Earlier this semester I was selected as an Emerging Engaged Scholar at a conference called Engagement Scholarship Consortium (ESC) which was held in Birmingham, Alabama. As an Emerging Engaged Scholar, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop intended to improve knowledge and insight in community-engaged research in the context of working in academia. This was my first time attending this conference and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I did go with specific goals in mind:
- Obtain relevant information about methods I could use for my comprehensive exams and dissertation. I was currently preparing to rewrite my comprehensive exams and in search of methods for community-engaged research practices I could use to improve my paper.
- Attend sessions that could provide some clarity for ideas, projects, and papers I had been working on. Again, I was hoping to obtain something I could use towards my comprehensive exams I was rewriting.
- Take time to explore Birmingham. One of my favorite ways to explore a new area is to run. Runner’s World had mentioned one of the most beautiful places in the U.S. to run was near Birmingham, and I had also found the Rotary Trail. Oh, and did I mention that prior to leaving for the conference, I was given the news that I had to rewrite my comprehensive exams? I was actually in dire need of physically leaving East Lansing and doing something—ANYTHING—rather than think about rewriting comprehensive exams.
Failure isn’t something that is talked about in academia. The more pronounced narrative is focused on achievement. How many papers have you published? You need to publish more. What conferences are you presenting at this year? Make sure you submit a research poster. If you don’t want to follow a R1 trajectory, why are you here? Just get your one required publication and get out. Messages such as these create a high amount of pressure to fit into a specific academic mold, and it’s no wonder half of graduate students experience psychological distress (Levecque, Anseel, De Beuckelaer, Van der Heyden, & Gisle, 2017).
At the very end of workshop at the ECS conference, something wonderful happened. The workshop organizers stood up and said, “Last year, we received feedback that said ‘We always hear about how to do community-engaged research, and what has worked, but we haven’t heard about failures. Hearing about failures would be helpful and so we’re going to talk about failures in our community-engaged projects”. AND THEN THEY DID. All of the faculty members sat next to each other in the front of the room, and one by one told stories of failures and mishaps with community partners. This actually happened. It was so refreshing to see a successful group of people making an effort to change the narrative of failure by recognizing it as part of research process. One of their key suggestions was to admit that it happens, move on, and learn for next time so that you can do something different. By normalizing failure and recognizing it as inevitably part of the process, the narrative of achievement can be changed.
The next day, students and faculty all went to dinner together. One of my comps committee members was there- one of the faculty that had reviewed my initial comprehensive exam submission. I was dreading seeing him, and had seriously considered not going to dinner in order to avoid him. But, you know what happened what happened while we were walking to dinner? He told me that he had to rewrite his comprehensive exams when he was a doctoral student too. Quite a bit of my failure-related-stress disappeared after he shared that bit of information.
My experience at the ECS conference showed a completely different side of academia than I was used to. I had gone to this conference with specific goals in mind, but gained so much more than I thought I would. Being around a network of academics who were working to normalize failure was exactly what I needed at that point in time, and I hope that continued acknowledgements of failure combat the traditional narratives of achievement in academia.
Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), 868-879.