Admitting defeat

I had a great new idea for a final project for my survey classes this semester. It was going to be awesome. This assignment was going to draw on the skills my students were practicing every week but then take it all to a new level. Critical thinking! Public writing! Digital tools!

The semester started, and then I started to think that the project might not work. I clung to hope for a long time, because I didn’t want to face it. But it wasn’t going to work, and I wish I’d just accepted that earlier.

I had planned to have my students do publicly-annotated versions of primary sources using It would have allowed them to work on topics that interested them, demonstrate the skills of close reading and contextualizing that they’d worked on in class, and produce some public work that used interesting digital methods. Before the semester started, I sketched out the time-frame, gathered up primary sources, figured out how I’d host the whole thing, but waited to firm it up until I got to know the students, their interests, and their backgrounds. Look at how optimistic I was in the planning stage!

I had this new thing all ready to go.

And then it started to seem like it might be difficult.

And then it started to seem like it might be impossible.

And I don’t know that there was any point at which I could have fixed it.

First of all, we didn’t have a terribly snowy winter but all of the snow seemed to come when it would scuttle my classes. I did online make-ups, jammed two classes into one, rewrote schedules, and used up all of the wiggle room I had. It’s not uncommon to lose a lot of days to snow early in the semester, but snow days can be like pineapple in Jell-o: classes just won’t gel right.

That missed time and the difficulty we had getting into a rhythm meant that it took me much longer to realize the second problem. My classes are flipped, and the final project was intended to make use of all the notes they had taken over the semester on the posted lessons that we discuss each day. It usually takes a few weeks for students to realize a) that they really do need to take notes and b) how to take the right kinds of notes, so I was planning to have the project focus on the latter two thirds of the semester. But too many students weren’t making the jump to better note-taking practices and the constant disruption meant it took longer for me to figure it out. Even when I did, it had become so baked in that I’ve not been able to shift those note-taking practices very much.

This issue was challenging, but it wasn’t enough to get me to scuttle the project. What did was my realization that, as a result of disruption and spotty note-taking and lots of factors outside my control, many students just weren’t developing the historical thinking skills they needed to do the project well. Even if some students would be able to tackle the project and do really good work with it, knowing that most of them would struggle with it – and struggle unproductively – was what ultimately made me admit defeat. I had to face up to the fact that it just wasn’t going to work the way I’d hoped, and that giving it a try would actually be worse than calling the whole thing off.

At that point, the only honest thing I could do was to go to my students, explain myself, and present them with an alternative that would be – on balance – no more work than the original plan, and probably a little less.

The defeat here was overdetermined. You can blame it on the snow, blame it on the rhythm we never managed to find together, and if all else fails you can blame it on me. Maybe if I’d had the project more firmly planned when the semester started, or had been more perceptive about other dynamics in the class, I’d have been able to salvage it.

But my biggest mistake was my inability to pull the trigger earlier and give up on something that just wasn’t going to work. I was afraid of seeming like I hadn’t given my assignments much thought, or like I was making a change just to make something easier on myself. I should have trusted my instincts, and trusted my students, who have always proven responsive and understanding when I’ve discussed pedagogical goals and challenges with them.

The project didn’t fail. It was defeated. I’ll try it again, I know, but for now, at least I’ve learned a bit more about how to recognize, accept, and manage defeat.


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