We need to discuss Failure Bragging

It’s nearly resit season, and even when it’s not, how many times do we hear a student leave an assessment bragging about how much they’ve failed it. Of course, we don’t actually consider it bragging, I’m not sure what we do consider it. Is it a veiled form of apology for considering one’s efforts to be ‘not good enough’? Is it a rebuke on the assessors for setting something perceptibly challenging rather than predictable and achievable? Is it a socially acceptable norm to avoid seeming like one of the smart ones?

It is bragging, and it occupies the same category as apologising: something we have to stop.

How many times have we had work submitted and a student apologise and say something like ‘it isn’t very good’? And how many times have we wanted to express our exasperation and simply ask them why they submit it. I’m very much in favour of things being good enough: good enough work for the circumstances in which I find myself at the moment; good enough for the effort and time I felt this task required; good enough because I don’t know how to do it any better at the moment.  There’s a really good essay on apologising for perceived deficiencies in one’s effort here: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/29/teachers-rebuke-stopped-apologising-philip-hensher

The essay is about apologising for one’s efforts and so it relates to failure bragging because both are behaviours designed to provoke the same response: reassurance. Reassurance or perhaps ego fluffing, it depends how kind I’m feeling how I regard it. How many times do we respond to a students’ exclamations of ‘totally failed that’ with reassurances that they are smart and probably haven’t and the world doesn’t end even if they have and to focus on the next thing?

And both are behaviours that the person expressing the sentiment has within their power to control.  The only failure is when you don’t learn and improve for the next time. The only apology is when you have genuinely wronged someone. Apology is weakened by overuse (particularly amongst the British) and genuine failure is something far more serious than feeling rubbish after an assessment requires.

So what is the alternative? Success bragging is equally irritating but perhaps a more considered approach is better. How about admitting the assessment was difficult and you’re going to wait and see what the mark is? How about admitting you found working out what to cook for your fancy dinner was tricky rather than apologising for the rubbish you’re serving? How about sparing us the hand-wringing, reassurance seeking remarks and just ask for support if you feel you need it.

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