Bright green light in close-up.

Risk Taking is a Form of Playing it Safe

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Reviewed by Rebecca Halpern and Sarah Honeychurch
Danger” by Thomas Hawk; CC BY-NC 2.0

We like to talk about risk. We talk about the virtues of taking risks, we tell each other to take risks, we tell each other to tell our students to take risks, and, of course, we tell our students to take risks. Sometimes we don’t use the word “risks.” Instead, we tell our students to “Be Bold,” expect and accept failure, cultivate a sense of adventure, or fuck up a little.

But, why? And what do we mean when we tell our students to “be bold” and “take risks?” And, what do we do to our students when we imagine they need this kind of encouragement?

I have collected 130 publicly accessible syllabi for courses focusing on digital writing. It’s a very informal, non-scientific collection conducted exclusively through Google searches for syllabi using a handful of related search phrases. I relied upon Claire Lauer’s chapter “Contending with Terms: ‘Multimodal’ and ‘Multimedia’ in the Academic and Public Spheres” from Multimodal Composition: A Critical Sourcebook in which she outlines a handful terms (“multimodal,” “multimedia,” “multi-media,” “new media,” “hypermedia,” etc.) scholars use when referring to what I have blanketly called digital writing.

In collecting these syllabi, I noticed a trend in how instructors advocated for and described the need for academic risk-taking. Consider a statement from University of Florida Telecommunications instructor Andrew Selepak’s Fall 2013 Writing for Electronic Media:

“Learning is a lifelong process. Students who are unduly concerned with grades usually play it safe and give the teacher what they think he or she wants. Real learning requires you to experiment and make mistakes. In this class when faced with a choice between playing it safe for a grade and experimenting, with the possibility that you will make a mistake you can learn from, dare to take that risk. Choose what will contribute to your long term learning, not what will enhance your semester grade. We will give you the space to make mistakes without being punished by a grade. Don’t just think about giving the “right” answer, instead give the best answer.”

My kneejerk reaction aligns with Selepak’s: academic risk-taking is about more than grades, and the call for such boldness, for “real learning” imagines students are often more focused on grade-based results than they are on, as Selepak puts it, the more complicated processes of learning. Students, it seems, assume schools are a sort of competency-based sorting mechanism, and this assumption has denuded education of all its buzzing, blooming, and wonderful confusions and challenges. If you do well, then you can get ahead. If you don’t, then you can’t. These imagined students are, maybe, good at schooling, but not good at scholaring.

We can assume this grades-first mentality is born of a fear of failure and the overwhelming personal (not to mention financial and legal) burdens such failure might entail. And confronted with this ostensible fear of failure, instructors like Selepak want to shake students out of their grades-first mentality which means, I guess, students need to take risks and be bold.

But I must ask again: what do we mean by “taking risks” and “being bold,”, exactly, and what do our students think we mean? Or, more to the point, how do we expect our students, long inured to the processes of standardization and high-stakes testing, supposed to act upon hearing this plea?

Statements like these, thoughts like these, set up a binary worth exploring. (It’s not even worth my time to call it a “false binary;” aren’t they all?) I’ll do this exploring through my own limited understanding of a semiotic square. The binary, as far as I can see it, is between students as they are imagined as either risk-takers or play-it-safers. It looks like this:


Important to note: risk-taker and play-it-safer are contrary terms, not contradictory terms. Indeed, the contradiction of risk-taker is a “not-risk-taker” and the opposite of play-it-safer is “not-play-it-safer.” Like this:


The underlying assumption in the call for students to “take risks” or “be bold” is that students (even many good students) are, when they enter our classrooms, not risk-takers, but play-it-safers. That is, they are good schoolers. Good scholars (presumably scholars like the instructors issuing such calls), on the other hand, are risk-takers and not play-it-safers. In other words, being a good schooler tends to not necessarily be the same thing as being a good scholar. Consider:


Yet, I am confused (much like Simon Ensor) as to how an instructor can get away with thinking of themselves as a risk-taker. To quote Ensor, “Pfff.” I reckon that within the confines of academia one could be a risk-taker in relation to other academics (just as in the land of the blind, et cetera, et cetera), but this is a very qualified, footnoted notion of “risk taking.” Indeed, taking risks as a instructor pales in comparison to taking risks as just about anything else (most notably taking risks as a student). This is not to say that there is no such thing as a risk-taker who is also an instructor, but rather that it can be a kind of incongruity of terms to suggest that risk-takingness and instructorness are related, let alone connected. Put another way, it’s hard for me to imagine that every instructor who extols their students to be “risk takers” could himself or herself be anything more than a risk-taker within a play-it-safe system. These instructors often still have to — as Ensor so artfully pillories and Sean Michael Morris laments — play it safe (even as they “take risks”). They have to produce play-it-safe texts in play-it-safe formats for play-it-safe publishers in order to acquire the ultimate scout badge of playing-it-safe: tenure.

