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Higher Education

Pedagogy of Failure

In English Studies, but particularly in rhetoric and composition, there is a well-worn tradition I refer to as the “heroic pedagogy narrative.” In this narrative, the hero-teacher, with trusted student sidekicks, overcomes some obstacle to learning through pedagogical action. It is the narrative structure of heroic teacher movies like Dead Poets’ Society, as well as scholarly articles on “what worked well in my class.” This narrative is a powerful, ideological attunement. I imagine all teachers have felt it when a particular class, or even semester, really comes together. Students also strive to stitch together such narratives from their experiences. In the end, students and teachers share an investment in constructing a positive reflection upon a semester. So what then is a “pedagogy of failure”?

It is not a pedagogy that intends to fail; nor is it a romanticized tragedy of the heroic narrative. It is the radical dissipation of energy that slips the grasp of pedagogic narrative. Typically we make ideological investments in the pedagogic process that solidify our psycho-emotional ties to learning institutions and our roles within them (as students, as professors, etc.). The possibility of learning is forestalled by the closure of conventional pedagogy, where the discourse of certainty and mastery confirms our identities: heroic pedagogy brings learning to an end through the confirmation of the students’ development. The student who lacked certain knowledge, gained knowledge, though the student’s fundamental lack–ignorance, inablity–remains. Filling a “gap” in knowledge only highlights how many more gaps remain.

Learning happens through the failure of pedagogy, that is, the inability for teaching to produce closure and reaffirm our ideological investments. Learning is uncomfortable; it is the discomfort of finding oneself out of place. It is not, however, the punitive, disciplinary element of traditional pedagogy: that is just a crude approximation, an adaption/capture of this experience that transforms discomfort into a confessional tool. This discomfort is more akin to “growing pains,” the experience of mutation. Nevertheless it is not easily desired or pursued. In fact, it may only be pursued obliquely. Pedagogy’s failure to complete its pattern of closure is inevitable; fissures in the pattern are smoothed over, interpreted as the failure of individuals (students or teachers) rather than a structural impossiblity. A pedagogy of failure then is one that lies in waiting for those fissures, to disrupt the moment of closure, maintaining instead the open plurality of learning. But this is not a planned failure; nor is it simply an ideological critique of this process. It is instead a positive action, a move to shift learning from a process of interpellation where each piece of information solidifies the structural relationship between the subject and the State to a process of mutation where information contributes experimentally to the process of becoming-conscious.

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