Failure and camaraderie

I have both coached youth cycling (albeit briefly) and taught philosophy in universities. Something I’ve noticed is that my athletes were much more accepting of failure than my students. While students in my courses are often terrified of making any sort of mistake, my athletes approached races and drills with the understanding that they probably weren’t going to win. Still, they threw themselves into it. The athletes, instead, feared performing under what they took to be their ability.

Let’s assume, for discussion, that I haven’t wildly misperceived either case, and that my observations aren’t wildly atypical. Why is it that people (youth and young adults) fear failure so strongly in the one context, but not the other?

There are many differences. For example, you might point out that the stakes are higher in the college classroom than the sport field. Tuition dollars, grades, and future employment prospects are on the line in the classroom. While true, I’m not sure this point carries much weight. For example, within their own subjective judgment, a middle-school student takes their popularity or reputation just as seriously as a university student takes their employment prospects. Not looking bad in front of their peers is a major concern for them.

I suspect the difference lies elsewhere. A notable difference between sport and the academic classroom is that performance is manifest in the first case, and usually much less so in the second. In the mist of a bike race or basketball game, you know exactly how you’re performing. If you’re falling off the lead pack or down by double digits, you don’t have to wonder how you’re doing. In these contexts the failures aren’t just manifest to the athlete, but they are public. In fact, the entire distribution of performance is public. It’s reasonably clear and immediate to you, and everyone, where each athlete falls in the pack.

In contrast, if you write a term paper for a class or answer questions on a test, you won’t know your performance until you’re given a grade. Even if you have a sense of how you did, that sense may be off in either direction. Further, the situation is unclear enough that you can dispute the grade. For example, many students complain that their grade isn’t “fair” or doesn’t reflect their actual abilities or performance. Finally, all of this is private. Students’ grades are visible only to them and the professor. Work is rarely shared, so even if the professor shares the grade distribution, the student lacks any concrete or direct sense for how their performance compares to other students. They, for example, don’t see all the other papers or tests.

So, roughly speaking, failure in sport is manifest and public, while failure in academics is obscure and private. The manifest and public nature of sport failure is also intimately entwined with another aspect of sport: camaraderie. In sport, due to their public and manifest nature, failures are shared, either among teammates or (in individual sports) among fellow competitors. In such a brutal, harsh environment bonds naturally form between athletes, bonds that support them through the failures.

Is there camaraderie in academics? I think there are some clear cases. In the US, first and second year PhD students in philosophy and mathematics (the two subjects with which I’m familiar) usually take intense coursework. Often assignments are so difficult that even the most talented students struggle to complete them in a vacuum, and so (inevitably) study groups form. I remember late nights with my fellow students, trying to work out the details of a math proof or reconstruct a subtle argument in a philosophical text. These experiences certainly involved a high degree of camaraderie. It’s also likely not a coincidence that, unlike in many academic contexts, these situations involved (like sport) manifest and public failure. My, and my peers’, inability to come up with a proof or reconstruct an argument was clear to us all. We were standing by a blank blackboard, or sitting around a blank tablet, none of us able to put down anything.

While it’s always open for undergraduate students to form study groups, and professors might try to force them into various kinds of group work, my sense is that the momentum is always towards isolation and privacy. There may be some disciplinary differences. For example, STEM courses (like my graduate training) may force students’ hand by assigning work that is just so difficult that students spontaneously work together. But in philosophy and many general education courses, my sense is that this rarely happens. Students tend to read and write on their own. Precisely how often teamwork happens in academics doesn’t really matter. What seems clear is that there are many contexts in which it doesn’t happen.

Where does this lead us? I’m not sure. These are difficult (often emotionally charged) issues. It is interesting though how the manifest and public nature of failure in sport seems to encourage a much healthier take on that failure. Failure is just part of the game, a necessity for growth and learning, and something to be overcome with the support of friends. In contrast, when failure is obscure and private, we have no context in which to put our failures. We imagine we alone are failing, that we’re defective in some special way — or we lash out in the other direction, believing that those who point out our failures are wrong (merely “haters” or biased against us).

I am, of course, not suggesting that we should suddenly make failures public in academics. It goes without saying that posting student grades is illegal, and for good reasons. Nor should we pressure students into high-stakes public performances, although class presentations are just that, and they are widely accepted pieces of university education. At the moment, I don’t have any good suggestions for how to incorporate the lessons of sport on failure into the academic classroom. Perhaps the place to start is to create course structures, assignments, and environments which naturally encourage teamwork, so as to give students opportunity to work together in public, collaborative ways. Shared struggles are better than struggling alone.