on failure

In yesterday’s tribute to Rebecca Mlynarczyk on the occasion of her retirement, one repeated point, intended as praise, got me thinking about how composition/rhetoric is (or may be) perceived within academia. “One thing Rebecca taught me,” Karen Pitt said, “is that it’s okay if you fail at something. You can even publish from it.”

Now, I believe I know what she’s saying here — see below — but all the same I heard this with a note of fear, worried about how the audience might interpret her comment. The English department announced last semester that it would not be hiring the two candidates for comp/rhet faculty, both of whom are much beloved by the comp/rhet students in the department; while the full reasons are confidential, and the final decision is still being negotiated, the air was full of insinuation: that ours was not a serious field, or that these were not serious scholars, because where were their academically published single-author books? With that fallout still drifting as background to our event, I couldn’t help but imagine a hostile (or even skeptical) listener’s smug reaction: You see? Comp/rhet is a field in which failure is acceptable. Q.E.D. not serious!

But rather than saying merely that failure is “okay,” I think comp/rhet teaches two related but different things about failure: that it is inevitable, and that it is interesting.

To say that failure is inevitable does not mean it is final: it means that, in most circumstances, the road to success does not lead in a straight line from inception to completion. The observation that “there is a forward-moving action that exists by virtue of a backward-moving action,” as Sondra Perl put it in “Understanding Composing” (364), may have come about as a description of writing process, but it could equally well apply to many endeavors, especially where learning is involved. And in English Studies, where so much learning takes place through writing (as the construction of arguments), set-backs and dead-ends are worth recognizing, and owning, and not being afraid of — or ashamed of. As I have recently argued in a forthcoming paper on metaphor, writer’s block, and the Legend of Zelda, the kinds of “success” we can have without such “failures” are perforce of limited scope: the end-stages of a rather boring game. So perhaps I shouldn’t say that failure is inevitable, but rather that it is normal.

Failure, then, is “okay” not as an end-point, but as a positive sign that you’re still engaged in the process of discovery — and should keep going. Another speaker, Nichole Stanford, highlighted this aspect of Rebecca’s teaching when she pointed out that her generous nurturing nature often manifested itself in rigorous ongoing demands for improvement, to the tune of (in this particular case) eleven drafts of a dissertation proposal.

But even beyond that, I believe that comp/rhet has taught us — and Rebecca in particular has taught me — that failures are in fact desirable, interesting in the scientific sense, as objects of study. Why? Because moments we experience as “failure” are moments of rupture between what we expected would happen and what actually happened: moments, therefore, in which the workings of the world are revealed in surprising ways. In the comment that triggered this essay, the idea that “you can even publish from [failure],” Karen was referring to a moment when an initially horrifying setback — one of Rebecca’s case-study students throwing her journal in the garbage prior to their first follow-up interview — became the starting point for a major re-evaluation of how students, vs. teachers, viewed these journals and what they were for. The new understanding emerging from this crisis became one of the driving forces behind Rebecca’s first book, Conversations of the Mind: The Uses of Journal Writing for Second-Language Learners . (Karen or Rebecca, if you’re reading this, please correct me if I’m getting this reference wrong. But I hold to the principle, regardless, and will continue to see Rebecca as one of the people who has taught me this lesson most clearly.)

So for anyone out there who was saddened or smug to see failure so praised, don’t think failure is weakness. It takes, if anything, rather more strength to look closely at something so potentially fraught with pain, frustration, or guilt. Composition is not the only field in which crises and ruptures and disappointments become grist for the discovery of new insights, but it is characteristic of compositionists to be fascinated with drafts and cuttings and negative spaces — to look at something in-process, and pause, and then look at the process itself. To move, in a word, to the meta.

Works Cited

Perl, Sondra. “Understanding Composing.” College Composition and Communication 31.4 (1980): 363-369. http://www.jstor.org/stable/356586

Mlynarczyk, Rebecca. Conversations of the Mind: The Uses of Journal Writing for Second-Language Learners. Psychology Press, 1998. via Google Books

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