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Composition Forum 53, Spring 2024

Following Failure

Allison D. Carr

The title for this essay, “Following Failure,” has been crawling through my head on loop since about 2019 when I attempted (and ultimately failed) for the second time to revisit and build upon the work of my 2013 Composition Forum article In Support of Failure. The first time I made such an attempt was in a too long and too weird essay submitted to CCC in early 2016. I didn’t open the reader reports until at least a year after receiving them: the sting of rejection had a completely paralyzing effect. (Seven years later, I have unearthed those reports in my inbox with the intention of reviewing them for this very article, yet I cannot bring myself to open them again.) It may seem ironic that someone whose work advocates for the role of failure in writing would be such a headcase about her own failure, but we write about the things we want to understand, isn’t that right?

My second attempt to build on In Support of Failure, came, as mentioned, in the middle of 2019 when I was invited to be part of the Routledge International Handbook on Failure (2023). I made a couple of false starts late that year, but then without warning it was the spring and summer of 2020 and—maybe you, too, remember feeling this way—suddenly it felt silly and indulgent and ghoulish to be sitting at a computer trying to write my little thoughts. I sat in that feeling for a long time, and eventually withdrew from the collection feeling embarrassed, unreliable, fraudulent. Nevertheless, this title, this idea about following failure has continued to illuminate the all-night diner of my mind.

So here we are, at the third attempt, now styled as a retrospective.

When I say “following failure,” I hold two meanings in view at once. In one, I emphasize the action verb, follow: picture me in a comically oversized trench coat sleuthing after a breadcrumb trail of failures. What can be learned by “following” failure? In the other, I signal a connection to time, chronos: what comes after a failure? What “follows?”

When I began writing about failure in graduate school (what became In Support of Failure), it was because I wanted—needed, more precisely—to make some sense of the ways I was struggling to self-actualize as a scholar. At that time, the field’s study of what goes wrong in writing was operating, or so it seemed to me then, entirely in the realm of diagnostics: work on error, assessment, writer’s block, etc., that sought to name and explain wrongness in order to fix it, and to limit further wrongness in the future. But, as I detailed in the opening narrative of In Support of Failure, none of that scholarship seemed to address what I was experiencing. Even as I struggled to do the work of graduate school, it wasn’t because of errors or assessment or writer’s block (whatever that is): it was the feeling I couldn’t shake, and simultaneously the feeling that interested me, pulling me toward it. I named that feeling “failure.”

In that article, I proposed that we understand failure as “a deeply felt, transformative process” (emphasis in original) to be sought out with intention. I wrote:

[…] I want to think about what could happen if we risk dwelling in the shameful muck and mire of our failure, if we give ourselves permission to experience failure on its own terms, not as something that exists only in opposition to something else but as something that is present. I don’t want to propose methods for turning failures into success, to devise strategies for turning our frowns upside-down. I want to reconstruct failure in its own image. What if failure was its own process, but unlike “process-based” pedagogies, it led writers to nowhere in particular? What if a pedagogy of failure dropped writers into the wilderness from the start and asked them to make their own path?

(So I had a flair for the dramatic.)

I had no idea whether or how the idea would be taken up. I’ve spent years wondering if this is even possible within the structures of our profession. More recently, I have come to reconsider the merits of the idea altogether. Yes—still yes—to a “pedagogy of failure” (whatever that may come to mean, more on that below), but probably “no” to “drop[ping] writers into the wilderness” and expecting everyone to just figure it out.

Twelve months ago (as of this writing, which is the fourth draft) when I approached this section’s editor about this essay, I wanted to write a retrospective that gave up the term “failure.” I question its usefulness. As I surmised in a Pedagogue interview with Shane Wood (2022), it is a term that is at once “too slippery” (subjective and context dependent) and “too sticky” (hanging onto our bodies and our work in a way that is difficult to overcome). But in pursuit of that argument, as I have worked through what has been said in the last ten years, I find myself in a liminal space. There is “something there there, something shimmery,” as my writing group argued to me at an earlier stage of this project. The formulation of failure as tied up with feeling—or with a set of feelings we should stay with (Micciche 2016)—has struck something in readers. Maybe “too slippery” and “too sticky” aren’t disqualifying.

