Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Lessons in Failure

by Kamilah Cummings

Write 50,000 words in one month. That was the challenge for the SNL Month of Writing (MOW), and I joined the challenge. Although I rarely set goals that I deem unrealistic, I somehow thought that I might be able to climb mount 50,000. I set out on my mission despite the glaring absence of logic in the thought of me accomplishing the lofty MOW goal. In hindsight, or perhaps foresight if I am honest, I was not equipped to embark on this journey at this time in my life. Like so many other lessons that I am currently learning, my failure to write 50,000 words in 31 days is a reminder that life does not always follow the script that I write, no matter how many times I revise it.  Needless to say, as it so often does, reality had already penned a different script. 

I registered for the MOW with every hope of writing 50,000 words by Halloween. I convinced myself that a hearty mix of pride, a love for writing, and a desire to succeed would thrust me across the finish line regardless of mounting personal and professional responsibilities. The desire was there but the opportunities to write often eluded me. I found the task of juggling personal and professional responsibilities with the MOW difficult at best. This made me think about students in this writing-intensive program who, regardless of the priority placed on earning a degree or the desire to do well in school, struggle to fit school into their busy lives. A 2013 Public Agenda report titled Is it Worth It for Me? How Adults Without Degrees Think About Going (Back) to School found that a top concern for adult students is balancing “school with work and family obligations” (Hagelskamp, Schleifer and DiStasi). As I struggled to meet my writing goal, I took a harder look at my students last quarter. Several of them started out with earnest desires to do well, but quickly found their school work taking a back seat to unexpected personal and professional situations.

I have always tried to be an empathetic and supportive teacher. As teachers, we sometimes walk a precarious line between supporting, enabling, and downright handicapping adult students because of an awareness of the constraints associated with returning to college later in life.  With that being said, after receiving my personal invitation to sit at the table of unforeseen challenges and requisite demands during the MOW, I have a new found appreciation for my students' challenges.  As students spoke with me, emailed or telephoned about issues preventing them from submitting work, I found myself almost commiserating with them. My inability to secure time to write even when I wanted to produced a new layer of empathy.

My failure to reach my goal also made me think about the psychological impact that teacher expectations have on adult students. The Public Agenda report found that “
many also worry whether they will be able to keep up academically” (Hagelskamp, Schleifer and DiStasi). As I plodded along in the writing challenge, I wondered how my students feel when they do not meet course or individual assignment expectations. This led me to create an unofficial survey of students in one of my classes. One of the questions that I asked was what they were most/least proud of regarding their participation. The thing that most disappointed students was not completing assignments. Over the years, I have seen that some adult students are equally disappointed when they do not earn A’s. I admit that as the weekly writing totals were tallied for MOW participants, I felt increasing disappointment at my low numbers in relation to my peers. After sitting with my disappointment for a while, it was easy for me to move past it because my lack of achievement was devoid of ramifications.  However, the same cannot be said for students who are financially and emotionally invested in their school work. 

After several weeks of missing my writing goals, I reset my goal to a more realistic 5,000 words. I ultimately met that goal (barely) and felt a sense of satisfaction in doing so.  While readjusting my goal, I thought about the Olympics and said to myself, a gold medal would be great, but silver and bronze also make it to the podium. Achieving my 5,000-word goal made me feel like I was on the podium being draped in bronze. I plan to work more on communicating this message to my students. I want them to feel motivated to achieve certain goals, but I do not want them to feel defeated or disappointed if they do not meet “A” expectations. In fact, sometimes just completing an assignment amid a chaotic time might feel like winning gold to a student, and I want to make sure that I acknowledge that. 

It can be difficult to fail at something as seemingly innocuous as a writing challenge. However, this experience reinforced the idea that the failure to achieve a goal is not in itself always a failure. The pursuit of a goal can sometimes yield a more profound result than the attainment of it. It certainly did for me. Despite failing to pen 50,000 words last month, I learned lessons that I think will ultimately improve my teaching.

Works Cited

Hagelskamp, Carolin, David Schleifer and Christopher DiStasi. "Is College Worth It For Me? How Adults Without Degrees Think About Going (Back) to School." Study. 2013.

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