Permission to Fail: Clusters and a Leap of Faith

How do we craft spaces where creativity can thrive? In my new Writing and the Creative Process class this semester we have been talking a lot about giving people “permission to fail.” That is, if we’re going to take the risk of trying something new, of being truly “creative,” we need to know that our evaluators, teachers, managers, and collaborators have meaningfully given us this permission.

This course has become an elegant microcosm for me of Plymouth State University’s massive shift to a clusters-based approach to teaching, learning, and service. In order for me to thrive in this environment, which values collaboration, innovation, and interdisciplinary, I need to take a leap of faith. I need to believe that I actually do have permission to fail. And I genuinely need to offer that permission to my students. And this means I need to take a leap of faith and encourage such leaps in others.

After all, I have applied for and received funding. I need to offer “deliverables” at some point, justifying my university’s investments. Students are often taking on significant debt and investing valuable time to experience these courses. What if I fail?

What if students don’t participate? What if colleagues don’t follow through? What if failure is not an option? What if, what if, what if? my anxiety demands.

A colleague of mine shared this Slate.com article with me that describes how we—in a variety of sectors—claim to value creativity while actively stifling it. A sobering thought.

I don’t think I could undertake a Contemplative Communities Cluster Project or “open” my Creative Process class without my practice. Years of grooming in higher education have taught me that failure is not an option. My own ego compounded with the significant role that course evaluations play in promotion and tenure have made me reticent to try new things that might… well… fail.

But my practice reminds me to see situations with fresh eyes, with a beginner’s mind. My practice encourages me to trust what people say, to believe that transformational change is possible for myself, my students, and my university.

And so I leap. I trust that my project collaborators will be honest with me about their commitments and tasks. I trust that my evaluators know the valuable role failure plays in innovation. I trust that my students will ask, try, speak up, and, perhaps most importantly, trust me.

Let’s Talk Pedagogy

This evening, like many evenings, I am curious about pedagogy. As our university reorganizes from departments into Clusters, I am curious to see where and how our pedagogies—the philosophies that drive our teaching practices—evolve.

We are highlighting the importance of “kindness.” We are identifying as “connected.” We are encouraging “interdisciplinarity.” As we develop practices to encourage kindness, to be connected, and to do interdisciplinarity, we must also articulate the philosophical foundations that drive these practices. (See initial musings on “interdisciplinarity” by Plymouth colleagues here, about ¼ down the page).

Commitees, task forces, working groups and Faculty Meetings need to stay on-task, vote, and produce. Where do we have conversations that help identify and refine our pedagogies? (As we seek a new director for the emerging Center for Transformation through Teaching, Leadership, and Lifelong Learning, I hope we will have a home for meaningful investigations of pedagogy. And I hope that we all step up to investigate together!)

Our campus Contemplative Education group works explicitly with pedagogy and practice. We read, write, teach, experiment, and refine our pedagogy together. I find that the more I explore the foundations of what I hold to be true and valuable (or, some might say, the more I explore my ontologies and epistemologies,) the more integrity and intentionality my teaching has.

I know there are a few other people on campus pairing the contemplative (reflective) and the active (teaching) in community with one another. (I see you at Chase Street Market, Reflective Practice peeps!). But I’m wondering if there are more, and how we can find each other.

Lastly, I’ll just put out here that there’s a lot of overlap in philosophy—maybe not yet in practice– between Open Education and Contemplative Pedagogy. They both rest on an ontology of connectedness. They both care deeply about access and inclusion. They both are rigorously self-critical and self-aware.  They both value process and require alternatives to traditional, empirical assessments or evaluations.

And so, I’m adding to my ongoing projects (on teaching medieval literature, on Yoga as a NRM in the West, on mysticism & consciousness studies, etc.) an exploration of the connections between Open and Contemplative. If any ACMHE people want to join me, reach out! If any Plymouth peeps want to invite me to pedagogy-centered events or conversations you’re having in clusters, departments, or offices, reach out! Let’s connect.