Below, I survey some of the terrain that failure has traveled since “In Support of Failure” was published on this very website in 2013, including an incisive critique by Johnson and Sheehan that is one of a handful of catalyzing works I credit with pushing my own thoughts on this subject. Then, I offer some closing thoughts on where we might go from here.

What Can Be Learned by Following Failure?

Since In Support of Failure was published, the affective conceptualization of failure has become a well circulated keyword in our discipline. In the realm of pedagogy, Babb and Corbett (2016) were some of the earliest to build out the concept, examining and calling for more study of its role in teachers’ grading practices—how our feelings come to bear on the complex and subjective practice of assigning letter grades; Wood (2017) introduces a similar idea, pairing the concept of failure with vulnerability for the purpose of transforming the writing classroom into a place where students and teachers can and should be honest about failure, and be willing to fail (even if failure creates anxiety or fear). Later, in the collection Failure Pedagogies (Carr and Micciche 2020), scholars explore and theorize on failure in the context of cliché (Alford), the quest for “clarity” in student writing (Holmes and Wittman), disciplinary procedures related to plagiarism (Pantelides), instructor feedback (Thoune), critical pedagogy (Lehn), and centering failure in reflection (Taczak and Mitchell), among a range of other engagements. Beyond composition/writing studies, Hay (2016) explores how a pedagogy of failure supports new approaches to drama/theater instruction; and in STEM fields, scholars are similarly attempting to clear space for more thoughtful engagement with the role of failure, though these conversations tend to hold a narrower, more utilitarian understanding of failure’s meaning (Simpson and Maltese 2017; Ward and Margolin 2017; Simpson et al. 2020).

An affective understanding of failure has also worked its way beyond pedagogical conversations into the realm of administrative and research activity: Bastian (2019) describes a failed WAC program in order to propose a framework for failure in WPA work; and in Carr and Micciche (2020): Stenberg and Waite unravel the multiple failings of Title IX investigations; Phillips and Giordano describe institutional failures to support open access education; and LaFrance draws attention to multiple failures associated with the demise of the WPA listserv.

All of this work is demonstrative of a critical and imaginative capaciousness of purpose toward which the concept of failure has been pointed. How then to explain this nagging sense of personal disappointment that swells inside me when In Support of Failure is cited as a (mostly positive) influence on these arguments?

There is, for me, a major problem in the 2013 article, clearly evident in the excerpted quotation above: the argument at the heart of “In Support of Failure” tacitly assumes a freedom of choice and a certain amount of insulation or protection among those who might take up my call. Yet, as a pedagogical platform, failure is not neutrally positioned, nor equitably accessible for all. What I did not understand then, but which I cannot unsee now, is how much that argument presumes and promotes a neoliberal worldview that for all of its subversive artifice simply reinscribes preexisting channels for privilege and exclusion/oppression.

Can I say it more plainly? I haven’t wanted (or felt able) to write more about failure for fear of reinscribing this politic; yet, I do not want to walk away from failure having never accounted for this, well, this failure of argument. Any time I see the article cited, I shrink a little bit. “Oh no,” I think. “That idea is still out there, still attached to my name.”

I’m grateful, then, for Johnson and Sheehan’s The Uses of Queer Failure (2020) which incisively isolates the flawed reasoning that drives my 2013 article [1] (as well as near-contemporary arguments by Halberstam, Waite, and Rhodes). “Queer,” in Johnson and Sheehan’s usage, signifies a “turning away from what is expected” such that “we are rendered disoriented, yet queer possibilities intimately manifest as a result” (129). [2] Re-reading my own writing, I know that something like “queer failure” is what I was chasing, but I never quite caught up to it. Instead, my insistence that teachers and students find joy (?), fulfillment (?), or satisfaction (?) in pursuing failure—without an adjoining acknowledgement of socio-material constraints—makes the argument complicit in promoting a “pedagogical mandate of happiness” (130), which

[…] makes queer failure always already a bad feeling. Someone has to be a failure for someone else to be a success; and if success always produces happiness, then failure demands one not be happy. […] The throughline between Carr, Rhodes [2015] and Waite’s [2017] arguments is the desiring of failure. Failure in the classroom is celebrated because it is divergent. […] Failure does indeed open up new possibilities and ways of thinking; however, failure also has material realities that must be acknowledged […]. Of (queer) failure we must ask: who has the privilege to fail? (130–133)

Who, indeed? Myers (2019) approaches the matter similarly, noting that failure scholarship which doesn’t examine privilege (especially White privilege) serves as “stock story” and reinforces harmful frames. She summarizes the argument with a marvelous economy of expression in the abstract: “without critical engagement and efforts to create counter-stories, failure and resilience rhetorics operate as a discourse of white privilege” (48).

