As five Emory faculty members took to the stage on Sept. 9 for the first official “F#ckup Night,” the crowd of approximately 200 students and faculty abruptly alternated between eruptive laughter and somber silence. Organized by the Faculty in Residence program, the Office of Residence Life and the Office of Admissions, the event centered on stories of failures, mistakes and regrets.
In planning the event, host and Associate Professor of Organization and Management Wesley Longhofer and Director of Marketing and Communications Lisa Coetzee had hoped to encourage a judgment-free attitude toward discussions of failure and disappointment.
“The idea is to try and change campus culture a little bit … just to acknowledge that we all fail,” Longhofer explained. “I think faculty are eager to show this side of themselves.”
Associate Professor of History Daniel LaChance was the first to take the microphone. He recalled being a young, passionate and idealistic high school English teacher in Bethlehem, PA.
In an attempt to make his class more enjoyable, he tried to give students greater creative freedom with their projects. But the plan backfired when a group of students presented a video featuring a mock lynching, which LaChance said trivialized the history of racial violence in the U.S.
At the time, LaChance only mildly criticized the project. At the ESC, surrounded by a riveted audience, he admitted, “I didn’t do what I needed to do, and I really think a lot about that fuck-up.”
The next speaker, Associate Professor of Organization and Management at Goizueta Business School Emily Bianchi, also shared a regrettable experience earlier in her career, when she worked at a non-profit homeless center.
An inexperienced 23 year-old, Bianchi felt very unqualified for her job representing clients whose legal issues jeopardized their access to public housing. She vividly remembered an encounter with a terrified elderly woman who faced eviction after her grandson was caught dealing drugs from their public apartment.
“I was really passionate and incredibly nervous about representing this woman, because I wanted so badly for her to do well,” Bianchi said.
As Bianchi was parking her car at the apartment complex the morning of the hearing, another car swerved into the only remaining parking spot.
Bianchi, who had furiously gestured towards the other driver, realized upon entering the hearing that the reckless driver had been none other than the judge. To Bianchi’s shock, the judge graciously apologized. At a loss for words, Bianchi was unable to effectively defend her client, who ultimately lost her public housing.
Bianchi had not expected her brazen actions in the parking lot to have consequences.
“Some of our worst behavior is when we feel anonymous,” Bianchi said. “I decided that I wanted to be … the same person when I was anonymous as I was when I wasn’t.”
Soye Han (20C) observed that the speakers’ “fuck-ups” mostly occurred at an age that she and her fellow College seniors are fast approaching. Though nervous for the future, Han acknowledged the value in learning from mistakes.
“[Fuck-ups are] part of the process of becoming an adult and living in a society with other people [and] learning that it’s not just about you,” Han said.
The discussion took a more lighthearted turn when Senior Director of the Barkley Forum Ed Lee III took the stage. Though now an award-winning debate coach for Emory varsity debate team, Lee recounted a time where he did not feel so worthy of acclaim.
During the final round of the prestigious 2011 National Debate Tournament, two of his most talented debaters, Stephen Weil (11C) and Ovais Inamullah (11C), competed against Northwestern University (III.). After winning the coin flip, they obtained the choice of debating either affirmation or negation.
On the affirmation side, Weil and Inamullah were heavily advantaged to win. But the duo ignored their prospects and decided to take a risk and debate on the negation side because it was their final debate round as students. Lee did nothing to interfere, and they ultimately lost.
“I had one job, and I couldn’t figure out how to do that one job,” Lee lamented.
After Lee, Professor of Biology at Oxford College Nitya Jacob took the stage. Though she now boasts years of experience teaching classes and conducting research, her early years as a researcher saw her once wrongly measure an expensive compound tenfold, wasting hundreds of dollars.
“That’s a pretty bad start to being a scientist,” Jacob said. “I went away with my tail between my legs, but that didn’t discourage me from continuing to pursue science.”
Many years later, Jacob wrote a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant proposal. She was optimistic throughout her application, but received unexpected harsh criticism calling her project “too ambitious” and her technical expertise questionable.
More determined than ever to prove herself, Jacob worked furiously to improve her proposal, only to meet another crushing rejection.
“‘Why is the world thinking of me as this not so innovative, not so creative person?’” Jacob remembered asking herself. “‘What do I need to do to change that?’”
As Jacob passed back the microphone, the speakers received a long round of applause. Longhofer concluded the event by proposing future collaborations with student organizations to host regular “F#ckup Nights,” including a student-organized version in the Spring.
The event was well received by students, most of whom seemed to appreciate the message of embracing past failures.
Raven Crosby (22C) noted that the stories helped to put into perspective the struggles that students face today.
“As a society, we have these views now that we have to be perfect [and that] we have to have everything figured out,” Crosby said. “[The talk] still shows you that if you eff up early, you can still be successful going into your future.”
Longhofer said he hoped that by having faculty show vulnerability to mistakes, they could encourage students to persevere through their own set-backs.
“As academics, we fail constantly,” Longhofer said. “Some of the faculty [students] look up to … and some of our most beloved faculty on campus, have also gone through similar experiences as them.”