Submitted by Kandi Bauman, Advisor, Student Activities
Contested Issues in Student Affairs: Diverse Perspective and Respectful Dialogue
Chapter 6: What Are the Risks and Benefits Associated With Allowing Students to Fail If Learning Results
Being creative is risky business. A fine balance between experimentation and exploration, creativity brings with it the unavoidable risks of success, but more importantly of failure. In “Chapter 6: What Are the Risks and Benefits Associated With Allowing Students to Fail If Learning Results”, author Michele Welkener takes a broad, but provocative look at the role of student affairs educators when it comes to shaping an environment where students can explore their creativity with purposeful risk in mind.
Welkener begins the conversation of creativity, risk, and failure with a brief overview of the changing nature of teaching methodologies in American higher education. From focusing on instruction, then focusing on students, to focusing on learning, the education paradigm has shifted in such a way that students are expected to take increasing responsibility for their own learning. This learning centered approach, having deep roots in our own Evergreen academics, provides those students willing to take the most risks in their academic endeavors the ability to achieve scholarly successes far beyond what they may have been able to attempt in a traditional academic setting. At the same time, students taking these risks may also experience failures that can at one extreme guide their future studies, and at the other, bring a premature end to their academic career.
Aside from the risk of academic creativity, Welkener acknowledges that much of the discussion concerning risk taking for student affairs professionals is centered on high-risk student behaviors and the offices, services, or policies that have been created to minimize them. Welkener states that
“while popular cultural portrayals of high risk behavior (e.g. excessive drinking, sexual indiscretion, cheating) stereotype collegiate life,…[ ]…not all risk is high, nor is all risk a bad thing.”
Welkener argues that encouraging purposeful risk within the appropriate developmental context “can help students learn to make good decisions.”
As Welkener goes on to describe, risk taking requires the ability to tolerate ambiguity, since the outcome of the risk is unknown. In an age marked by the real or perceived threat of terrorism, economic collapse, corporate corruption, and natural disasters, stepping into the unknown across the country, for many students, is more a question of compromising safety than it is of fostering creative solutions. In an increasingly safety driven and liability fearing institutional culture, students taking risks readily conjures images of recklessness and rebellion.
While acknowledging that it is “imperative that we [as student affair professionals] help students avoid dangerous risks”, Welkener’s concluding advice for fostering “good risk” centers on being aware of standards, policies, and relationships that fail to provide opportunities for exploration and personal growth. Welkener suggests offering opportunities for students to address ill-structured problems, issues with no easy or singular solution. And while this advice seems a fitting end to the rest of Welkener’s article, it somehow seems, at its core, uncreative.
Not until the last few paragraphs of the article does Welkener offer one of the most creative solutions to the problem of risk. Welkener suggests that in order to teach good risk, we must first model it. As Welkener states,
“the effectiveness of risk as a learning aid is limited by an educator’s ease with risk taking and perhaps even his or her creative identity.”
This idea that we, as student affair professionals, must model good risk in order to teach it, struck a cord with me. What does modeling “good risk” at Evergreen look like for staff members? Or in other words, how are we as a community rewarding or encouraging creative solutions to ill-structured problems?
There is a point in each one of our work experiences where we, as Evergreen staff, are confronted with some degree of the dilemmas that students are reading about in their academic texts. Gender inequality, religious intolerance, work place injustices, greed, corruption, unsustainable/irresponsible practices, will all find their way into our purview. The type of risky solutions that we as individuals use to confront these issues are not just related to our jobs, but also serve as examples to the students around us of how injustice maintains or how change is made. Do we respectfully confront our co-workers about their homophobic comments during the staff meeting, or do we laugh it off with a side glance of embarrassment? Do we formally organize to ask for fair wages, or do we whisper in the break room about how the rookie makes more than everyone? Do we take “no” for an answer, or do we allow it to guide our questions about the existing policies and programs?
As a Student Organizations Advisor, I see students navigating social, ideological, and even physical risk taking all of the time. How students communicate differences outside the confines of seminar and engage in activism within our institution and community are Evergreen examples of the experiments in creativity and risk taking of which Welkener spoke.
As educators outside of the classroom, we have the opportunity to show students what “good risk” can look like in our community by modeling creative solutions to these same issues of difference and activism. And if failure means that we must reveal our imperfections, our ignorances, or our weaknesses to find solutions that promote justice, equity, and community; than maybe the risk is worth it.