By Rachel Rooney, Toppel Peer Advisor
I recently read an article by the Chronicle of Higher Education called “Next Time, Fail Better.” It is written by Paula M. Krebs, an English professor at Wheaton College, and argues that English majors don’t know how to fail and compares them with computer science majors. I’m an English major, but I am also taking a computer science course this semester. I have worked very hard all semester to not fail and have tried many, many times to apply the concepts to the lab. Computer science has helped me learn how to fail in a way. How I found this article was actually because I Google-searched “how not to fail computer science.” This piece is my response to that article which is here: http://chronicle.com/article/Next-Time-Fail-Better/131790/
Samuel Beckett said, “"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Beckett was one the last great modernist writers, and lived a very fascinating life. If you have the time, you can read about him here: http://www.egs.edu/library/samuel-beckett/biography/. Something else I noticed that came up on Google was a question by someone who wanted to try computer science but was afraid to fail. That never crossed my mind when I signed up for the course. Or for any course outside my major. So, yes, I am afraid of failure. But I’m not afraid of trying. I believe that to focus on failure means missing out on the try part. There’s something to be said about a person’s character when they see the possibility of failure and decide to try their hardest anyway. To decide not to give up, not because of what is going to happen, but because of simply having the character to continue. Krebs wrote, “The work of coding was an endless round of failure, failure, failure before eventual success.” These verbs very accurately describe the frustrations of computer science. There are days when I sit on my floor and think about the frustrations of it and then get up and decide to do it anyways. There is something inside of us that is stronger than our failures.
Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” I truly believe that nothing—or very few things—of worth are easy. I advise you to take Roosevelt’s words to heart, but also I’m going to say that the article is wrong. English majors do know failure. Revision is a constant process. Write a paper. Revise. Revise again. English majors work hard, because it’s a creative expression, thought driven field. It’s subjective, unlike the computer science major, which is very inside the box; you do something to get a result. The main flaw of her paper is in comparing computer science and English, because they are both very different. Krebs does make a comparison of the two: “But that's an important difference between computer science and the humanities. When a program runs and produces a good result, it's perfect. It's awfully hard to define success the same way in the humanities. What we do, teaching or writing, can always be better. The program will never simply run.” While Krebs acknowledges the differences between the two fields, she still holds by the claim that English majors miss out on the lesson of failure. I believe English is not meant to be perfect. It’s not about getting a result, but about gathering ideas and putting pen to paper. It’s about reading literature and thinking and writing about it. It’s a process that involves forming opinions, finding evidence, creating a thesis, and proving a point. It’s a much broader complex field than computer science.
What I am writing next is the important part. Listen. The performance based perspective that says we are determined by either our success or our failure is a prevalent theme in the article. But it’s also a perspective I would encourage you not to embrace. Life, you, me, everyone, it’s all messy and nothing is perfect. Even in computer science there can be exceptions. It doesn’t matter if you fail or succeed. In thirty or forty years, it won’t matter if you got an A in that one class in college. People aren’t going to remember you for your grades. If you want to be an encouragement to those around you, dare to be a person who has self-respect and respect and concern for others. At the end of the day, how you lived—your character—is what matters. Don’t let people tell you that your value is determined by your success or your failure, because it’s a lie. Max Lucado might have said the truth the best way possible; “you are valuable because you exist. Not because of what you do or what you have done, but simply because you are.”