Failure offers a special experience in education.

During my time as an undergraduate at Macquarie University, I took 25 subjects, or units, in the humanities. A standard Arts degree has 24 units in Australia. The reason I took an extra one was due to failing a unit.

Here is the story of why I failed, what I learnt from it and how I improved the situation. I am writing this because every year, many university students fail subjects. This is not fun and is a difficult experience for the university and the failing student. Yet it is possible to recover and to graduate with a degree you are proud of.

Why I Failed

The failed subject was a third-year history subject about Renaissance Italy. I took it after an incredible winter trip to Rome, Florence and Venice. Before the semester began, I recall my excitement about this unit. The Italian Renaissance was a landmark moment in not only history, but also in philosophy, art, theology, and science. I highly recommend studying the Italian Renaissance. If possible, consider a trip to Italy; there are fantastic cities and towns, promising vision and awe-inspiring sights. However, despite this interest and passion about the Renaissance, I failed.

This is because I was a lazy, uncommitted student who left assignments to the last moment, didn’t put in the necessary effort and rarely showed up to class. The class content, teacher and cohort will not change this. I was a bad student. When my failure became obvious, I made all the excuses, which the university promptly rejected. An F appeared on my undergraduate transcript. As a consequence, I had to retake another unit. The Italian Renaissance unit wasn’t compulsory, so I picked a film history subject to make up for it. This is the only university subject failed during this undergraduate degree.

What I Learnt

It is best to take responsibility for your failures because no one else will. Only you can fix the situations you find yourself in.

There is no need to engage with destructive self-talk or to sabotage your sense of self. An accomplished scholar, especially one in the humanities, avoids treating past failures as future prophecies. It is never helpful to succumb to doom. I also learnt that doom, and negative perceptions of yourself, are a peculiar type of comfort food. Indulging in these thoughts removes the possibility of future disappointment. I began the Renaissance subject with high expectations of not only the course, but also of myself. When these were not met due to my decisions, I had to reshape my mindset and behaviour. I was serious about university. From that point onwards, I ensured to never fail a subject again.

Secondly, failing a subject does not mean you are inferior on a certain topic. I love the Renaissance. Among my dusty bookshelves, you will discover many books relevant to it. One of my most anticipated releases of 2023 is The Colour Storm by Damian Dibben. Six months after I received the failing grade, I returned to Florence and visited other Renaissance cities, such as Bologna, Milan and Siena. I made sure to visit the Uffizi a second time. It was a winter evening and I had the gallery to myself. During this precious time, I took special interest in the Renaissance art, and allowed myself to enjoy them.

More importantly; I resumed my Renaissance education. My immersion into the world of Botticelli, the Medici’s and Bellini is ongoing. Failing a subject is not the final chapter of your educational journey. As men and women, we have a crucial duty to educate ourselves, to broaden our knowledge, to test our thinking, to stretch our imagination and to learn about our past. A university degree is a small aspect of this never-ending yet fulfilling task. Because of this, I viewed my failure as a temporary setback. It would not shape my entire life.

What I Did About It

My loathing for failure is clear. I cannot tolerate it. The reason why is not merely financial or a lack of self-esteem. When you fail a university subject, you are letting yourself down. We have a moral obligation, as human beings, towards excellence, mastery of skills and competence. Because of this, my failure in Renaissance history was intolerable.

That said, I do not want anyone reading this who have failed a subject to feel bad or to sabotage themselves. You can get through this and will. Everyone fails at some moment in their life. What’s interesting isn’t the failure itself, but what is done about it. This is an opportunity to get resilient, to challenge yourself and ensure lost time is made up. There is no point in hating yourself or collapsing into despair. Another poor response to failure is doing nothing. I question anyone who normalises failing university subjects or shrugs it off.  Failure is undesirable for students, educators, governments and nations. Australians are justified in requesting competence from their people and politicians.

I finished my degree at the end of 2020. Yet the failed subject lingered. It bothered me, because not only was it bad, but it could’ve been avoided. In the second half of 2021, I enrolled in a Graduate Certificate of Studies at Australian National University. There was a short-time tuition discount and I grabbed this opportunity. A postgraduate subject was offered in Renaissance and Baroque art. I studied it and received a pleasing mark. This healed the disappointment from failing in 2019.

However, this was not the only option. I could’ve rewritten my failed assignments and transformed them into magazine articles, video scripts and blog posts. Sydney has many great scholars of Renaissance art and culture. Some give talks in libraries. Attending one would have worked as well. My family are also interested in the Renaissance and perhaps they would listen to my ideas and arguments. The online world features the expertise of historians. It is not a poor idea to visit r/AskHistorians and to ask Renaissance-themed questions.

My decision to retake a failed unit at a postgraduate level may appear drastic. However, it is in tune with who I am and who I want to become.

Conclusion

You may have failed a university subject. It is certainly not a fun experience. Yet there are many ways to respond to this disappointing moment in your academic history. It is not healthy to decline into self-hatred or despair. At these times, your self-esteem is fragile and requires support. This is not done by excusing failure or blaming others. Rather, students must evolve their failures into useful actions.

Take pride in your personal standards and desire for excellence. You dislike failing and that is a positive response to not achieving your personal best. Learn from your failures and keep growing towards who you want to be. I wish anyone reading this the best in their academic journey. You can thrive after failure.

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