- Another F Word:Failure in the Classroom
In 1990, I published an essay titled "The Other 'F' Word, or the Feminist in the Classroom," in which I argued for ways to present feminist content so that students could make their own conclusions about the necessity of feminist studies and commitment. At the time, I suggested that we offer ourselves as feminist models with whom students could identify—or simply resist, an attitude I believed we could work through, like some therapeutic model of psychoanalysis. I assumed then that if we created the right feminist conditions in the classroom—offering a persuasive feminist rhetoric about social change, and most importantly creating a classroom where students could ask and answer their own questions about why feminism was necessary—we could encourage and develop feminist students. Feminist pedagogy, for that younger me, was to consist of a series of encounters with unenlightened students, in Richard Miller's sardonic terms, "ready to do the right thing if only told forcefully enough"—as he casts these pedagogical misfirings (1998: 199). Miller describes these failures to enact social change in the classroom as the moment when one learns that teaching inevitably involves the professor in bureaucracy rather than consciousness-raising (210); for Miller, our "real" work in the classroom is about assessment of student work and hierarchies of success. I now reluctantly agree with Miller, and so I substitute a new F word: failure.
What I thought then about bringing feminism to the classroom is not what I think now or can even imagine happening. Then, I had theorized a model of classroom interaction and exchange. I figured that all feminist teachers had to do was clarify the goals of feminism and challenge students [End Page 157] to adopt social justice. In short, I was inadvertently advancing a version of the surface/depth model (whereby we fill unenlightened students with enlightened political content)—but that is inadequate to teaching in the present context (and it is a version of the Freirean banking model anyway).
Sixteen years after I wrote "The Other 'F' Word," I am still interested in achieving community in the classroom, but I now approach it from the perspective of failure, especially my own. Perhaps, as Marshall Gregory (2006) writes, we are focused on two mutually conflicting goals: avoiding failure and self-exposure while creating "a true learning community," which is impossible to create without self-exposure and much risk, or outright failing. A "true learning community," Gregory insists, depends on intimacy and human recognition:
Learners enjoy an intimacy that encourages them to extend emotional and material support to each other. . . . In traditional humanities and sciences courses, it is difficult to generate this kind of intimacy. Students wander into classes pursuing private agendas, and if they take a class with a friend they do not generally branch out to make new friends in the class. There is intense social interaction going on all across campus, of course, but classrooms in the humanities and sciences generally get little benefit from it.(314)
We can never know our students' private agendas, but—following Gregory's value for self-exposure and risky priorities—we can begin to examine our own by considering our stories of failure. This commentary examines the rhetoric of pedagogical failure—that is, how we think about vulnerability in the classroom—and what that failure reveals about our hopes for our teaching lives.
Narratives of failed teaching and classroom miscommunication abound. For instance, in the first words of the first chapter of Sex, Literature, and Censorship, Jonathan Dollimore (2001: 3) starts with an example of a "scary" moment in a classroom fraught with anxiety: "It was a scary class. I knew that if I couldn't control this escalating argument between two students, then not just that one seminar, but the entire course might be wrecked for the rest of the term." In analyzing this fight between two students, one of whom was arguing for the radical force of queer politics and the other who believed that student's stance to be too utopian, Dollimore wonders whether it might be "impossible to teach" the specific course on sexual dissidence he...