fail me!

In academia we are not often given the opportunity to fail.

We are definitely not encouraged to.

I am taking a class on teaching religious studies and the humanities this semester, and the professor brought up an interesting point on the first day of classes.

Would it be possible to see failure as a good thing?

In our writing, we are always supposed to form a thesis and support and develop it in a well-thought out paper, which ends with a neat conclusion that summarizes how we have successfully proved our claim.

These papers are seen as problems to be solved, and the solution should never contradict the analysis- you’re not allowed to spend 10, 15, 20 pages playing with ideas and analysis and application and come to the conclusion that none of what you have been doing works or matters.

There has to be a purpose, and it has to solve some problem in order to be considered productive.

This very much echoes Robin James’ analysis of resilience discourse in her book “Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism”. In the book she describes the use and subsumation of narratives of overcoming within the economy of neoliberalism. The energy of dealing with a hardship and coming out on top is now being used as a kind of feedback loop- the amount of resilience you produce supports and reaffirms the racist, sexist, ableist, etc., system. In brief, James’ criticism of resilience proposes the solution of melancholy, which she describes as “going into death”. This doesn’t necessarily literally mean dying, but it can mean dying in the incorrect way or at the incorrect time.

“Resilience is the contemporary update of mourning; instead of conquering damage we recycle it. Damage isn’t a bug to eliminate, but a feature to exploit. In this context, melancholia is not the failure to resolve  a lack but a misfired resilience, the failure to bounce back enough and/or in the right direction” (19)

I would like to argue that what we view as “failure” in academia can instead be seen as a form of counter-resilience, an act of resistance. If I spend 20 pages of a paper working with an analysis that ultimately doesn’t make sense, I have failed only in the sense that I have not produced some easily summarizable conclusion that can be recycled and used in the next person’s analysis, the next student’s paper.

If we are, as bell hooks would advocate, to view the teaching and learning process as revolutionary and as an act of resistance, then we should be viewing failure as a good thing, as a positive force.

We should try to fail. We might end up succeeding.

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