I have been sitting with these implications for some time. Taken together, I think Johnson & Sheehan’s and Myers’s arguments represent an accurate appraisal of failure’s imperfections as a heuristic. Under the right conditions, failure offers a way of being, thinking, and doing outside of (and perhaps in direct contradiction to) dominant cultural logics. In many instances, getting outside of those logics is understood as desirable, even necessary. But too often, the term is invoked in shorthand, or with only surface meaning from within, tacitly in service to those logics. In failing to account for imbalances in privilege and security across students and teachers, In Support of Failure makes an unforced error, reinscribing what it (what I) meant to upset. Indeed, we might say it performs a certain “neoliberal fetishism,” to borrow a crackerjack term from O’Gorman and Werry (2012), describing a fixation on a cutthroat commodity logic that sweeps up any glimmer of an obstacle and repurposes it toward its own ends. In their words, which open the astonishingly prescient editorial introduction to an issue of Performance Research:

Failure is all of a sudden quite trendy. Glossy feature articles everywhere from the New York Times to the Harvard Business Review instruct us that we must fail in order to succeed […] becoming stronger, more resilient in the process. Failure, in their eyes, is both the bed-partner of that neo-liberal fetish innovation and a necessity in a world without guarantees: in getting comfortable with failure, they imply, we can also get comfortable with neo-liberalism’s other intimate, precarity. (1)

Thus, I find myself in a pickle, as they say. It is a stunning example of the difficulty which attends any effort to refuse the systems logic that governs shared human experience. Maybe we find some irony in the failure, my failure, to capture and “reconstruct failure in its own image.” Maybe this was the end all along, the predicted outcome of an imperfect proposal for doing work differently. Maybe I should cut myself some slack: You were a kid! You didn’t know what you know now.

But now I know. So where do I go from here?

What Follows Failure?

Now what? What comes after? If the term has some rhetorical pragmatism, certainly Johnson and Sheehan offer some clues, urging the uptake of queer failure as “a deliberate action against normative logics destined to fail but undertaken regardless” (132). Gross and Alexander, in their 2016 critique of the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, likewise offer some ideas in the competing Framework for Failure, charging that the NCTE framework “obscure[s]” negative feeling structures “like dissatisfaction or anger that might help us understand how current norms of success position some people poorly despite, or sometimes indeed because of, their own efforts or that of their teachers” (287). Gross and Alexander elaborate on the risks of this obfuscation, concluding that “the cost of forgetting negative emotion, even the experience of failure, is high. Success feels good, but it does not reorient us against unjust norms. […It] can also numb us to failures that are actually structural” (290).

In Not Writing, and Giving ‘Zero-F**cks’ About It: Queer(y)ing doctoral ‘failure,’ Burford seemingly illustrates Gross and Alexander’s charge: he presents a case study of a graduate student and self described “zero-fucks-giver” [3] (478) who chooses not writing as a way of putting pressure on established flows of labor in doctoral education. Calling into question the always-already elevating pressure to be writing on an externally established timeline, Burford argues that

Rather than being avoided or learned from, writing failure might instead be interpreted as a rich analytic tool that can generate ways of thinking, doing, and being that tend to be “foreclosed by the normative tyranny of success and expected outcomes” (O’Gorman and Werry 2). When we look at doctoral writing failure as a possible position to inhabit, rather than a place of lack, or temporary space for development, we might discern its possibilities for discontent, critique, and rejection of arguably hollow meanings of “success” (475).

