Many of us know the feeling: seeing that first-year student “fail” (sometimes meaning a C, but still…) their first exam, and having to suddenly confront their first academic struggle. Or the senior getting rejected by their first choice graduate program, and having to suddenly reconcile what they thought they could do academically with what others think they can do. We recognize the feeling of inadequacy students feel. And the question about whether they belong. And the sudden uncertainty about their future plans. And the loneliness.
We often know the feeling because we still have it too: the scholarly paper rejected by the ideal journal after years of hard work; the student evaluations that sting with personal criticisms of a newly designed course; the memories or our own failures as students or our own graduate school rejections.
These things are hard to take at any stage of life, but there is some sense in higher education that the impact of failure may be particularly acute for contemporary students. The argument, as described in a 2017 New York Times article that was the featured piece for a recent Faith and Intellectual Life Discussion Group, is that “even as they were ever more outstanding on paper, students seemed unable to cope with simple struggles.” According to the article, administrators at Stanford and Harvard started calling it being “failure deprived.”
I am generally wary of claims that the current generation of students is particularly vulnerable to mental health concerns – college students have always had mental health concerns, and if anything we have likely gotten slightly better at destigmatizing that reality. We need to do better at supporting students, not pathologizing them. But I am also intrigued by the idea that there is value in faculty and academic staff helping students learn to cope with failure, at least partially by acknowledging their own.
The Times article cites a number of thought-provoking examples:
- Smith College uses a “Narratives Project” to have students and staff tell stories about failure – ideally helping others realize they are not alone.
- Stanford offers a “Resilience Project” that includes a “Stanford, I Screwed Up!” event described as “commemorating and celebrating the ‘epic failures’ in our lives. Students from across campus come together and share experiences through storytelling, comedy, poetry, song, video, spoken word, and other creative means.”
- Harvard has a “Success-Failure Project” where they offer “Reflections on Rejections” – “a collection of video and text reflections about rejection from Harvard University deans, faculty, students, and alums, as well as several of their actual rejection letters that some of them received. The letters are kind, cruel, or just form letters, but all Reflections on Rejections contributors were courageous enough to share their letters and their insights.”
- Princeton has a “Perspective Project” where they suggest: “Everyone faces struggles, setbacks, and failures at some point in their Princeton career, yet we so rarely talk about these experiences. Members of the Princeton Perspective Project believe that sharing these stories will reveal a new perspective on campus life, while helping all of us to be more resilient by understanding that failure is a natural part of the path to success — however you define it.”
- Penn uses a “PennFaces” component of their own “Resilience Project” to feature “stories of successes and failures, ups and downs, hardships and self-discoveries, in order to foster resilience and create more honest and open dialogue on Penn’s campus. It celebrates the diversity of members of the Penn community – students, faculty, staff, and alumni – by sharing stories that can connect all of us. In sharing these stories and perspectives, we hope to deconstruct the Penn Face – the idea that one must always appear busy, happy, and successful at everything all the time. Let’s challenge the single notion of success.”
Are UP students as “failure deprived” as students at Stanford or Princeton? For better or worse, they are probably not. (Though Portland did kind-of make an appearance in the Times article, when it discussed the broader issue in higher education by noting “If it all feels a bit like a “Portlandia” sketch, that’s because it actually was one: in which Fred and Carrie decide to hire a bully to teach grit to students, one who uses padded gym mats to make sure the children don’t actually get hurt.”) It’s also important to not fetishize failure as part of a cultural self-help narrative.
But these examples may offer a helpful reminder that our best students, like all our students, are not immune from mental health challenges. And sometimes hearing faculty and academic staff in the context of our classes or our advising talk about our own failures might help students keep things in perspective. Maybe, in other words, our own lack of failure deprivation could be put to good use.