Failure and Success in the Academy

By Susan Sterett, Jennifer Diascro, and Judith Grant

The Western Political Science Association’s Status on Women in the Profession Committee is pleased to introduce a new feature here at The New West blog, geared toward discussions of professional development and reflections on the academy, for seasoned, aspiring, and new political scientists. Our own experiences at different institutions and with different job searches, position us to reflect on the field honestly and openly.

For this series’ inaugural post we aim to contribute to the renewed discussion on success and failure in higher education. In this context, there are several important themes that we touch on below, and we encourage contributions from the WPSA membership on these issues by emailing your ideas to Meredith Conroy ( As we’ve been thinking about current discussions of success and failure, we find room for four different dimensions that are easy to forget in thinking about success and failure as attributes of individuals. These include pressures: (1) on higher education to deliver more while diversifying funding; (2) on individual faculty to produce, and teach students in more complex ways; (3) on institutions to support the health and success off students, and address multiple needs; (4) on faculty to integrate our work with our responsibilities to our families and communities. Below we think more about all of these, and invite stories from members of WPSA in an effort to continue this conversation.

And in this spirit, we would like to encourage you to register for our short course at the APSA conference in Philadelphia in September on Unlocking Success with Failure.  This half-day short course will focus on unlocking our success – as individuals and institutions – by exploring the failures in our personal and institutional stories. We will do so in the context of the many interdisciplinary intellectual frameworks that illuminate failure as inevitable and necessary for achievement.

Discussions about success and failure in higher education and political science have been circulating around social media these days.  Women tell us how to succeed, and men are listing their failures. Sonia Sodha at the Guardian suggests that perhaps only successful people can afford to list their failures, and in doing so reinforce the idea that if you work hard enough and endure the failures, major successes will come. Yet as she goes on to note, “Buying too much into this myth in the face of the evidence undermines our understanding of a depressing and universal truth: the world is stacked against some young people before they’re even born”.

Moreover, if the metric of success in the academy is numbers of publications, publication placement, or grants, we’ve given up too much and made the conversation irrelevant to the real work of at universities that needs to be rewarded.  that has to happen, and that therefore we need to reward.  The narrow metric of success also makes conversations irrelevant to the many people whose careers do not depend on high-profile publications.  Stories of loss and failure need to broaden, to recognize the vast variation in our participation and experience, plurality, and the contributions that institutions make that are not captured by publication counts or grant dollars.

This pluralizing of success and failure — rather than treating it as an attribute of a person on one metric — opens the door for a more comprehensive understanding of our profession, and a greater broader appreciation of our roles. Students are skeptical of more active learning, or we think an experiment we tried could have worked out better if only we’d done something different, or a community partner had been easier to work with, or students hadn’t been distracted. Administrators and manuscript reviewers sometimes make their best guess and they can be wrong: about what research needs to happen, or how a curriculum needs to grow, or whether someone is a great contributor to the faculty mission.  We know we care about success with family, friends, and in multiple dimensions of our work, and they all feed into each other.  While the discussion about failure is taking off in the academy, we are inspired to write in part because we have friends and relatives—children, nephews, each other—who are struggling with school or work or what to do next and find recognition more helpful than advice.   We know about intertwining failures and successes over time in other places.  We expect it.  [Office3] One of us thought about what counts as failure or success as I walked through the beautiful exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, Van Gogh’s Bedrooms that I was fortunate enough to see before it closed.  The exhibit centered on the 3 versions he painted of his bedroom in Arles, in southern France.  The commentary explains that Van Gogh’s peripatetic life belied his longing for home, a home he thought he had found in sunny Arles.  Not long after, he died in northern France.  Sorrows in his life come through the exhibition: he failed at businesses and suffered from mental illness; he wanted a family but was an unlikely father or husband; his brother Theo believed in his art, and so did some of his friends, but he often didn’t and he wasn’t a financial success.  Yet he created beauty we admire more than one hundred years later.  Everyone longs for something, and everyone can take that longing and our own self-obsessions to worry that somewhere, someone has reached something called success.

Implicitly, the marker of success in recent advice and acknowledgements as building publications, grants and fellowships, marks the extreme anxiety embedded in university life. These anxieties are driven by fewer tenure track jobs, university leadership turn over, and the mandate both to consider demographic representation in leadership, but take no risks in this challenging environment. Missions of universities have broadened to include ensuring the success of a diversity of students, some of whom come to university homeless and hungry, to pay attention to their mental health, and finally to confront sexual assault on college campuses that impact many students’ education. We are also expected to aid in the integration of students into their communities via service learning, which can be life changing but often not on a quarter or semester schedule, and which many students resent; to ensure they learn, because they seem to be spending less time learning, with worse outcomes, than they did thirty years ago.  Time doesn’t magically expand, and none of these tasks allow for the care work—for families, for communities—that the United States doesn’t value. That the losses and failures, or advice for success, focus on publications and grants speaks volumes about the misalignment between what we need and what we recognize. If we ignore experiments in teaching, or successes in improving conditions for contingent labor, or the background that allowed you to know how to work the university rules, or the good fortune to have a tenure or promotion or administrative search process that recognized your talents and accomplishments, we ignore too much of university life.

Although we have learned that lives embody both structure and agency, we academics are surprisingly eager to continue to track either/or approaches. Either we succeed or we fail; either we can work harder and fix things or the game is rigged. Yet, both can be true. Learning from failures may well transform how we understand our place we are in the world and what we want from it; our challenges and shortcomings would be pretty limiting if they just taught us only how to perfect our original path. Yet if we are paying attention, failure provides opportunities and new paths. And in opening the conversation about these issues, we can try to learn about what goes on in institutions, and what we have in common, so that we can contribute to supporting broader participation in the profession and to broader bragging rights for a greater variety of successes.

Susan Sterett is a professor in the Center for Public Administration and Policy. 

Jennifer Diascro is the Associate Academic Director for University of California, Washington D.C. (UCDC).

 Judith Grant is Chair and Professor in Political Science at Ohio University in Athens, OH.


4 thoughts on “Failure and Success in the Academy

  1. Pingback: From the Contingent Faculty Problem to Labor Justice, Opportunity, and Incorporation | The New West

  2. Pingback: Workshopping changing universities

  3. Pingback: The Personal is Political, or At Least, Relevant | The New West

  4. Pingback: Unruly bodies: My life as an academic with disabilities | The New West

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s