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 .
The Success of Failure
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,
Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design
(New York, 1985; reprint,
Design Paradigms: Case Histories of Error and Judgment in Engineering