This Post Reeks of Fail (And That’s a Good Thing)

For all the joys that come from teaching, there are also more than a few frustrations. One of my greatest personal frustrations with teaching is the difference between the expectations I have of my students and the expectations they have of themselves. I start out every month at Full Sail with at least fifty new students, all of whom I wish to succeed. I never start a month hoping to fail a few, and I’m delighted when good writing starts pouring in. When I see work that is not up to my standards I work quickly to identify the student’s skill set and to find out how I can help him or her succeed in the class. I also make myself very available to students and expect that students who feel they’re not reaping the benefits of the class will tell me right away. I can generally understand where students are coming from and where confusion happens. One thing I don’t understand though, is total and utter resistance to improvement, and the expectation that meeting the basic requirements of an assignment equals an A.

Just because you did the work doesn’t mean it’s perfect and needs no improvement. This is more difficult to explain in Creative Writing than in some other classes I’ve taught because there’s the assumption that I’m just grading people based on whether or not I like their stories, which is certainly not true at all. I’m grading on a bunch of things, like overall craft, attention to detail, application of lessons, formatting, clarity, creativity, adherence to Freytag’s Pyramid (or creative misuse of it), and several other factors.  Creative Writing is a multifaceted art and a lot goes into evaluating each individual story that comes across my desk. Good teachers know that just telling a student “Great job!” and slapping an A on everything they do is more harmful than helpful. Constructive criticism is the foundation of improvement, self or otherwise.

Earlier today I read this article on RochesterSage titled “I Want My Kids to Fail.”  In it, the author explains that by experiencing disappointment and failure in their lives, his children will grow up understanding what needs to be done to succeed. This is true on so many levels. We learn from our mistakes, right?

If LeBron James had won every single basketball game he ever played in high school would he have practiced as hard as he did and been picked up by the NBA? Maybe, but would he have worked that much harder to become the superstar he is today? Probably not. Failure taught him to work harder. If Stephen Spielberg hadn’t been rejected from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts not once, not twice, but three times, would he have persevered to become one of the greatest filmmakers in the world? Maybe not. If J.K.Rowling had given up after the first twelve publishing houses that rejected her manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, would she now be one of the richest women in the world? Would Harry Potter even exist? No.

How Lebron James would have reacted if J.K. Rowling had given up on Harry Potter.

Failure teaches us to work harder, and it makes our success so much more satisfying. This is why I get frustrated when a student who earned a B on a short story complains about meeting the word count and deserving an A. If I had received As on everything I did in school I never would have worked any harder to become better. I did receive a lot of As in high school and college because I learned early on in elementary school what it took to get As–and I learned by not getting As. I also received Bs, and even Cs in high school and college and honestly, I was never surprised by a grade. I knew when I turned in a B paper and when I turned in a C paper. Hey, I failed Algebra II in high school and took it again without complaining. I knew I deserved to fail and that I hadn’t mastered the subject. I learned by accepting criticism from my instructors and I learned from my mistakes. Therefore, it baffles me when college students seem to be more offended than grateful for constructive criticism. We go to college to learn, because we don’t know all the material, not to demonstrate that we already know everything and that you (the teachers) have nothing to teach us.

An A-, B’s, and even C’s are nothing to be ashamed of. If you got a C it just means that your work was average, met the basic requirements, and has room for improvement. Any good teacher will tell you how to improve and with perseverance, you’ll do better next time. And that’s always the goal as a student, isn’t it? To continuously get better and develop your skills until you master them? And even then, don’t you want to continuously work to become even better than you already are? Imagine if LeBron suddenly decided he was good enough, stopped practicing, and gained thirty pounds. Could he still expect to be a MVP? What if halfway through the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling decided she’d done enough and had made enough money and handed off the rest of the series to an inexperienced ghost writer? What a mess we’d have.

For fun, check out this list of 30 famous authors whose works were rejected repeatedly by publishers, and remember that criticism and rejections are nothing to get upset about, but should be great motivators to improve. Then go thank a teacher from your past who pushed you to do better.


About Jaclyn Sullivan

I'm a full time Instructional Designer and a sometimes adjunct professor of English Composition. I have a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida and I'm a published fiction and non-fiction writer. Check me out on LinkedIn: I'm a big fan of post-modern literature and swear by the lessons of Kurt Vonnegut. Some of my favorite writers include Lorrie Moore, Antonya Nelson, Grace Paley, Flannery O'Connor, Louise Erdrich, and Raymond Carver. I like Tom Waits, Andrew Bird, actual birds, pictures of cats, actual cats, animals in general, polka dots, exercise, iced coffee, reading, writing, tv-viewing, the Internet, and food. I dislike rain on days when my hair looks good, sweating, t-rex arms, public bathrooms, books being made into awful movies, and when The Walking Dead is on hiatus.
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2 Responses to This Post Reeks of Fail (And That’s a Good Thing)

  1. Jaclyn, thank you for the link to my post on Rochester SAGE and the kind words. I did want to let you know that I am a dad.

    Great post on working until you succeed! I particularly liked “Good teachers know that just telling a student “Great job!” and slapping an A on everything they do is more harmful than helpful.”

    BTW, it is probably best that publishers rejected e.e. cummings. Could you imagine what an editor would have done to his work???

    • Thanks for letting me know, I’ll change the pronoun right now! I looked for an author and couldn’t seem to find one on the post. Thanks for your kind words. You’re probably right about e.e.cummings. He may have suffered the fate of Raymond Carver.

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