Here is a kind of failure that disrupts a system’s efficiency in producing a desired outcome. In orienting themself away from the explicit “tyranny of success,” the student refuses to be produced (as subject) by a program which holds production of doctorates as its ultimate purpose. The student’s refusal begs a reconsideration of the premises of the argument on which a program (or an organization, a company, a policy) rests, doing so, it must be noted, from a position of structural vulnerability (gender-nonconformity).

Similarly, in Narrativizing Dis/Ability: Deconstructing Institutional Uses of Disability Narratives (2020), Hubrig foregrounds the ways institutions of all kinds rely on and leverage the narrative of the individual failure of disabled persons with the goal of “minimiz[ing] institutional culpability, even to distance and insulate [themselves] from the critiques of disability rights activists” (226). Echoing the queering of failure above, Hubrig urges activists to pursue a “feralization” of disability narratives “to highlight the systemic failures of institutions, rather than individual failures or successes of disabled people” (226).

In this liminal “what now?” space, the above described cases prove that there is ethical and political power to be wielded in failure, and I don’t mean via cute and controlled failures in the context of one-off writing exercises (no, let’s move away from failure-as-activity, let’s call that something else, let’s call that practice or play), but rather as a deliberate and collective turning away from established flows. Each of them model how scholars and scholar-teachers can take up failure from a more critical standpoint and marshal it in service of disrupting or undoing harmful systems. And it must be said: the student in Burford’s study is not just a student, nor is Gross and Alexander’s critique just about a disciplinary document, nor is Hubrig’s call just about disability. These arguments can serve as heuristic texts in a new pedagogy of failure that urges a fundamental recalibration of the terms of engagement. I would also see as required reading: Martinez’s (2020a, 2020b) demonstration across her body of work of the multiple and persistent failures of whitely ways of knowing; Sánchez’s (2024) and Medina’s (2024) discussions of the rhetorical violence of scholarly peer review; literature on alternative evaluation measures (especially Inoue 2015, 2022; Carillo 2021); and both volumes of Osorio, Manivannan, and Male’s sprawling special issue of Journal of Multimodal Rhetoric on carework and writing during Covid (2022). Not all of these works take up failure as a central term, but all of them take an incisive look at the discursive norms of our profession which use flattened and convenient meanings of the success/failure binary as bludgeons for neoliberal stasis. Therefore, a pedagogy of failure describes, maybe, a method more than a concept. A posture of refusal, or noncompliance. Reimagination.

This has not been my beat—I’m new here, wanting to tread lightly as I orient myself.

I am here because we are living in an historical epoch shaped by global climate collapse, the resurgence of fascism, rapidly swelling precarity across every industry, multiple ongoing genocides, the utter failure of the fourth estate, and widespread, borderline criminal abdication of responsibility or culpability for any of this within our own institutions. All of this has come to pass by following the blunt logics of success that structure late-(late?)-capitalism, logics which persist by wearing down and expelling those who fail to fall in line. This is a strategy which depends on the threat of isolation in order to coerce compliance. This is a feature and not a bug! What we are living through is proof of concept! In this context, perhaps failure is more important and relevant than ever. Affective failure, failing-as-feeling, failure as critique, failure as tactic, failure as the thing that sends us running to our closest confidants for comfort and commiseration and reassurance: Perhaps this is the only viable and ethical choice, the choice which leads us toward others and toward the broader movement for justice and liberation rather than into further isolation or despair. The writers cited above—the start of my reading list—this is where to begin, I think. It’s where I’m beginning, trying to get out of the way and take my cues from others (except for those cases when being in the way, qua Ahmed, [4] is called for).

I don’t necessarily know what that looks like in real life; I’m all out of ideas. I stated above that I set out to write a retrospective that would urge us to give up the term failure. In the end, I find I can’t quite do that: it sticks. At the same time, I’m not sure how to say with more precision and certainty what I am trying to say between the lines: it slips. Maybe more importantly: I don’t want to repeat the mistake of “In Support of Failure” by arriving at some new version of the concept. I think maybe—my hedging here is intentional— “failure” is a term that we have to accept as unsettled, partial, limited, even while feeling drawn to its tactical possibilities.

