Room to Fail

By Robert Alan Simpkins

My first job as a community college instructor came about in an unplanned manner due to a combination of three factors: 1) an unexpected need arose at a nearby college; 2) I met the CCCCO minimum qualifications for the position; 3) a faculty member at the college knew me from graduate school and recommended me to the Dean.  But as may come as no surprise to anyone reading this, I quickly learned that my qualifications and self-confidence (mostly stemming from my successful experiences as a student and a graduate Teaching Assistant) were hardly adequate preparation for the job.  In fact, it was a lengthy trial-and-error process with my students as unsuspecting test subjects that slowly led to my improvements as an instructor.  In some ways, over twenty years later, I feel I still have significant room to grow.  What made it possible for me to be here at all, as a tenured faculty member collaborating on diverse campus and district initiatives, was the support of and patience by key individuals who gave me the room to fail – which I did repeatedly.  Looking back, I suspect that it was the evidence that I was learning from those failures that gave them the confidence to continue supporting my evolution as an educator.  I have in turn tried to bring that insight to my work leading my degree program and adjunct faculty, as a two-time division chair during which time I oversaw some of the largest numbers of adjunct evaluations at my college, and working with a cross-section of colleagues across the college in initiatives, in which sometimes there was no precedent for what we were doing, no road map or template, and in which to succeed at times we also needed that room to fail.

I have so many stories of failure that I could probably fill a book with them, not that I am eager to admit them all.  There is one in particular, however, that I will share here as an example.  In this case, it is not a community college experience, but instead an experience as an adjunct teaching at a four-year public institution, where I taught simultaneous to my community college teaching for just over a decade before coming to my current position at Porterville College.  There I was asked to teach a course that was cross-listed in four departments, and was created by a group of full-time faculty members, and part of the Liberal Studies teacher-prep program.  It was a course that required extensive and interdisciplinary knowledge.  My struggle in it was not with the subject matter, but instead with the pedagogy and student culture.

In the case of the pedagogy, I was provided with a sample syllabus and assignments and asked to follow it precisely, including the use of a specific textbook.  I quickly realized the scope of the course required a massive amount of reading each week, and the expected quiz format was insufficient to representatively sample the material.  I gave the quizzes, and students took them, but I doubted that the quiz scores were any representation of their knowledge of the subject and felt arbitrary.  I tried to encourage them to teach each other by assigning chapters for discussion led by assigned students, seminar-style, which quickly turned disastrous as students came unprepared and I often ended up leading the discussion anyway – but not without awkwardness and complaints that students wanted me to just lecture.  A required large end-of-term assignment seemed hard for them to understand, and their research skills seemed inadequate – and being such a large percentage of their grade, it adversely impacted those who waited too long for help or submitted something contrary to the directions.  In the end, scores were low, students were frustrated, and as adjunct faculty were evaluated in every class in every semester there, I ended up with an embarrassing trip to my Department Chair to discuss what had happened.

Two things came out of that experience.  First, the Chair, who had known me for some time, allowed me the opportunity to share my observations of the experience.  Second, due to the course being cross-listed, the actual evaluation was to be overseen by a faculty member in another program, and at that time there was a change of oversight.  The new faculty member assigned to my course asked for a meeting, and since at that time I was a new parent and living only a few blocks from campus, offered to come over for my convenience and talk with me at my home.  That new faculty supervisor turned out to be one of the most important figures in my future career, and that conversation became one of the most important moments in my demonstrating my ability to learn from failure.

That Department Chair asked me very simply, “So what do you think happened?”  Fortunately, I had a lot of ideas, which I discussed at length.  She then asked, “If you could do whatever you wanted to fix things in the class, what would you do?”  I had ideas about that as well, to which she patiently listened.  I was able to show that I had been thinking about it all for some time, and not just because she had asked for the meeting.  I had gone through different ideas, I had researched other kinds of materials to use, and other ways to teach.  What I did not know was if the results would be different, if students would be less frustrated, and if they would learn the subject matter more effectively.  She told me to go ahead and try out my ideas, and we would see what happened.  Fortunately, the class the next semester was a totally different experience, with much stronger student participation and enthusiasm, and enabled me to break the mold of my own teaching style, increasing my confidence in the process. 

It was also important to me to show that her faith in me was validated, and in giving me that room to fail, learn, and grow, was leading to my being a more effective instructor.  Now I was not free from failure at that point – a year later I had some struggles in the same course, as it appeared that some students were figuring out how to work around some elements in my course design, and as I tried to close the loopholes it provoked a new backlash, but she and I again went through the same process of discussion.  We had a meeting, we reviewed what went wrong, I showed my understanding of my role, how I thought it could be corrected, and she again gave me the opportunity to change and improve, which I did, and I continued to teach that course until I left for my current position at Porterville College a decade ago – an application for which she was one of my references.

Because our work as educators does not occur in isolation and is always embedded in a complex web of changing perspectives, expectations, and requirements, some degree of failure is probably inevitable for instructors, regardless of the number of years of experience in the profession.  Achieving success in the long-term then means that faculty need a support structure that expects occasional failures and supports the correction and experimentation needed to ensure the success of the student learning experience – yet that support system is rarely placed systematically and intentionally for all faculty, including adjunct faculty as well as tenure-track and tenured faculty.  Some may have similar stories of supportive peers or supervisors, and understanding and patient students.  But others may have been scarred by experiences that lacked such support, perhaps causing them to leave an institution, or even the profession of education altogether.

To ensure equity for our educators, then, perhaps the solution is to embed the support for faculty into our institutions from the start of their time with us.  Dedicated mentors who are experienced educators can help faculty experiencing unexpected trouble in their classes.  Specialized instructional designers can work with new faculty to help with their course design choices.  Supervisors can meet with struggling faculty, giving support and allowing for them to have that room to fail, when they can show that they understand why they faced difficulties, and that they are growing as educators in response.  The faculty evaluation process could place a premium on the evidence of this self-reflection, and the evaluee’s evidence of self-directed investment and improvement.  My hope for future educators at my institution is that they can avoid some of the lengthy and disheartening trial-and-error experiences I experienced early in my career with a stronger, institutionalized, cross-college support system.  Although to some degree we all have to learn on our own and in our own way, perhaps failure is better experienced when not hidden from view, but in a supportive, sympathetic room surrounded by those who understand because they have been there too, and remember the support they received, and would have wanted others to also have.

Robert Alan Simpkins has been a Professor of Anthropology at Porterville College since 2012, where he also is currently the Academic Senate President and faculty lead for Guided Pathways.  He previously served two terms as the Social Science Division Chair, and organized PC’s CHAP (Cultural and Historical Awareness Program) series for five years.  Prior to coming to PC, he was an adjunct at De Anza College and at San Jose State University.  He has an MA and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and BA from San Jose State University.  As an Archaeologist, he is interested in the relationship between roads, architecture, cultural landscapes, and socio-political organization.  His particular focus has been the Golconda kingdom in the Indian Deccan region, which was the subject of his doctoral dissertation and on which he has presented his research internationally and published extensively, most recently in the article “Inferring Road Networks and Socio-Political Change from Elite Monuments of the Golconda Kingdom” in South Asian Studies in 2020.  Although a native of the Bay Area, he enjoys the farms and orchards of the central valley and the proximity to the mountains, and going on drives and exploring the region with his family.  He has a weakness for books, toys, classic movies and animation, art, stories, and anything that he finds amusing.