Failure and Humility in the Classroom and on the Road

Art Remillard

For me, teaching is an ongoing lesson in humility.

When I explain this to friends and colleagues, I recount the first time that I taught my "Religion and Sports" course. I developed it during the summer before I began at my present institution. At the same time, I was writing about the topic for Chuck Lippy's Encyclopedia of Religion in America. So here I was, in possession of everything that anyone needs for classroom success: 1) a catchy title; 2) a solid base of knowledge; and 3) an engaged audience (roughly 35 percent of our students are athletes).

The semester began, and I was certain that the course was going well. There were highs and lows, as there are with any class. But overall, I felt that the students were having a positive experience. In fact, when it came time for course evaluations, I worried that my chairperson would be blinded by the awesomeness of the results. Confidence. Sweet confidence.

Then the evals came back.

They weren't horrible, but they weren't great either. They were, instead, just... meh. Only one student bothered to comment (mostly negative), and the numbers were all entirely average. I felt neither loved nor hated. I was simply ignored. And my course was insignificant.

Admittedly, I was perhaps reading too deeply into the silence. But my second semester brought with it more hard truths. The evaluations for my intro course in the fall weren't sparkling. And my upper-level course for the spring had a very low enrollment.

All of this helped to create a mental mound of self-doubt, piled high with failures, real or perceived. The view from here was dismal, as I plunged into the academic "stages of grief." At first, I fluctuated mostly between "Denial" and "Anger." I projected blame outward in every direction, from the facilities to the students themselves. After some time, though, I came around to "Acceptance." I began taking ownership of the problem, reading some great books on teaching (thank you Ken Bain), and revisiting my assumptions about course design. More generally, I resolved to do a better job of listening (rather than proclaiming). In other words, I sensed that I needed to listen to my students more attentively, as well as my learned colleagues. I also resolved to put my ear up to the walls of my institution, paying attention to the subtle sounds of this unique place.

I wish I could tell you that everything has gone swimmingly since this pedagogical awakening. Certainly, my classroom experiences (and evals) have improved over the years. I have offered "Religion and Sports" numerous times now, and the results have been encouraging. But I have found that teaching requires continual revision and refinement. What works one semester might not work the next. Every student and every class presents new challenges. And yes, I still manage to trip on my own hubris every now and again, both in and out of the classroom.

Indeed, doses of humility come in many shapes and sizes in my life. This is especially true with writing. From my earliest days as an undergraduate to the present, I can't write a cooking recipe without spilling some blood.

And then there's my old friend running, who recently exposed my bodily limitations. Back in May, I traveled to Vermont to run a marathon and "celebrate" the end of the semester. All went well until half way through the race, when my achilles inexplicably flared up. I stopped at mile 19, limping and embarrassed. I did not finish. DNF. A mark of shame for runners.

When I returned home, I decided to write about my marathoning mishap in order to to remoralize what had been a surprisingly demoralizing event. I like to think of running as a hobby. It's a diversion from "real life." But not finishing was a quick, sharp shot to the ego. Moreover, it caused me to wonder why I run in the first place.

Thanks to Ed Blum, Christian Century posted my reflection to their blog. Since I make reference to Jacob's wrestling match, they ran it to coincide with today's lectionary.

Thinking about this now, I see a productive interplay between my life on the roads and in academia. In both settings, there are risky opportunities that sometimes bring success and and other times bring failure. I tend to grow more from the failures, humbled into becoming aware of my flaws, and challenged to stand back up and try again. 


Michael Hammond said…
Art, Thank you for a great reflection and wise comparison between running and teaching. "There’s meaning in every mile, even if I limp to a stop." Good words.
Art Remillard said…
Thanks for the kind words, Michael! And happy trails!!!

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