On Advising Students to Fail

Slate's been doing a series about college classes everyone should take, and one of the most heavily promoted of these has been a piece by Dan Check urging students to take something they're terrible at. This is built around an amusing anecdote about an acting class he took back in the day, but as much as this appeals to my liberal-arts-school background, I think it has some serious problems, which are pretty clearly displayed early on:

At four-year colleges, there is enough time and space to do something much more interesting: take at least one course in a subject in which you are untalented, and about which you are not passionate. There is a lot to be learned by taking seriously that which you have no business taking seriously, and college is one of the last times you will be able to pursue something that you’re truly awful at without serious consequence. So, rather than recommending a specific course, I recommend a type of course: the type that exposes you to other people’s talents, rather than your own, and that which allows you to really bask in the feeling of utter, hopeless ineptitude.

While this is very much in the "cleverly counterintuitive" mode that Slate has raised to an art (and better than the default "everybody should take a class in this thing that I personally work on"), it's also making a lot of presumptions. First and foremost, it's addressed only to four-year college students, who as Matt "Dean Dad" Reed is quick to remind people, are only a subset of the total college population.

I think this is probably restricted even more than that, though, because that "without serious consequence" is doing a lot of heavy lifting. Yes, if you're a good student from a well-off family, your college GPA probably isn't terribly consequential in terms of your future employment prospects. You can afford to take a C- in a drama course if you're pulling A's in your political science major, and it will provide an amusing anecdote to share when you interview for law school/ an internship at a major New York media company.

But as much as academics, particularly in a liberal arts context, like to decry grade-grubbing and careerism among students in general, I suspect that good grades and "marketable" skills really do matter for students from less privileged backgrounds. All those paper-resume studies showing the effects of implicit biases sort of highlight this-- if changing the name on an identical resume significantly reduces the chance of an imaginary student getting an offer, well, if you're a real student on the bad side of that effect, you probably want to do everything you can to make sure your resume isn't identical, but better. The C- in drama that becomes a funny anecdote to liven up Dan's interview might become a "lack of focus" that keeps Denise from getting called back.

And, of course, there's the economic issue. If you're paying a comprehensive fee at an elite college, then, yeah, you've got a few "extra" classes you might as well fill with something amusing. If you're paying course by course at a regional university, a class in something you're terrible at might represent a significant additional cost.

(It probably goes without saying that this is also terrible advice for students who are already mediocre. If you're running a C+/B- in your major, your time would be much better spent getting good at something first before you go looking for personal growth through hopeless ineptitude.)

So, like a lot of advice-to-students that prioritizes personal growth, this makes me a little twitchy. It's pitched as general advice, but it's really advice for a rather limited demographic-- good students from well-off backgrounds. Which, admittedly, is the primary demographic for elite media outlets like Slate (or at least the demographic that their readers want to see themselves as), but it'd be nice to have a little more acknowledgement of that.

(Of course, as a college classmate noted in comments on Facebook, this advice is arguably less awful than "Do what you love, and the money will follow." Which it's trivial to demonstrate is a false statement...)

Again, I'm all in favor of broadening horizons and trying new things, and occasionally regret not taking a slightly wider range of stuff back when I was a student. And God knows, there are a lot of students out there who could benefit enormously from loosening up a bit and taking a class they know they'll bomb. But the idea that this is "without serious consequence" for everyone is presuming an awful lot, in a way that I don't think is particularly helpful for anyone.


(This is a revise-and-extend of stuff I said on Twitter yesterday.)

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Things may have changed in the last 40 years, but when I was an undergrad at Emory we got to take 10 classes pass/fail. I’m forget which classes I took, but I used up all 10. I took things that I thought were interesting and got A’s in most of them. And some classes were only pass/fail like phys ed. So I took a few of them as well.

YMMV but I think it’s a great idea.

I agree: it's a lot better advice for students who are doing well in their majors and might need the lesson in humility and the different approaches different disciplines have for problems.

But, if a student is, say, facing a hard term/year or has to work their butts off to learn their primary field, I'm all right with telling them to take something that is interesting and low-work. (I know as a student I made sure to be aware of things like 'don't stick your schedule full of challenging major courses that you will need to spend more time than average on'.)

At least at many liberal arts schools, they can get around the cost by making it a general education requirement course; if students can handle the extra load, I think encouraging them to not go the traditional GE routes is nice, but again, with the caveats of 'make sure you are being challenged; if your major is doing that, then you don't need to seek out a challenge elsewhere'.)

