Cui: Dealing with total abject failure


Tom Cui, Columnist

During Spring Quarter of freshman year, eager to expand on my passion for philosophy, I took a class in moral philosophy. I had fallen in love with the idea that ethics could change the world. I spent innumerable hours reading the assigned texts. I was shocked to receive a C on the first assigned paper. “No matter,” I told myself; my passion for the subject is pure, and the long-term benefits of the course material would trump any low grade.

Then another C was handed back to me, and another. The grade I received in that class dragged my grade point average down by a tenth of a point. How many reading this column would consider taking that class a good decision?

Not surprisingly, I think taking that class was a bad decision. It was not bad in a comical sense — where others laugh along at the story and act like it matters less than it should — because I still love philosophy with a passion. Its effects were severe enough that its badness cannot be shrugged off. It is an example of total abject failure: an attempt that ended up in a result as bad as I dared to imagine.

This notion of total abject failure is not often talked about at NU. For one, we tend not to think of any sign of failure as total. A bad test score in one major class only inspires hopes of making the grade up, and a badly planned student group event evokes soul-searching and restored optimism. For another, failure is not interpreted as abject. If the first major does not work out, switching to a different one takes only some paperwork and processing time. There are so many other opportunities on this campus that you can find the right one eventually.

But we must note how this faith against failure is a product of our institutions. Due to the number of faculty and amount of cash slushing through campus offices, the chances of a total failure occurring is low; a class can be dropped and retaken, and groups maintain access to funds despite one bad event. The size of the administration — one administrator for around every five undergraduates — allows for pain-free major changes, counseling and funding. All the above is possible due to a network of tuition, drug royalties, withdrawals from the $8 billion endowment and the like.

Institutions buttress our faith, but what institutions give, they also take away. Certainly they are known to suspend support under the guises of “medical leave” or “academic dismissal,” notions shrouded in secrecy. Undergraduates subject to these punishments are ripped away from campus society — and who knows when we will have enough free time to notice their absences?

More commonly, we observe cases where institutions notice competition among students, but they let it spread without considering whether more support is needed. Two years down the line, when you are told to commit to the path you have chosen, these cases become more apparent. A pre-med student knows this feeling all too well, as she haggles with department advisers and pays out of her own pockets for practice standardized exams. A Medill student slaves away through her journalism residency for small stipend. A theatre student stacks onto her back as many production credits as possible until it breaks.

The problem, unfortunately, is that we do not talk about total abject failure. There is considerable discussion on campus about restoring success – conquering personal demons in order to get back on track. But this assumes there is a track you can return to. The feeling of total abject failure, whether it starts after freshman chemistry or at the end of junior year, is seeing no further path in sight. Standing on the abyss, a student has to perform something much harder than conquest: She has to reinvent herself by generating new passions for different things.

We know that total abject failure is bad. We know very little about how reinvention works on this campus. Its mechanisms are better known by close friends or kept to a Counseling and Psychological Services report. But this means we observe a bad phenomenon on campus without knowing any solution. Is that really tolerable?

Since I admit I know very little about the problem at hand, I should not propose any solutions. What I have tried to do is acknowledge the problem exists and, eclipsed by more feel-good efforts, lingers in the corners. Those who have had to reinvent themselves into a newfound profession should continue to speak up, highlighting their unique experiences. This is a necessary first step to improve our community’s general happiness.

Tom Cui is a Weinberg junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to [email protected].