What We’re Reading: Failing Gloriously

illustration by Clare Reid

Our students, by and large, are terrified of failure. In consultation after consultation, I help faculty in a variety of ways try to design learning experiences that allow for students to fail, but to do so productively, safely, and to start to be ok with that failure. Failure is one of the most powerful ways that we have to learn, and, cliché or not, failure is a part of life. How can we help our students, or even help ourselves, be ok with failure?

Shawn Graham, an Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at Carleton University (Canada), pushes that question a step further in his 2019 book Failing Gloriously and other Essays, asking what it would be to fail gloriously. “To fail productively would mean an honest assessment of what actually happened. To fail gloriously would be to change the system so that honesty would not be seen as a radical act” (4). This collection of essays, written over the past decade, chronicles Graham’s journey toward failing gloriously, through his various teaching positions, as well as on his journey to tenure.

He provides a useful taxonomy of failure, a taxonomy we can use with our own students, to better help them reflect on their own “failures” in class. Is it a failure of planning or a failure of communication, for instance? But Graham also offers us a roadmap toward modeling for our students what we want them to do: try, fail, reflect, and try again, but better. His generosity and honesty are refreshing if only because we, as academics, often do a poor job of being transparent about our own failures.

While I splurged and bought a hard copy, you can download the book, for free, directly from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. And while you may recognize my name in the acknowledgements, that isn’t why I’m recommending the book. If we want to figure out how to help our students fail, then we need to start failing gloriously to fix the system that makes them too afraid to fail to begin with.