Confronting Failure: Learning Outcomes in a Pandemic

Soon after “pandemic” became a regular part of our collective vocabulary, the world paused. The pause was unexpected, immediate, and frantic. I remember the somber day on which the government announced the closure of schools. I was sitting in my office and had just finished teaching. The class sizes were smaller than usual, naturally, because many of us had been following the rapidly increasing threat of an international health risk. On that day, each class, like the world, paused. The silence was ceremonial. I remember it being heavy and lingering, but also strangely comforting. There was an unspoken conversation between everyone in the room as we looked at each other, some with fear, others with fatigue, and some with embarrassment for having locked eyes with a stranger. From this pause emerged a growing sense of curiosity: what now? The urgency of the question implored an immediate answer, but there was none.

I conveyed the little information I had and reassured the class that it was valid to feel afraid or confused. Hours later the shutdown was announced and the semester was in limbo for two weeks as we waited for information on how to proceed. The initial response to the crisis was to wait, which meant that those initial reactions of concern and confusion had been prolonged. Each day was filled with news conferences and emails as we turned to experts and to each other, searching for guidance. We were without the convenience of immediate solutions and certainty, forcing us to confront—if we hadn’t already—a bleak, unknown future.

During this time, I was asked to design and teach a course on Climate Literature. I was crafting a course geared toward educating others on the environmental crisis, while in the middle of a health crisis, while everyone would be dealing with their own individual and personal levels of crisis. The task was initially overwhelming, but the timing of the course seemed appropriate. Both the environmental crisis and the health crisis were concerned with a similar question: how do we survive physically, emotionally, and collectively despite an urgent yet unseen threat?

I began the course with a questionnaire. One question was particularly revealing: In your own words, how would you describe nature? The answers were unanimous: each answer described nature as a green forest that was soothing and calming and filled with beautiful sunsets. Through these descriptions, nature presented itself as a tranquil refuge from the current unease. This reaction from the students resonated with trending news stories as our attention briefly shifted from the devastating and mysterious illness, to the environment. Nature was supposedly healing now that the world abruptly paused from the chaos of “normal” life and it could return to a former, less-polluted state. Like the students’ responses, nature acted as an imagined space of restoration, a desirable alternative to our current state. Eventually, this focus on an environmental revival was supplanted with a growing interest in when and how a sense of normalcy would return. These reactions revealed an instinctual desire to combat confusion and fear with a return to normalcy and this return was disguised as healing. This idea of a return, though, is problematic. It redirects the attention from a future of possibility and change to a past that was unsustainable, but familiar. Is this healing?

The next step after the questionnaire was to watch a video of a diver in Indonesia swimming through a plastic-filled ocean. When we met, the question that we had to consider was: Is this natural? The word “natural” was understood in a number of ways: it meant common, familiar, normal. The variable meanings of the term sparked confusion: what is nature if not green? This led to a more compelling question: how can we broaden our understanding of this term without necessarily returning to an idea of nature that is familiar and personal?

We investigated this question by moving through different modules: Romanticism and Nature; Science Fiction and Imagined Futures; Eco-Doom and Eco-Horror. We wanted to complicate and challenge ideas of the natural world so that we never settled into one way of thinking of the environment. By examining the various meanings of the term nature, students became more at ease with sharing their stories. Although this was a course on literature and we had a series of texts that we were studying, we allocated much of our time to sharing our knowledge of different spaces and places in the world, which eventually led to a discussion of our fears and even our ignorance. Students were not only excited to share their knowledge, but to acknowledge their defeat and assess their shortcomings. We were learning through narrative and storytelling, which fostered a sense of community.

I do not want to downplay the fears that were shared while discussing environmental disasters during a pandemic. The fears were present, but as we supported each other through our fears, students began taking risks with their assignments and with their thinking. They became comfortable with silences and with addressing their uncertainty. When confronted with a problem, they didn’t simply seek to locate an immediate solution, but they were motivated to explore more questions. They were driven by an impulse to better understand the problem. This meant postulating theories that lead to failed conclusions or pursuing avenues of thought with failed results. In other words, failure became essential to learning.

It’s this aspect that I find most interesting. Failure is a term that is often avoided or feared—understandably so. The cost of education is high, leaving no room to fail without suffering financially. Many students are working several jobs to compensate for the growing cost of education. This leads to an overwhelming need to pursue a standardized idea of success: get a specific grade; obtain a diploma in a prescribed number of years; obtain a stable career. However, we eliminate the potential for failure when we prioritize these bullet points of success. Perhaps, though, without the inhibition of pursuing a prescriptive idea of success, there can be room to foster understanding, which requires time for critical thinking and reflection. To do this, we should not regard failure as a personal or moral deficiency, but as the learning opportunity it’s always been.

In class, we needed to confront an uncomfortable question: how have we failed the environment? We recognized that the space we had designated for failure was enlightening and innovative. The acceptance of failure forced us to immerse ourselves in the unknown, to feel vulnerable, to pursue several truths without returning to or relying on what had been familiar. It inspired an ongoing conversation that refused any sense of finality. It put the onus on us to keep thinking, to keep revisiting and reworking ideas, and to be present and attentive. We were asked to pause briefly in the discomfort of our own failures, and to investigate solutions by working collaboratively with others. How then can we normalize failure in the classroom by repositioning it as a lucrative endeavour rather than a paralyzing defeat? How can we mobilize the powerful and potentially transformative aspect of failure to acknowledge and rectify our environmental failures

About the author:

Dr. Kim Sigouin currently works as a contract instructor. She completed her Ph.D. in English Language and Literature at Carleton University in 2017. Her dissertation investigated the relationship between experimental writing, bodies, and ecology in the work of modernist women writers such as Gertrude Stein, H.D., and Virginia Woolf. Her most recent publication can be found in Affective Materialities: Reorienting the Body in Modernist Literature.

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