Waiting for the Axe to Fall: Some Thoughts on ‘Failing’


This post came about as a result of several conversations, most recently, a discussion on twitter this afternoon with Liz Gloyn and Rachel Moss, lecturers in Classics and Medieval History respectively. We were talking about what it means to succeed – and with A Level results day looming, what it means when you don’t nail the result you expected. Academics are, in my view, Not Good with failure. We catastrophise about it. This is partly because there’s such a powerful expectation that academic success (at any level, not just university) is the same thing as consistent performance. We’re inclined to act as if a less than perfect performance is a permanent blot on your record.

The title for this blog post comes from the Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I’m currently reading. After months of dangers and temptations of various kinds, Gawain finds himself inexorably drawn to his fate: to ride to the mysterious Green Chapel, where a knight will be waiting to deliver the blow to his neck that will surely kill him. As he rides nearer, Gawain hears the grinding sound of the axe being sharpened. He dismounts and stands, neck bared, willing himself not to flinch away from blade as it swings behind him. But, at the last, he “scranke a lytel with þe schulderes for þe scharp yrne” (he shrank back a little with his shoulders, because of the sharp iron). The poem evokes Gawain’s terror with hissing alliterative ‘s’ sounds, which echo the whistling blow of the axe – and we tremble with Gawain, not knowing if he is to die or be spared.

In this poem, Gawain’s failure to stand fast is revealed to be part of a test, to see how faithfully he can face (amongst other things) death. The poet perfectly captures the naked, vulnerable feeling of being tested and found wanting.

Now, most of us (fortunately) can’t relate to axes swinging in our general direction. But that feeling of sick anticipation of the results of a test is probably all too familiar, especially for anyone who’s thinking about next A Level results, which come out next thursday. Or think about how you felt on GCSE results day. Or when you got your degree results. Or, if you’ve done a PhD, the particularly nasty few minutes in the middle of your oral examination when they send you out of the room to discuss whether they’re going to pass or fail you on the strength of what you’ve said in the previous two hours (no, really, that’s how it works. It’s horrible).

I started thinking about popular stereotypes of academic success as a result of Rachel’s new tumblr project, titled, ‘This is How Academics Dress’. As she explains, there’s a particular image most of us have of what ‘a proper academic’ looks like – and most of us don’t measure up. This got me thinking that, in addition to this visual stereotype, there’s a biographical stereotype of the ‘proper academic’. Let’s call the ‘proper academic’ Tarquin. And, since I’m an English Lit academic, let’s have him do English Lit.

Tarquin learns to read aged about two. At four, he goes to school and is precocious, reading widely and writing a great deal. Tarquin devours books, and his nice middle-class parents take him to see the odd bit of Shakespeare. At secondary school, Tarquin continues to read widely, taking an interest in history and drama. He’s a bit of a poet. At GCSE he gains twelve A* grades, and at A Level he takes 5A*s, while acting in the school play. He applies to St John’s college, Cambridge and is accepted on a strong interview. Tarquin goes on to get a starred first, immediately applies for his MPhil and then his PhD, and graduates from the latter aged 24. He immediately picks up a Junior Research Fellowship and sets out to write his first book, which garners solid reviews and does well. His first permanent lectureship comes along just before his 30th birthday, and he dedicates the second book to his wife, Linda, who was a tower of strength editing the footnotes while the twins cooed in the Moses basket.

'Caritas' by Lucas Cranach the Younger. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

“Look, would you just put down the sodding apple so I can get dressed?” Linda wasn’t thrilled Tarquin was in the library again …

Admittedly, I am being slightly snarky here. I’m sure Tarquin’s a perfectly nice bloke, and there are male academics out there who manage to write acknowledgements to their wives and children without sounding as if they’ve never heard of wifework. And I must admit that elements of my biography mesh with the fictional one above, because I’m a privileged, middle-class white woman who isn’t trying to write her postdoc while bringing up children.

But do you need to be a Tarquin – to get your straight A* grades? Or are there times when failure isn’t really such a bad thing? I think this is something academics need to talk about more, to counter the stereotype of what success should look like.

I can tell this isn’t just something I worry about. I’ve got a 2:1, and my (woefully infrequently updated) academia.edu page tells me that one of the commonest sets of search terms that leads people to find it isn’t my name: it’s “postgraduate degree with a 2:1” or “PhD with a 2:1”. Clearly, there are a lot of people out there who would like to know whether or not you can do a postgrad degree with less than a first. It’s the same story with GCSE and A Level grades. A statement I’ve heard depressingly often (and it’s rarely framed as a question) is “you can’t go to Oxbridge without straight A* GCSEs” or “Oxbridge only let you in with straight A* grades at A Level”. Similarly, “well, they won’t cope with English Lit at university if they didn’t get the A*”. None of these statements is absolutely true, and some of them are very wrong indeed.

The positive side of ‘failure’ is that it helps you learn to pick yourself up and work out what went wrong. That’s a useful skill. And it also forces you to question what you thought was true. One of the chapters of my PhD thesis was approximately twenty years in the writing, because it comes out of the first time I can remember really struggling and failing to manage something. I didn’t learn to read until I was seven, which is quite late. It was frustrating, but it’s also fascinating looking back, because (unlike most academically bright people who learned to read early), I can remember very well what it was like to be an illiterate person in a world that expected literacy. So, when I started looking at medieval narratives of literacy and illiteracy, I felt motivated, much more than I might have been if I’d succeeded easily at reading myself. At some point, I’ll probably write the post that’s in the back of my mind, about being a dyslexic medievalist, and this is just one example of how it helps to fail first.

