Talking About Failure in Academia

Red door against a painted wall that has paint peeling.

Taking about failure is hard. The ways in which we talk about and process failure can be deeply personal. We often see failure of a representation of ourselves and take it personally. Folks in academia talk about success, however we are less apt to discuss those times we’ve failed to hit the mark.

Failure is an experience. It has the potential to provide room for growth, professional lessons, and examples for others. Talking openly about failure also has the potential to contribute to conversations about systemic problems and allows us to acknowledge when systems are stacked against communities.

The Shadow CV

Since 2010, there has been a movement to create public ‘shadow CVs‘ which instead of documenting accomplishments document failures. These documents often include rejected papers, grants submitted but not received, job rejections, etc. The idea behind these cvs is to talk about failure and let emerging scholars know that the road to success if often filled with missteps, disappointments, and hidden failures.

This practice of publicly documenting failure has been criticized as a form of privilege that is only available to those who are in a position of success.  New scholars, adjunct faculty, and precariously employed folks often can’t afford to publicly advertise their failures.  Additionally the narrative often hidden behind these shadow cvs is that look – even with all of these failures I’m still successful. You just need to work harder. Sometimes working harder isn’t an option and it definitely isn’t going to improve flawed employment systems.

Speaking to Failure

Despite some of the problems with the shadow CV movement, I do think that it is important to talk about failure.  It’s important to talk about how receiving a “revise and resubmit” on a journal article is common and part of the publishing process. It is important to acknowledge the emotional labour that is tied up in every professional successes and professional failures.

Even the lines on our cvs that represent success – a grant or a publication – can have layers of failure behind them. That published article might have been rejected from your first choice of journal. That successful grant might be the only grant you received out of the three you submitted. Success and failure isn’t always as straight cut as it seems.  The “How I Fail” series by Veronika Cheplygina is a good example of numerous academics talking openly about the complicated nature of failure.

It is important to have these conversations in places that be inclusive of students and new professionals. They need to know that academic life is filled with failure. And that even though failure can be soul crushing, sometimes it isn’t as personal as it seems at first glance.

Rethinking Failure

Measuring academic success and academic failure has long been related to landing tenure track positions. A shift away from measuring tenure as success has started to happen with the emergence of a vocal alt-ac community and the acknowledgement of problems within the tenure system.  Personally I think we need to evaluate success and failure on individual levels.

Having work and life balance is a success. Being happy with where you live and getting satisfaction out of your job is success. And how you measure success is going to change based on your health, career stage, and personal life.  Some days just getting out of bed and putting pants on counts as a huge success.

We need to talk about how we evaluate failure, talk openly about the unique challenges of failure within academia, and work to build supportive communities that exist throughout all the ups and downs.

Photo credit: Ronald Cuyan on Unsplash