By Becca Stareyes (not verified) on 02 Sep 2015 #permalink

Thank you for this. "Experience failure" is the right advice for a college student who's already fated for success: Solid high school background, sufficient finances to complete schooling, the social capital to get a job afterward, and plenty of good grades in the past.

My students need to know what success feels like first.

By Young CC Prof (not verified) on 02 Sep 2015 #permalink

The C- in drama that becomes a funny anecdote to liven up Dan’s interview might become a “lack of focus” that keeps Denise from getting called back.

To say nothing of Dan Chatsworth as opposed to Dan Chavez or Dan Chang.

As Young CC Prof says, this advice might be appropriate for somebody whose background is male WASP/elite prep school/elite university. Students in that demographic can count on old school ties to help them out, so they don't need to worry so much about getting a good GPA while learning practical subjects. Everybody else needs to worry a bit more about the practical side of things, so that when hiring time comes their resumes will stand out in a good way.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 02 Sep 2015 #permalink

I'll second JScarry's sentiment. It still assumes that you can afford the time and money to take a class you don't "need," and that you won't be so bad at it as to fail the class, but this is the sort of thing pass/fail options are meant for.

I took an art history class at Union, which had nothing to do with my major, minor, or gen ed, and enjoyed it partly because I didn't have to worry about getting a bad grade in something outside my comfort zone.

Again, that still only addresses a limited audience - I was confident that I could pass and that I could do so without detracting from anything else, it didn't cost any extra money or replace anything I needed to take, and so on.

Another angle to cover; some majors, like mine - Chemical Engineering, don't allow for many frivolous courses. Why waste one of your electives on something that you are not talented at AND you don't have a passion for when you could use that elective on something that may be outside of your normal field, BUT you do have a passion for - talented or otherwise.

By Kevin Finnegan (not verified) on 02 Sep 2015 #permalink


Oh yeah. I had the same problem with Chemical Physics. And I quickly learned that trying to pull near-maximum allowable credit hours was a recipe for no sleep, poor health, and poor mental state. There were plenty of things I would have *liked* to have tried out but that time just didn't exist.

I agree strongly, here. The only thing I would add is that I have no idea who these four-year students are that have so much time on their hands that they can afford to take classes they don't need and expect to do badly in.

Engineering curricula, at least, are so loaded down with necessary coursework that it's difficult to get done in four years as it is-- I did so only by taking courses over the summer. Many of my cohort needed four and a half, or even five years to do it without burning out.

(All of thermodynamics in five weeks... yeah, that was just a bad idea.)

By John Novak (not verified) on 02 Sep 2015 #permalink

I can see where taking a drama class would be helpful if you are planning a professional career. (No, kid, you will never have to make a presentation to a group of people who need to be sold on your business or research proposal....)

The idea that you should take something that you expect you might fail (ballroom dancing would be my pick) is a bad one for many of the reasons listed here. But taking something just for the heck of it, not knowing if it is something your are good at or even like, can change your life. Doing so definitely changed mine.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 02 Sep 2015 #permalink

Also, for those in the target audience, there are plenty of opportunities to follow this advice outside of school and throughout their life. Here's the short list of things I've been lucky enough to get to try without knowing whether I would enjoy it or be any good:
- learning languages (Spanish, German, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Thai) with varying degrees of success/failure
- learning musical instruments (piano, violin, clarinet, recorder, oboe, saxophone) again, mixed results
- ballroom dance, latin dance (utter failure in both)
- karate
- distance swimming
- baking
- molecular gastronomy
- improv comedy
- drawing
- programming
- writing (well, blogging)

I say do it! Go try something outside your comfort zone. In all my years of interviewing folks for programming jobs, I have never looked at GPA as a criteria for hiring. And a surprising number of hires don't even have a CS degree of any kind.

But yes, if you are on the bubble as far as maintaining a sufficient GPA, keep your priorities straight.

By MobiusKlein (not verified) on 06 Sep 2015 #permalink

Frankly, it's patently dumbass advice. About the dumbest possible thing you could tell someone, in the current method of financing education for most students in the USA, is "go fail at something". Things aren't the same now as they were 15 years ago when I was an undergrad, and they were so different from when my grad advisor had been in school that she literally could not fathom the pressure of dealing with student loans (especially because as tenured faculty, her kids got a free ride there).

Seriously, just so disconnected from the reality of paying for a degree these days.