on “putting oneself out there” and how it feels to fail

I thought I’d start this blog on a positive note with a post about rejection and failure.

That’s a joke; you can laugh. I’m not trying to make a profound statement about the value of failure. I believe it can be valuable, but that’s not what this post is about. Today, I want to start a conversation about how rejection and failure—and the fear thereof—feel in the moment you are experiencing them, before you start looking for life lessons and recalling all the inspiration quotes you’ve read about Thomas Edison and people like that. Let’s talk about what makes us feel these feelings and what we do to deal with them.

Academics are always at risk of rejection and failure. I am reading a book by Helen Sword called Air and Light and Time and Space: How Successful Academics Write (and really enjoying it! Perhaps I’ll review it here when I finish), and I found it delightfully ironic but not surprising that she included a chapter on failure in a book about successful people. The book consists largely of quotations from Sword’s extensive interviews with prolific and well-regarded (but not necessarily celebrity-level) scholars from across the disciplines, and in this chapter, they speak of rejection letters, bad reviews, discouraging colleagues and “mentors” (I put this in scare quotes because a discouraging mentor should be an impossibility), and the all too familiar fear of sharing one’s words and ideas with an audience of any size.

Sword’s book is addressed to professors who publish academically on a regular basis, which means I’m a little bit outside her target demographic. Perhaps some of you, like me, are in a position in which your primary duty is to teach and there is little or no expectation for you to publish. But that doesn’t mean you don’t consistently face rejection and failure too. For one thing, if you have a blog, a social media platform, or even a regular-person social media profile that your colleagues and students can find, your ideas (and your photos of sunrises and pumpkin spice lattes—I’m talking about myself here) have a larger audience than you might feel entirely comfortable with. If you are an online faculty member with creative control over your own course, your students are reading your words, hearing your voice, perhaps seeing your face each time they log into the course, and there’s always a risk that the students will find your mannerisms awkward or your teaching style overbearing, or that an activity or reading you assign will fall flat. Even if you see yourself as merely a facilitator of a course that someone else designed, you are still the breathing, human face of the course for your students, and every time you post grading feedback or send an email clarifying an instruction, there’s a chance your students will misunderstand or be offended or ignore you.

Why do we keep setting ourselves up for potential rejection or failure? Well, think about the alternatives—you could just not reply to your emails, or you could never try anything new in your course, or you could wear a paper bag over your head in your course videos (as just a few examples). I hope you agree with me that, while these alternatives may be enticing, they are not desirable options. The very same conditions that set you up for failure and rejection are also the conditions that allow you to teach, to encourage, to model, and—possibly—to change lives. But now I’m getting too inspirational. Let’s back up for a minute.

I want to talk about the specific scenarios that trigger those fears of rejection and failure. Please share in the comments below—what, in your teaching career, has made or regularly makes you want to hide under your desk? For me, one of the worst triggers is reading course evaluations. I think a big reason why these are so consistently scary for me is that my first full-time college-level instructional job was teaching a required, zero-credit course that many students regarded as remedial (which it was, even though we didn’t use that word) and as a punishment for not passing the placement test. Some students welcomed the opportunity, some begrudgingly came to admit that the course wasn’t a complete waste of their time, but others bore a semester-long grudge toward the course and took it out in the course evaluation. And of course, I read all the negative comments in the evaluations as if they were about me, as a person, even though many of them weren’t. So even though I’m now teaching courses that students tend to enjoy or at least find valuable, my heart rate still goes up and my palms get sweaty when I open those evaluations. I rush through them, seeking out negative comments so I can get them over with, which causes me to skim over and not fully appreciate the positive, sometimes even glowing, comments that now typically outnumber the bad ones. Course evaluations are supposed to be a tool to help faculty know how to improve their courses, but for me, they’re too tied up with ugly emotions to really be helpful. Like other things in academia that are supposed to be useful, they have become an ordeal instead (perhaps another post for another time?).

Here are some other scenarios that might trigger a fear of rejection or failure:

  • Presenting an idea in a committee meeting or email discussion
  • Asking for something (a pay increase, time off, the opportunity to teach a desired course)
  • Meeting with a new student who thinks you’re cool and wondering the whole time if her illusions about your awesomeness are being shattered (Does this sound oddly specific? It’s happened to me. By the way, this scenario involves imposter syndrome, a subcategory of today’s topic that I plan to write a whole post about soon.)

What are some of your scenarios? Why do you think they are triggers for you? Do they cause physiological symptoms like the ones I mentioned above? (The raised heart rate and sweaty palms are not just metaphors!) Is there anything you have learned to do to deal with these fears or at least mitigate their symptoms? (For example, in my welcome post, I mentioned that I might have my husband hold my hand while I read course evaluations.)

I’m excited about the community we are forming here, and I look forward to reading your thoughts on this topic. If you found this post helpful or mildly entertaining, tell a colleague or friend!