Why MiStakEs Matter

issue 03 | fall 2015
Talk of the Walk - Fall 2015

In our story, “Under Cover,” in the summer issue of Denison Magazine, I made a mistake. Rose Schrott ’14 wrote a wonderful piece about the Muslim Student Association’s Hijab Day at Denison, and her participation in that event as a Christian. As part of our normal editorial process, she worked with our sources on a fact-check. One source commented on our use of the word “veil” to describe the hijab, a garment that typically covers the head and neck. While the term is commonly used in Western media to describe all kinds of Muslim headdress, the source thought it best to show the wide range of head scarves and veils that Muslim women use to cover—from the hijab to the niqab (a veil for the head and face) to the burqa (which covers a woman’s entire body).

Rose adjusted the text, sent it on to me, and then I promptly let the email slip through the cracks, never subbing the new copy into the final layout. When the magazine was printed, I realized my mistake, and I then proceeded to fret about the personal embarrassment that would follow. I worried about the ways in which my mistake might reflect on Rose, a new graduate writing her first feature on a complicated issue, and on Aissata Barry ’15, president of the Muslim Student Association, who had opened up to us about her desire to spread knowledge of the reasons Muslim women cover— and, of course, the many ways in which they choose to do so. I began to rehearse my apology in my head. I pointed out the error to my mother to relieve the guilt. While unfortunate, she said, she didn’t think it worth wasting a perfectly glorious weekend over. I showed my husband one evening after dinner, when he asked why I was so quiet. I launched into great detail about the tragically stupid—stupid—mistake. He shrugged and said, “Issue a correction in the fall,” and then took a bite of burrito.

In the midst of all this, the magazine was mailed. And my mistake was pushed out into the world, amplified 40,000 times.

Here’s what happened when it arrived in mailboxes: I received the usual calls from readers about address changes. I received emails about several stories in the magazine, including “Under Cover.” I got a few story pitches from freelance writers and alumni. But barely a word about our use of the term “veil” and our neglect to mention the various other forms of Muslim headgear. Rose, the writer, didn’t even blink.

When Adam Weinberg was first named president of Denison, I interviewed him for a story in this magazine. Over lunch one day, he lamented the fact that students are petrified to make mistakes—a real tragedy, he thought, that keeps them from trying new courses and hobbies. (I did ask him about his own life mistakes—couldn’t help myself. He’s made them, sure, but we’ll spare him the public outing.)

It turns out this fear of mistakes is universal, and it’s becoming a real problem. In a 2007 New York Times article, Alina Tugend, columnist and author of Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, points out: “We grow up with a mixed message: making mistakes is a necessary learning tool, but we should avoid them.” Other researchers point to the fact that fear of mistakes costs us innovation, creativity, and plenty of good ideas that might appear once the dust has settled.

In fretting over my own mistake, I managed to forget the fact that we had helped give voice to a small group on campus who could use the amplification. I forgot that in writing and editing this story, we too were pushed out of our comfort zones, exploring territory that was new to us and doing our very best to represent it well. I forgot about all I had learned through that process that makes me a more well-informed world citizen, with lessons I can pass on to my children in hopes that they will look beyond stereotypes and challenge themselves. And I forgot that the reason we did the story in the first place was to show that Denison students aren’t just sitting back and letting the world happen around them; they’re participating in it, learning from it. And if they make a mistake in that process that causes them to stop, rethink, and reassess? Well then, all the better.

Published November 2015
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