In this way, “Good Scholars” are not “risk-taking non-playing-it-safers.” They are actually “risk-taking play-it-safers.” Or, put another way, when we ask our students to “be bold” or to “take risks” we are imagining those risks to be the types of risks valued by a play-it-safe system of learning and not, you know, the types of risks our students often take with their relationships, their health, their lives. Risk-taking — maybe more accurately “academic risk-taking” — is not really risk-taking as such. Academic risk-taking, in this sense, is actually just another form of playing it safe.

Moreover, one can also be a good scholar by playing-it-safe, contributing to ongoing debates and discussions within particular fields in methodologically familiar (and as such, potentially “boring”) ways: attendance in disciplinary conferences, publication in peer-reviewed journals, and peer-reviewed academic presses, and so on. So, the “goodness” of the scholarship of risk-taking play-it-safers and playing-it-safe non-risk-takers does not need to hinge on the the degree to which it takes risks. Even Morris, in “Risk, Reward, and Digital Writing” doesn’t advocate against playing-it-safe, but rather advocates for expanding the agreed-upon conception of playing-it-safe by “look[ing] back in the faces of those who think our digital work lacks merit and tell[ing] them otherwise.” Maybe this kind of speaking truth to power seems confrontational and therefore personally confronting, but it’s hard to see the inherent risk in this “talking back” if you’re not a part (or trying to be a part) of the play-it-safe systemic rules which define this talking back as risky. To wit: Victor Vitanza once labeled Geoff Sirc “the most dangerous man in writing instruction,” a title which really only makes sense to other writing instructors. Actual dangerous people — arms traders, kingpins, secret agents — scoff at such a title.

Indeed, that which distinguishes the scholarship of risk-taking play-it-safers and playing-it-safe non-risk-takers seems to be primarily an aesthetic judgment hinging on whether we think the scholarship is boring or not, new or not, digital or not, and so on.


Assume that we’re wrong with our explicit statements or implicit assumptions regarding the bravery of our students. That is, assume that our students are not averse to taking risks. Indeed, assume the opposite: assume that given their capacity to engage in profoundly dangerous and destructive behavior, they can be quite enamored with risk. What, then, explains their ostensible conservatism, their nervous nellydom, in our classrooms? Why don’t they stick their necks out there in the way that we want, hope, or even expect them to?

One reason has been long-argued, perhaps most notably in David Bartholomae’s oft-canonized essay “Inventing the University,” which opens

“Every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion — invent the university, that is, or a branch of it, like History or Anthropology or Economics or English. He has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community.”

In the terms of my false binary, Bartholomae’s “inventing the university” is my “playing it safe.” We might add, that it is a very discipline-specific, rule-bound way of “playing it safe,” that involves speaking and writing in a specific way that emerges from and represents a disciplinary-specific episteme. If you want to be compositionist, you need to talk like a compositionist; and if you want to talk like a compositionist, you need to think like a compositionist.

Yet, this would seem to suggest it’s a lack of direction, rather than motivation, that gets in the way of students taking risks. That is, our students do not know (a la Bartholomae) the detailed, discourse-specific ways scholars talk to each other (let alone know, select, evaluate, report, conclude, and argue with and to each other). As such, they do not know (a la Morris) how to resist, unsettle, or expand the detailed, discourse-specific ways scholars talk to each other. They know how to play it safe and take risks, but not what we mean when we tell them to stop playing it safe and start taking risks. So, how could they possibly understand what we mean when, in syllabi, we encourage them to “take risks” and “be bold?”


Or, another way: the students imagined by syllabi in which instructors encourage them to “be bold” and “take risks” have just as much access to the discourse-specific ways in which those instructors want them to “be bold” and “take risks” as they do to the discourse-specific ways in which any scholars do anything. These imagined students have to — just as Bartholomae thought they did in 1986 — invent the university. But, importantly, the difference between the university Bartholomae imagines student inventing and the university bold, risky instructors imagine students inventing is a difference of degree, not a difference of kind. So, I have to backtrack a bit: it’s not just that the risk we want students to take as students pales in comparison to the risks they already know how to take; it’s that the risk we want students to take as students doesn’t really appear to be risky at all.

