in The Netherlands, which I think reduces the pressure and competition among peers.
I am still thinking about the differences here, why it sometimes seems it’s either/or here–either you’re a success, or you’re a failure–and why so many people have internalized this as well as the idea that it’s to the individual’s own fault or merit. But there are two other, more concrete things that I’d like to say about today’s readings, and that’s that I fully agree with what two articles in the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy’s Teaching Fails columns say, namely, that there’s a huge amount of student orthodoxy, and that in English/literature classes, you often find yourself spending more time navigating the technology (ie. finding the same passage on your e-reader) than on the actual text under discussion. The article’s author is waiting for a tool that makes the text more “ready to hand” than current technology. I also sometimes feel that with all these different devices students carry, the different letter sizes they use, etc, etc, it’s hard to be on the same page, literally. There are a few of us who teach the kind of massive literature surveys I teach, and I would love to hear your thoughts on this.