In the poem I described above, Gawain doesn’t, in the end, die. The axe blow he feared would kill him makes only a ‘nick’ in his neck, a tiny cut that stings his conscience more than anything else. He returns home thinking he’s been marked forever, that everyone will see the symbol of his failure and his shame. But his fellow knights don’t see it that way: all they see is that Gawain, who was almost certain to die, has come back alive. One little mis-step is nothing, they say.

I would not advise this as a definitive reading of the medieval poem (!), and if you know the poem you’ll probably acknowledge it’s more than glib. But there is practicality in this attitude towards failure. However dramatically horrible it feels – however much you imagine it in terms of dire consequences, monsters and impending doom – it probably looks more like a minor scratch on the surface to people around you.

If you’re reading this, and know someone with A Level results coming out – or if you’re waiting for them now – good luck, and stay calm!


The picture is ‘Caritas’ by Lucas Cranach the Younger, from Wiki Commons. I prefer to think of it as ‘Oh my god, why did I think I could take on three toddlers and the baby?’

Lest you worry I’m compromising some poor sod’s privacy with the image of AS Results, be reassured they are mine. Not too dazzling, eh?


8 thoughts on “Waiting for the Axe to Fall: Some Thoughts on ‘Failing’

  1. Great post, as always! I still remember my induction to my job at Oxford, when I met other new starters who couldn’t quite get to grips with the idea that I had studied at neither Oxford nor Cambridge! (Those of us non-native to Oxbridge ended up huddled together clutching tea cups and murmuring about this strange place in which we had found ourselves. ;)) The point of this anecdote is that there are always people who will judge us for not measuring up to some kind of Tarquinesque standard. I have the confidence given by a clutch of academic accolades and white privilege, so these are only annoyances; but these attitudes are actively damaging to people whose face more serious obstacles to academic success. This is why conversations like these ones matter; while they may not have massive immediate impact, I do think the ripples spread, and more and more people can see that becoming an academic is not one road, but many paths, and it can take lots of detours. We’re constantly in a process of becoming, after all, aren’t we? My academic journey has many miles left to wend, I hope, not just in terms of career trajectory but in terms of the kind of academic I will become.

    • Thanks for replying, Rachel.

      Your experience reminded me of when I started my MSt degree – I had a lovely bonding experience with someone else who’d also confided she didn’t have a first. Now I know there are lots of us, but at the time I felt really strange and nervous and out of place.

      I think it is a hugely important conversation to have. If nothing else, it counters the really unpleasant worry I know some people have, that if they don’t have a perfect record and get in, they must’ve received positive discrimination and they still can’t be ‘good enough’. I keep reading that universities in general, and Oxbridge in particular, would be able to admit more students who aren’t privileged, if only those people didn’t feel unable to apply. So the more we say that you don’t have to have a perfect track record, the more (hopefully) people will feel confident to give it a go. I think it’s a good use of privilege to talk about it.

      And I agree wholeheartedly about being in the process of becoming. I’ll keep that phrase in mind.

  2. When were you last asked to write a book about research done 20 years ago, in a month, without checking any facts? This is what the person with the perfect record maybe can do, but it is not research. The perfect-record person, in fact, probably never did any research and maybe will discover that when the time limit is gone and originality is required instead of being a hindrance, they don’t perform well.

    Oxbridge does tend to select PhD candidates with a perfect record, simply because they get a huge number of applicants and know that filtering anyone without a perfect record before interviewing will make their lives easier. Those of us at other universities, who can’t afford to do that, often find that we would rather have X who scraped a 2:1 but can ask intelligent questions about the paper we gave them to read a week ago, as compared to Y who has a first, who can reproduce the entire argument of the paper from memory, but who can’t tell the difference between the lemma that requires a clever idea and the lemma that just requires brute-force calculation.

    • Thanks for commenting! Good to have the perspective from someone who does the admissions side.

      I understand that even Oxbridge might be inclined to pick someone who asks interesting questions over someone with a perfect record in my discipline. It’s possible it’s more of an Arts thing than Sciences. But I know quite a few of us who got DPhil places without perfect records. At the very least, it’s not a hopeless situation (and in my experience, just applying for anything – degree, PhD, whatever) helps you because you learn how to prepare and application and really think about what you want to do.

      I’m fascinated by what you say about the ‘perfect record’ and brute-force calculation. That strikes me as so true. I can picture what the equivalent is for English Lit A Level, too. Memory is rewarded throughout so much of the school/university system, it’s hard to acknowledge it might not be the be-all and end-all.

  3. I only have a 2:2.

    But somehow I then managed to make the Dean’s List for my MSc (95%) and an currently writing up my PhD. There were 7 years between my BSc and my MSc and 6 years (and two children) between my MSc and PhD. I’m now 40 and only just now ready for a “proper” career. But have I lived my life in various interesting way in between? Most certainly.

    Being a Tarquin is only one of many ways to get where you’re going.

    • Oh, and while not Oxbridge, I’m doing my PhD through Imperial College London, which I’m told is An Impressive University in the UK (I’m not a local). So if I can manage it, pretty much anyone can. It might take longer and you might not be such a shining star of an academic at the end. But you’ll probably have far more interesting stories to tell over a pint.

      • Thanks for commenting, Annie! And yes, Imperial is definitely an impressive university!

        I agree with you completely about having more interesting stories to tell. I feel really lucky to know lots of non-Tarquin people who would definitely say they feel better for doing it this way.

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