Theorizing Failure in US Writing Assessments

How do teachers define failure when learning to write? We don’t ask the question often enough. In this article, I attempt to offer a definition and critique of the nature and production of failure in writing classrooms and programs. I argue that the production of failure in writing assessments can create more purposeful consequences, particularly for those historically most likely to suffer “failures” in writing classrooms: students of color, multilingual students, and workingclass students. Drawing upon survey and grade data from California State University, Fresno, I examine two kinds of failure produced in writing classrooms, quality-failure and labor-failure. I argue that quality-failure (associated with judging the quality of drafts) is the least useful kind of failure for writing classrooms, while labor-failure (associated with work and effort) offers better consequences for student-writers and can help articulate a more robust writing construct by including noncognitive dimensions of writing. I conclude by proposing “productive failure” as a future possibility for writing classrooms.