On every university campus, this is the time of many receptions and orientation meetings of both new students and new faculty.
Today, I had the pleasure of meeting with newly hired faculty. The Provost Office organizes an orientation day, presenting key information that a new colleague needs to know at Georgetown. Each year in these meetings, I am reminded of why academic careers are such an important component of a society. These are people devoted to building the next generation of educated leaders in diverse fields, while simultaneously advancing knowledge in their field for the common good of society. They are passionate about both of these missions. The instructional passion propels forward the formation of our students; the research passion enriches the lives of students through their research-based learning experiences, as well as impacting the world through discoveries unseen before.
In our faculty orientation, there is a little anxiety about how one will “fit into” Georgetown. There is curiosity about how the Georgetown students will compare to earlier teaching experiences one has had. There are questions about how one’s own research activities can be moved into a new home. Everyone in the group wants to do well and seeks the information to permit them to do so.
Similarly, over the next few days there are meetings of new students where senior administrators and officials welcome the new students. It’s common to give them a sense of Georgetown’s commitment to educating the whole person, to helping each student find their way to serve others, and to helping each student succeed. Clearly, like the new faculty, the students are somewhat anxious about whether they will be successful.
Hence, there are some similarities between the faculty and the student meetings. Striving to succeed is a widely shared focus. However, there are some stark contrasts, as well.
Most of the entering students haven’t experienced many failures in their lives. They have passed all the academic hurdles placed in front of them.
In contrast, many of the new faculty have already experienced the common failures of an academic career. They know that only a minority of the academic articles written are accepted by good peer reviewed journals; many book manuscripts are rejected by presses; the majority of research grant proposals are rejected. One of the hidden parts of academia is that the rate of rejection one experiences is quite high.
The students, for the most part, are shielded from this fact. The published work that instructors assign for readings in classes is the very best of the research products of a field. Students rarely learn how much work never made it to that level of excellence. Yet, each faculty member knows that producing work that becomes part of the established field (which is taught to the next generation) is a rare event in any field. For every research idea that works, they have worked on scores of others that didn’t work.
My hunch is that, in these orientation meetings, we could serve our new students and faculty with a little more acknowledgement of the important role of failure prior to success. For the faculty, we need to communicate that Georgetown wants to foster an environment that supports this complicated high-risk, high-payoff devotion to innovation through research. For students, we need to communicate that many significant accomplishments need a set of failures before success; if you’re not failing frequently enough, you may be aiming too low; the “hit” rate on really important ideas is quite low, and we all need to get accustomed to rejection on the way to hard-earned success.
When faculty and students come together around this issue, great things can happen. When faculty share their research lives with students (either in student research experiences or in classrooms), they can teach them lessons of repeated failures leading to success. The students learn under close mentoring that failure is an opportunity for insight. Georgetown’s efforts to integrate research and learning have those benefits in mind. It’s an aspect of formation of our students worth the investment.