Striving for rigor in teaching is questionable (opinion)



Inside Higher Ed recently published an essay by Deborah J. Cohan outlining the author’s frustration with college teachers “afraid to assert themselves” versus students who defy the demands of academic rigor. I would like to respond to the arguments that she made in this essay.

I should first note that at this point in such an answer I would normally define my key terms opposite the article, or at least qualify the main thought I am writing about. But I can’t do that here because I’m not sure what Cohan means by “rigor” in the context of her piece.

Early on, she calls out “the police of grace and compassion” and “people who have woken up most performatively” – phrases that convey more hostility than concern them. She later criticized “colleagues who refuse to give grades of D and F” and who “allow endless revisions”. But the highlight for me is this assertion: “Like children who know how to manipulate self-sacrificing parents, so too do students learn to move between educators who are unable to be gentle and firm.” Our students are no children and we are not self-sacrificing parents. Sure, it’s metamorphic language, but it’s still condescending and despicable to me.

All in all, it is unclear how Cohan defines “rigor” unless it is a blanket term for not being “achievement-driven,” a willingness to give poor marks and not answering students’ questions when they have the answers themselves can or should find.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that teachers have no attendance guidelines, work expectations, or be unwilling to give a poor grade. What I am saying is that it is naive to pretend that these things maintain an abstract level of rigor. Furthermore, the idea that rigor itself is something we should strive for in our teaching is equally questionable.

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I have learned a lot about myself and my students since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, not least that many study regulations, assessment measures and other supposedly objective performance measures stand in the way of learning at best, and in the worst case make it impossible.

Take, for example, course guidelines that require students to complete their writing assignments through “originality” assessors such as Turnitin. When I was the director of the writing center on my campus, I quickly lost track of how many students came to the rescue because they were concerned about the so-called similarity reports that gave their writing a percentage that had to be lower than what also the number had always been arbitrarily determined by their instructors. In such cases, the work of writing for these students becomes an exercise done for software that numerous studies have shown can often do more harm than good.

When I was a freshman in college, I enrolled in an introductory course in statistics. I majored in English, but I needed the course to complete my gen-ed math credits. On the first day of class, the teacher divided us into groups of four. He then wrote “Chapter 1” on the board and told us how the course would be. Each day we showed up, sat in our groups, and worked through all of the questions in each chapter of our textbook, starting with chapter 1. When we had questions, we could talk to our group members. If our group members couldn’t answer our questions, we could then reach out to another group for help. Finally, if we still had trouble, we could come to his office and ask for help, he told us. Except on exam days, this professor spent our class hours in his office.

Was this teacher strict? Perhaps he was simply working with clear boundaries, which Cohen says there are not enough nowadays compared to the “charades of trainers doing people-friendly wheel strokes”.

Whenever I hear teachers praise the importance of rigor, this is the experience I keep thinking about. How many times have I not gone to this professor’s office to ask for help because I was nervous that he would scold me for not following the procedures he outlined that first day of class? It could be a hyperbolic example, a rare extreme in the spectrum of rigor that Cohan believes instructors can navigate adequately by finding a balance between “gentle and firm”. But I am not buying it.

If rigor simply means being firm, we should decide what being specific means and in terms of what. A request for a few more days to complete a task? Let students revise an essay? More importantly, we need to ask ourselves how this rigor benefits student learning. One of the inevitable answers always falls back on the idea of ​​fairness. What about the students in our courses who do all the work and do it well the first time? Isn’t it unfair to them if we give other students an extension or allow them to repeat an assignment?

What does such a vague idea of ​​fairness have to do with learning? If one answer to that question is to point out grades and the guidelines we are putting in place for fair grading, I return to the point I referred to earlier about how policies can get in the way of learning.

One of the best educational manifestos to emerge from the pandemic is Jeffrey Moro’s “Against Cop Shit,” a play in which he criticizes plagiarism detection and ed-tech surveillance services – practices that embarrass students and, yes, vague appeals to rigor judge . As he writes, “Like any product, cop shit claims to solve a problem. We could put this problem this way: The work of running a classroom at all of its levels is becoming increasingly complex and demanding, full of ill-defined standards, distractions of our students’ attention and new opportunities for creeps. Cop-Shit, argues Cop-Shit, solves these problems by bringing order to the classroom. “

Every argument I’ve read about the merits of rigor leads to these steps – it focuses on bringing order to deal with classroom issues. But cop shit is like the ouroboros who eat their own tail: they try to solve problems with practices that often create those problems in the first place. To return to plagiarism detection software, for example, such companies defend themselves by invoking abstract values ​​such as the importance of a level playing field, but like John Warner recently in his Inside Higher Ed Blog “Only for a visit,“Paper mills also use this software. And they even certify that their products will not be labeled if they are subjected to the same “originality” detection software.

There is nothing inherently wrong with establishing general standards for students to meet, but when those standards get in the way of learning we need to reconsider them. I am an avid advocate of devaluation, especially the work-based variant that writing teachers like Peter Elbow articulated decades ago and that scholars like Asao Inoue have recently taken up and theorized. With these approaches, there is no need for finely explained explanations why, for example, a paper should be given a B instead of B-plus. Instead, an instructor can provide feedback on the paper and invite the writer to revise it. The writer then receives credit for revising this feedback to deal with it, which is a far more effective practice in encouraging students to pursue the types of thinking and experimenting that will actually help them develop as a writer.

I also believe in the practices of critical digital education as outlined by the educators behind the open access journal Hybrid pedagogy. One of those practices that I particularly support is to invite students to have a say in the content of a course, even if that just means giving students a range of options for completing a particular task.

Of course, I also believe in treating my students like whole people who don’t need to be monitored.

Neither of these practices alone makes good pedagogy, but they are excellent tools when used in a spirit of generosity and interest in removing arbitrary barriers to student learning, such as the complicated process my former statistics professor used for the Asked Questions has introduced.

However, rigor is not a good pedagogy. Rigor is bullshit in the sense that the philosopher GA Cohen defines bullshit as “inherently discourse” inexplicableThat means, rigor can mean anything and everything when used by educators as a virtue with a supposed goal behind it – which is why rigor has become a buzzword for administrators and ed-tech companies who want to train locked in a system of tires and barriers that only a privileged few benefit from.

I have no doubt that most educators, who are pensive about what they perceive to be a lack of rigor in the classroom, ultimately have the best of their students in mind. But the problem is that their perception is the best interest of the student your Perceptions, not necessarily those of the students. Our expertise as educators certainly gives us a level of authority that students can and should benefit from, but when we use that authority to oversee students rather than giving them the resources to learn, experiment, and risk, we are in an achievement caught – one that unfortunately forces our students to play along.


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