During my undergraduate years in chemical engineering, I failed Statistics. Twice. And it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
I failed the first time somewhere in my early years. I don’t remember why – likely I spent too much time in the pub.
However, the second time, I took a calculated risk – and lost. I was in my final term and had a heavy workload. I was supposed to graduate at Christmas. I didn’t attend any Stats classes or do the weekly assignments. Instead, I decided to try to take advantage of the math department’s elusive carrot – the 100% final.
It was a huge embarrassment and a total disaster. I had to re-negotiate the start date on my job offer. I had to borrow money. I had to find a new place to live. And I had to take two additional courses to boost my grade point average to the minimum required to graduate.
Yet, if this hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
One of the other courses I decided to take was “Economic Anthropology”. It caught my eye when I browsed the course catalogue. It changed my world, and more specifically, my worldview.
The course was fascinating, but the whole experience was very uncomfortable. I don’t think there is a cultural divide on any campus greater than that between the engineering and anthropology departments. These were some of my challenges:
- In my five years of engineering undergrad, I had never written a single term paper
- I had never attended a class that required discussion or had reading lists
- I literally did not know where on campus to find the anthropology department
I was both exhilarated and terrified as I trotted up the hill to my first class. When I got there, I didn’t know one single student and I didn’t say a single word in class that day. Nor most of the rest of the term. There were vocabulary and concepts I had never heard of. And back in 1991, there was no help from Google!
Instead I had to spend long hours in the top of the Harriet Irving Library actually reading through those papers the professor assigned. I had to show up to class every day – as a lot of the learning happened through the discussion – totally unlike most of my other courses.
I learned a few academic concepts that stayed with me and enhanced learning throughout my life. I also learned a few valuable life lessons.
Academically, I admired one key concept underpinning anthropologists work – that no social scientist can study another culture without bringing along her own bias. But it’s what anthropologists do with their biases that fascinated me – they don’t try to eliminate them, rather they declare them, so they can recognize and minimize the weakness in their own work.
In those days, we were not taught any equivalent concept in science or engineering. Sure, there is less room for bias in math or physics, but there are biases in say, what an engineering researcher decides to study.
Second, I learned there was a whole flipping world out there of knowledge that I hadn’t touched. There is so much to learn and we have so little time in our formal education to learn it.
Third, the social sciences were damn hard, and required a different way of thinking. I often wonder if I hadn’t had such a light workload if I would have failed Economic Anthropology too!
In the end, I enjoyed writing the term paper and got a decent mark. I’m sure my professor had to look up my name as she recorded my grade – I strove hard to remain invisible in her class! But I did pass it and my stats class (finally) and got my degree.
I was embarrassed by this “extra term” for a lot of my adult life. Yet, now in my 50’s, I am finally able to see that failure for the gift it really was. What it taught me:
- Failure often opens paths we didn’t know existed. We should explore them.
- Our formal educations do us a disservice if we think we have learned enough and stop learning.
- When we put ourselves in uncomfortable positions, with people of other worldviews, we change and grow.
As I sit squarely in middle age, I think like most people, I tend more often to cocoon, to seek out the familiar, and to avoid that which causes me grief. Yet, if we want to continue to learn, we must become uncomfortable. We must dare to interact with people who don’t share our views. We must dare to fail, if we are to grow.
 Photo by author: Old Arts Building, UNB, Fredericton, May 2019