Anyway, I’m sitting here in my campus office nearly two weeks overdue on this draft, confronting my uncertainty about what this term means for me, and my uncertainty of whether my work on the term has any use in the future we see unfolding before us. I am trying, with a lot of intention, to remain in this liminal space. To resist the impulse that seeks certainty. To stay with failure. What follows is unknown.


My thanks to Shane Wood, Elizabeth Wardle, Laura Micciche, Hannah Rule, and Christina LaVecchia for their interest, questions, and support of this essay.

[1] In this chapter, Johnson and Sheehan only cite and critique the later ‘Failure Can Be an Important Part of Writing Development” from Naming What We Know (2015) and “Failure is not an Option” from Bad Ideas About Writing (2017), not the 2013 article on which I am focusing this self critique. Suffice to say each of these later works is an outgrowth of In Support of Failure. They are all cut from the same cloth.

[2] Johnson and Sheehan formulate this meaning following José Esteban Muñoz on queer futurity (2009) and Sara Ahmed on queer phenomenology (2006).

[3] In an interesting illustration of the failures of language, Burford introduces the student, Ricki, as someone who “declines to identify a pronoun” (478) for use in his (Burford’s) study. Elaborating on this position, Ricki attributes the label “zero-fucks-giver” to a caption describing a photograph of Miley Cyrus. Of this, summarizing their introduction, Burford writes that this choice demonstrated Ricki’s confrontation of “the social scene of failure that such a non-performance would commonly project. Rather than accepting that they simply ‘failed’ to do normative gender correctly, Ricki externalised [sic] this failure by emphasising [sic] that despite years of working with the concepts, it was in fact binary masculinity and femininity that had failed them” (478, emphasis in original). Presumably, Ricki and Burford eventually agree on “they” for the study, which is how Ricki is referenced when personal or possessive pronouns are called for by sentence grammar.

[4] In the concluding chapter to Ahmed’s essential On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Ahmed details the predominant flows of institutional power and norms through an extended metaphor cluster of walls, blockages, gateways. “We can think more about institutional flows. Institutions are crowded. In noticing the crowds, we also notice the orientation devices that direct the flow of human traffic in particular ways. We all know the experience of ‘going the wrong way’ in a crowd. Everyone seems to be going the opposite way than the way you are going. No one person has to push or shove for you to feel the collective momentum of the crowd as pushing and shoving. To keep going, you have to push harder than any of those individuals who are going the right way. The body who is ‘going the wrong way’ is the one experienced as ‘in the way’ of a will that is acquired as momentum. For some, mere persistence, ‘to continue steadfastly,’ requires great effort, an effort that might appear to others as stubbornness, willfulness, or obstinacy. […] Diversity work thus requires insistence. You have to become insistent to go against the flow, and you are judged to be going against the flow because you are insistent” (186).

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke UP, 2012.

———. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Others, Objects. Duke UP, 2006.

Alford, Caddie. When One Door Closes, Another Opens; Or, Appreciating Clichés. Carr and Micciche, pp.11–23.

Babb, Jacob and Steven J. Corbett. From Zero to Sixty: A Survey of College Writing Teachers’ Grading Practices and the Affect of Failed Performance. Composition Forum, vol. 34, 2016.

Bastian, Heather. The F-Word: Failure in WPA Work. Writing Program Administration, vol. 43, no. 1, 2019, pp. 94–110.

Burford, James. Not Writing, and Giving ‘Zero-F**cks’ About It: Queer(y)ing Doctoral ‘Failure’. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, vol. 38, no. 4, 2017, pp. 473–484.

Carr, Allison D. In Support of Failure. Composition Forum, vol. 27, 2013.

Carr, Allison D. and Laura R. Micciche, editors. Failure Pedagogies: Learning and Unlearning What it Means to Fail. Peter Lang, 2020.

Carrillo, Ellen. The Hidden Inequities in Labor-Based Contract Grading. Utah State UP, 2021.

Gross, Daniel M. and Jonathan Alexander. Frameworks for Failure. Pedagogy, vol. 16, no. 2, 2016, pp. 273–295.

Hay, Chris. Knowledge, Creativity and Failure. Palgrave-McMillan. 2016.

Holmes, Alba Newman and Kara Wittman. The Costs of Clarity. Carr and Micciche, pp. 25–37.

