The Concept of Failure in the Writing Classroom

Sarah Lonelodge

As a professor of composition, writing is something I take very seriously. My entire career consists of teaching college freshmen how to construct essays or reading articles about how to teach college freshmen to construct essays or discussing with others how to teach college freshmen to construct essays. You get the idea. I have put enormous amounts of time and energy into my efforts to help every single student in every single class I teach learn how to write college-level, academically-sound essays. Usually, I think I do that job very well, but recently, after one student encounter in particular, I’ve come to doubt myself and some of my methods—not because that student failed my class (she actually earned a B) but because I, as a writing instructor, failed her.

I did not really take Jane, as I’ll refer to her here, seriously at the beginning of the semester. She sat with friends and talked and laughed and texted during class. It didn’t bother me, but it did tell me that she was probably only in my class due to the University’s requirement. I understand this, and I have no problem with it. Most students in first-year composition classes have absolutely no desire to be there other than a collective desire to graduate college and perhaps be able to perform well on writing assignments in upper division courses. These types of students are quite typical and make up the majority of first-year composition students as the more advanced writers and the English majors often test out. This leaves classrooms full of students who view Composition courses as somewhat futile. They aim low, often expressing that their goal is to earn a C, because they feel incapable of better, they do the minimum amount of work because they feel other, more relevant classes deserve their attention, and they all-too-often never realize their full potential because they are comfortable with scraping by rather than striving for more. To me, though they often pass the class, these students fail because they are unable to fully grasp the importance of writing and their own potential for greatness. Unfortunately, I wrongly assumed that Jane was this type of student.

About halfway through the semester, Jane came up to me in the middle of class. I had just handed back the second essay, so students were looking over my comments and asking questions. She had received a very low grade and was visibly upset, so she came up to ask me if she would be able to pass my class. “I just really don’t want to fail,” she said to me, almost crying, red faced in front of everyone. I felt terrible. The thing you must understand about my class though is that every student has the opportunity to revise every paper, and there is absolutely no limit as to how much they can raise their original grade on the assignment. So of course I had to reply in a way that reflected that opportunity. I told her that her grade depends on her effort, which was true. I told her that if she works really hard, she’ll not only pass but make a good grade in my class, which was true. I told her that she had really good ideas but needed to develop and organize them more clearly, which was true. She went back to her seat somewhat relieved, and I felt that I had done my job. I reminded everyone in that class that I was available for conferences and that I could meet with them during my office hours and that I could answer questions through email and so forth, and I even looked directly at Jane and gave her a little nod to make sure she heard me and understood that I especially meant her. I felt good about my handling of the situation, and I was genuinely glad when she did meet with me and email me concerning her papers. We worked through them together, and she seemed to really grasp the concept of the essay structures.

At the end of the class, Jane submitted her portfolio with each of her essays revised wonderfully. She had done well. She had learned. She had fixed many of her most pronounced mistakes.
But then, I read her reflective letter. This is a small assignment that is attached to the portfolio in the form of a letter in which each student explains to me what they learned in my class, what they enjoyed, what they hated, and so forth. This is where I saw my own failure.

Jane’s letter was full of doubt. She wrote that she now questioned everything about her future because her love of writing was lost, her passion for it stifled. It was then that I learned of Jane’s desire to become a writer. She did not blame me for this unhappy realization; she merely questioned her own journey. But I knew as I read her words, her beautifully sad words, that I had failed her.

I did not see her before that moment. I did not realize that she was such an amazing creative writer with so much potential. The formulaic nature of the essay had quieted her voice, and I overlooked the opportunity to show her how to include it in her essays.

This isn’t a failure with which I normally have to contend. I try to implement at least one creative writing activity per unit, but it just so happened that in this particular semester, I deleted these activities from my lesson plans in order to focus more deeply on things like research, source use, and thesis statements. While these are essential aspects of essay writing, I did not realize that I may be overlooking a vital piece of teaching good writing: helping students find their voice.

Perhaps it’s needless to say that I felt terrible, but I truly did. I still do. I knew that this shortcoming would eat away at me, and so I decided to send Jane an email. It was the only way I knew to reach her. I wrote to her that same day, and I told her the truth. I told her that she was a great writer with great potential, that she should take a few creative writing classes, that her letter was outstanding, that she should not give up. I felt better about myself and my teaching ability after I sent that email. She replied to it and thanked me and told me that she felt much better and would continue writing, but even that has not been a good enough consolation as I often think that there were likely more students who had much of the same experience, though their letters may not have reflected it. There isn’t much I can do about that now.

So failure here is not the kind where a student’s grade prevented him or her from passing, and it isn’t the kind that happens when an instructor completely misses the mark in teaching the basic concept of the class, for my students learn a lot about essay writing and all that goes into it. This, instead, is the kind of failure that results from trying to be better in one respect by sacrificing something equally important, a realization only recognized when hindsight raises its hand and strikes the cheek. But most importantly, it is the kind of failure that only happens once. I will never again look at an individual in my classroom and see the typical composition student. I will always structure my lesson plans in a way that helps my budding writers find their voices. And, most importantly, I will forever remember that the passion for words hiding within Jane could be hiding in any one of my students. Though it has always been my goal to bring that passion out of those who have it and plant it in those who do not, I have now seen it and felt it when it’s lost. My resolve to succeed is now far greater, for I cannot, will not fail again.