Magnificent Failure?

William Faulkner considered The Sound and the Fury (1929) a failure, albeit a “splendid” failure. As he said in a 1957 interview:

I tried first to tell it with one brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section One. I tried with another brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section Two. I tried the third brother, because Caddy was still to me too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on, that it would be more passionate to see her through somebody else’s eyes, I thought. And that failed and I tried myself — the fourth section — to tell what happened, and I still failed. (see

I thought of this statement when I read “Next Time, Fail Better” by Paula Krebs in a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary ( In it, Krebs—then a professor of English at Wheaton college—recounts her experience of sitting in on a colleague’s computer science classes and being amazed, and then impressed, with the degree to which students in those classes expected to fail at many or even most of their attempts:
A computer program that doesn’t run is a failure. A program that produces no usable data about the text it was set up to analyze is a failure. Why don’t those failures devastate the developers? Because each time their efforts fail, the developers learn something they can use to get closer to success the next time.
Krebs goes on to think about her own students in the humanities: they fear and shun failure, she writes, they “aren’t used to failure” and want to get everything right the first time. So Krebs thinks we should take a page from the sciences and teach students to learn from failure:
That’s what we should be teaching humanities students—to look at what went wrong and figure out how to learn from it. OK, that didn’t work. But my next try isn’t then going to be a complete ground-zero beginning. I’ll be starting with the knowledge that my last try didn’t work. Maybe it worked up to a particular point, and I can start over from there. Maybe it didn’t work because I took on too much, so now I will start smaller. Maybe it can’t work at all, and I need a new text from which to begin—a text in a different genre or a text in combination with something else.
What Krebs is describing, of course, is the way most writing teaches approach the production of texts—as a laborious process that encounters many roadblocks and wrong turns and re-starts. Yet I think we can still learn from Krebs and her computer science colleagues, for far too many students come into our classes with the expectation that if they can’t do well right away they will never do well. It’s up to us to get that attitude out on the table for discussion on day one, and to keep returning to it throughout the term: success can and often does lie at the end of a string of failures.
When I started teaching at the University of British Columbia in 1977, I found that over half of the students in my classes were what they called “ESL” students, even though for most of them English was not a “second” language but perhaps a third or fourth. These were terrific students—bright, eager to learn, extremely hard working. And they made great progress. But if they knew one thing, it was that their successful path toward fluent academic English would be strewn with failure. In a conference with one of my students (first-generation Canadian who spoke Mandarin at home and just about everywhere but in college), he said “it’s just that the alphabet doesn’t go down low enough for me.” “What?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “it only goes down to F: I wish it went at least to M: then when I got to “F” I could see that I’d made a lot of progress, not that I was a FAILURE.”
Those words have always stayed with me, and when we’re teaching student writers, we need to remember them: the “failures” this student experienced were in fact important steps on his way to fluency. Not to be experienced with shame or fear and loathing but with the confidence that they would lead to success. If only the alphabet had gone down just a little bit farthe

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