The Pleasure of Seeing the Deserving Fail

Brian Taylor

November 14, 2010

As teachers, we rightfully celebrate our positive victories in the classroom: the poem well taught, the student for whom light dawns in the middle of the semester, or the freshman who starts out unable to string two words together but becomes a writer of supple grace by senior year.

None of those moments, however seemingly negligible, should be underestimated.

But equally pleasurable, although much less discussed, are a series of what might be called negative victories—moments when our worst fears or lowest expectations are fulfilled. Gore Vidal once said, "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." And in these straitened economic and intellectual times, it may be a little cheering to make space for the grimmer wins of teaching. Here are a few such moments.

The irritating student who drops out. You know the one—usually in the front row, sometimes dead center but more often slightly to the side so as to take you by surprise. The irritating student spends the first few classes offering utterly vacuous or unnecessarily highbrow answers to your in-class questions, with a hand always raised as soon as the final word leaves your mouth. This is not an earnest but puzzled student, a thinker who is really trying. This is someone who loves to hear himself or herself talk.

Then, come the end of the add/drop period, the irritating student is suddenly gone. Sometimes a palpable sense of relief emanates from the other students, but more often you alone are left in blissful serenity, able to teach your classes without the tensed shoulders you experienced every time you saw that hand waving in your peripheral vision. You are now free to move about the classroom.

The joy of saying "No." Learning is a process of trial and error, and discovery is a process of advancing apparently crazy possibilities and seeing if they work. Students need encouragement and support as they go along, and the classroom is their place to stretch, not your place to damp them down. But you did spend somewhere around eight years, or more, getting your Ph.D., and sometimes, just sometimes, that means you simply do know more than a student.

Sometimes, a student's idea is just plain wrong. Never mind, "interesting thought," or, "there's some good stuff there, Harold!" When you encounter a student who is absolutely wrong, there's a lot to be said for a good old-fashioned, roundly articulated "No." As in, "No, Shakespeare wasn't the Earl of Oxford." As in, "No, Oliver Cromwell hasn't just been misunderstood." As in, "Let's shut that notion down right now."

The joy of doing it yourself. This is a variation on the above. Sure, the root of "education" is supposedly "exduco," meaning to lead out. Every hokey teaching movie tells you that at some point.

But sometimes there might not be anything to exduco, or it might be taking forever to do it. At such moments, little else beats the feeling of taking the reins yourself, of leaving behind the halting, jerking, irritating interrogative tone of all the students' statements and moving quickly and authoritatively through some point to get to the next. You'll show them! And you do.

The bad student who writes a bad paper. Although one of the greatest pleasures of teaching is to see a bad student suddenly blossom, one of the greatest pleasures of life is to see one's beliefs validated. For that reason, the bad student occupies a curious place in the pantheon of students.

I'm not talking about the mediocre student, or even the student who tries but fails, but about the irredeemably bad student who seems content to be bad, who never makes any effort to think in new ways or try new ideas.

Because it seems that no student can be so bad, we try to suspend judgment when we encounter a bad student—at least until the first paper is handed in. Although we believe that the student is, in fact, terrible, what if that first paper proves that he is simply not good at speaking up in class? What if it shows that she has a rich fund of ideas that she cannot articulate verbally but can pour forth onto paper?

And then the paper doesn't show any of that. Ah, sweet reassurance. The world remains on its axis. In larger life, this feeling is called, "I told you so," and it is always unwise to give it voice. In the privacy of your office, though, it gives immense pedagogical pleasure to know that your instincts were right.

The student who richly deserves to fail and does fail. This is, perhaps, the most complex of teaching's victories because it requires us to admit something that, although true, we are not supposed to acknowledge: There are some students you just don't like.

The student who deserves to fail may well be a version of the irritating student above, but here the irritation will stem from a cluster of legitimate factors. The student is almost always a facile talker who never learns. His in-class comments take up time that could be spent on better answers (but you can't always ignore that constantly waving hand). Her papers are terrible: sometimes empty, sometimes hopelessly, unnecessarily bombastic or complex.

You may feel offended that your subject is being sullied by such thoughts, or you may just dislike people who never learn, or you may (let's be honest) just find the student annoying. But, good teacher and decent human being that you are, you fight your instincts.

And then comes the semester's end, the opening of the grade book, the totting up of the points, and ... there is cosmic justice! Ah, the pleasure when the deserving fail.

As with almost all tasks that are insufficiently compensated and often unacknowledged in their difficulty and complexity (think motherhood, think love), there is a tendency to sentimentalize teaching—as if giving out apples will make up for denying larger rewards.

Instructors, however, aren't saints: We're decent, and patient, and experts at suppression, but we are human. If occasionally our bitter victories taste awfully sweet, well, that seems perhaps fair in a profession that, these days, feels increasingly bittersweet.

Alice Fenton is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a university in the South.