Hubrig, Ada. Narrativizing Dis/Ability: Deconstructing Institutional Uses of Disability Narratives. Carr and Micciche, pp. 225–238.

Inoue, Asao. Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future. The WAC Clearinghouse; Parlor P. 2015.

———. Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom, 2nd ed. The WAC Clearinghouse; UP of Colorado. 2022.

Johnson, Gavin P. and Ryan Sheehan. The Uses of Queer Failure: Navigating the Pedagogical Mandate of Happiness. Carr and Micciche, pp. 127–139.

LaFrance, Michelle. Failure to Wake? What #WPAListservFeministRevolution Tells Us About a ‘Feminist’ Writing Studies. Carr and Micciche, pp. 163–173.

Lehn, Jeanette. Committing to Failure: Critical Pedagogy and Failure in Classroom Teaching. Carr and Micciche, pp. 141–152.

Martinez, Aja. Counterstory. NCTE, 2020.

———. Papelitos Guardados, Part I: On Collegiality and Failure. Carr and Micciche, pp. 239–257.

Medina, Cruz. Revision as Protecting What is Important. Revising Moves: Writing Stories of (Re)Making. Edited by Christina LaVecchia et. al. Utah State UP, 2024, pp. 128–135.

Micciche, Laura R. Staying With Emotion. Composition Forum, vol. 34, 2016.

Muñoz, José E. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York UP, 2009.

Myers, Kelly. Abstract of Unspeakable Failures. Composition Studies, vol. 47, no. 2, 2019, pp. 48–67.

O’Gorman, Róisín and Margaret Werry. On Failure (on Pedagogy). Editorial Introduction. Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, vol. 17, no. 1, 2012, pp.1–8.

Osorio, Ruth, Vyshali Manivannan and Jessie Male. Special issue on writing and carework during COVID, Part I, The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, vol. 6, no. 2, Summer 2022.

———. Special issue on writing and carework during COVID, Part II, The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, vol. 7, no. 1, Fall 2022.

Pantelides, Kate. After the Accusation: The Lasting Impact of Plagiarism Trauma on Student Writing Behaviors. Carr and Micciche, pp. 39–51.

Phillips, Cassandra and Joanne Baird Giordano. Messy Processes Into and Out of Failure: Professional Identities and Open-Access Writers. Carr and Micciche, pp. 153–162.

Rhodes, Jacqueline. The Failure of Queer Pedagogy. The Writing Instructor. 2015.

Sánchez, Raúl. Revising Scholarly Peer Review: Don’t Be a Dick. Revising Moves: Writing Stories of (Re)Making. Edited by Christina LaVecchia et. al. Utah State UP, 2024, pp. 117–127.

Simpson, Amber et. al. Failures, Errors, and Mistakes: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Mistakes, Errors, and Failures across Cultures. Edited By Elizabeth Vanderheiden and Claude-Hélène Mayer. 2020, pp. 347–362.

Simpson, Amber and Adam Maltese. ‘Failure is a Major Component of Learning Anything’: The Role of Failure in the Development of STEM Professionals. Journal of Science Education and Technology, vol. 26, no. 2, 2017, pp. 223–237.

Stenberg, Shari J and Stacey Waite. Who Survives the Witch Hunt? Supporting Our Students in a Process We Know Will Fail Them. Carr and Micciche, pp. 117–126.

Taczak, Kara and Debbie Gale Mitchell. Embracing the Ugly. Carr and Micciche, pp. 201–224.

Thoune, Darci L. Failure Potential: Using Failure as Feedback. Carr and Micciche, pp. 53–61.

Waite, Stacey. Teaching Queer: Radical Possibilities for Writing and Knowing. U of Pittsburgh P, 2017.

Ward, Sarah Laleman and Stephanie Margolin. Getting to the Root of the Matter: Talking Through Our Failures to Foster Innovation. LOEX Lexington, May 11-13 2017, 67–72.

Wood, Shane. Pedagogue. Episode 125: Allison D. Carr. Podcast. 27 September, 2022.

Wood, Shane. Atychiphobia, Failure, Genre, and Vulnerability Inside and Outside the Writing Classroom. Grassroots Writing Research Journal, vol. 8, no. 1, 2017, pp. 63–72.

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