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ASE 333T - The Success of Failure

ASE 333T - The Success of Failure - R E V I E W E S S AY...

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321 It is always more pleasant to talk about success than failure. The boss con- ducting performance reviews much prefers to tell staff members that they have done a good job than a poor one. It is less confrontational. The teacher-student relationship is not one of boss-employee, of course, but similar dynamics can be in play. Performance reviews naturally take the form of assigning grades. Time was, as every academic knows or suspects, when grades assigned were relative to the cohort known as a class. In col- lege courses, only the very best-performing student or students got A’s, the majority of the class got C’s, and those who brought up the rear actually got D’s and F’s. Grading was never a pleasant experience, but awarding an hon- est distribution of grades was considered part of the responsibility that came with the privilege of being a professor. Accepting an honest grade was part of the responsibility of being a student. The student who tried unduly to influence a teacher’s grade was called an apple polisher, or worse. Over the past decades the institution of grading has become somewhat inverted. Students now grade professors, through what are called teacher or course evaluations, and some professors appear to crave good evaluations as badly as premed students crave A’s. Some observers have accused the professoriat of kissing up to the students with more palatable syllabi, easier reading lists, more entertaining lectures, fun field trips, and higher grades. Over half the grades at some elite institutions are said now to be A’s. With the anticipation of so many good grades, students rank all of their woebe- gone classes as better than average, and all professors as better than average teachers. Students feel good about their transcripts; faculty members feel good about their continuing appointments and promotions. Individual failure, whether in the classroom or in the workplace, is an almost extinct concept. Judging performance has become . ..we l l ,judg- REVIEW ESSAY The Success of Failure HENRY PETROSKI Dr. Petroski is A. S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University in North Carolina. He is the author of, among many other works, To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design (New York, 1985; reprint, 1992) and Design Paradigms: Case Histories of Error and Judgment in Engineering (New
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TECHNOLOGY AND CULTURE APRIL 2001 VOL. 42 322 mental. Curiously, though, over the same decades that this retreat from interpersonal criticism has become institutionalized, the criticism of tech- nology sometimes seemed to have risen to a clamor, especially in the court- room. The phenomenon has ebbed and flowed, of course, but the trend among litigious-minded critics, at least, appears to have been to assume that technology is bad until proven otherwise. It is as if technology were
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ASE 333T - The Success of Failure - R E V I E W E S S AY...

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