So, two takeaways: first, as my title suggests, risk-taking is (in important ways) a form of playing it safe. Why do we call it “risk taking?” Who knows? Maybe we, too, have become inured to the processes of standardized scholarship and high-stakes publications. In terms of scholarship, risk-taking is a way to not just push, but also extend, the boundaries of what is considered “acceptable.” And what is considered “acceptable” has, rightly or wrongly, big implications on who can keep on scholaring and who can’t. But, oftentimes, these risks are so calculated, so thought through as to not really be risky at all. Which leads to the next takeaway.

We should stop telling students to “take risks” and “be bold” when what we really want them to do is be a scholar in the unique way in which we are scholars or we view scholarship. That is, we should just be upfront about it. If you value methodologically familiar scholarship and your hope is to encourage students to engage in that scholarship, fine. If you value methodologically unfamiliar scholarship (digital, multimodal, what-have-you) and your hope is to encourage students to engage in that scholarship, cool. But let’s not castigate our actual students by allowing our syllabi to imagine them as something they may not be: timid, cowardly, and risk-averse. Let’s not hide our hopes for who we want them to be behind our assumptions about who they probably aren’t.

And while there is a risk involved in this, it seems to be of the slow-burning variety, rather than the flash-bang variety. It’s the slow-burning risk Richard Rodriguez explores in his memoir Hunger of Memory, the risk that as you progress in your schooling, you change, you move further away from your cultural “roots” (in Rodriguez’s case, his working class Mexican-immigrant roots). But then, as Rodriguez points out in an interview with Scott London, that’s sort of the point of schooling. “It was not my teacher’s role to tell me I was Mexican,” Rodriguez states,

“It was my teacher’s role to tell me I was an American. The notion that you go to a public institution in order to learn private information about yourself is absurd. We used to understand that when students went to universities, they would become cosmopolitan. They were leaving their neighborhoods. Now we have this idea that, not only do you go to first grade to learn your family’s language, but you go to a university to learn about the person you were before you left home. So, rather than becoming multicultural, rather than becoming a person of several languages, rather than becoming confident in your knowledge of the world, you become just the opposite. You end up in college having to apologize for the fact that you no longer speak your native language.”

All this is a way of saying our students know schooling, and they have, like Rodriguez, opened themselves up to the slow-burn risk of personal change. They are, after all, right there in the classrooms with us, all around us, maybe looking for us to be a part of their becoming something they aren’t, but think they want to be: employed, financially secure, knowledgeable about an interesting topic, while we try to encourage them to be something we think they aren’t, but could be: more free, better citizens, better humans. And our respective agendas, whether shared or competing, these are risky too, both in terms of the slow-burn, as well as the flash-bang. If they take academic risks (as Nakia Pope did as an undergraduate in his philosophical investigation of magic) and they fail, they don’t merely run the risk of getting a bad grade or disappointing a teacher. They run the risk of not finishing school, of getting buried under inescapable debt, of dying. And they know this and they run those risks anyway. So, let’s give credit where credit is due.

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2 Responses

  1. Hi Sam. Thank you for taking the risk of writing this. I assume you felt a certain degree of excitement when you made a submission, or at least I hope you did 🙂

    Thank you for quoting me at length. I often forget how many f’s there are in Pfff ( I shall settle for three and then probably regret I didn’t use spell check).

    You take a great risk in writing that you are confused much like Simon Ensor. I have long experience of living with Simon Ensor and I am often confused as to how he/I is/am confused.

    You do raise an important question about risk taking in a “playing safe environment”. This is particularly important when it is a teacher trying to persuade/push/con/coerce student/colleagues into taking risks which the teacher personally enjoys or considers “necessary” in his plan for conquerîng utopia.

    Your writing has inspired, in part, an ongoing exporation as to the nature of this “risk” and the nature of this fragile /terrifyingly concrete “safety”.

    Thank you. May you never stop taking risks such as these 🙂

  2. Sam Hamilton

    Simon! Apologies for the long delay in responding. Thank you for your comment. I appreciate that you highlighted the fact that it is not only students who are cajoled into “taking risks,” but also colleagues as well, and that the privilege to “take risks” that many teachers have is not the same for everybody. I look forward to reading your next contributions, whether risky or safe!

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