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Several commentators have argued recently that one problem with remote teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic is lowered standards. Apparently, we should be worried about professors decreasing their usual homework assignments and therefore abandoning rigor.
Really? Is quantity the same as rigor? Is maintaining the status quo the best educational goal during a crisis? Since we have all been turned upside down by this catastrophe, I suggest we turn the question of rigor on its head, too. Why not use this occasion to examine those standards and ask where they came from, whether they continue to serve us and, if not, what we can do to change them? While we are all working at home, let’s rethink homework.
The old rule of thumb for homework is that a college student should spend two hours studying outside of class for each Carnegie credit hour. A student taking a 16-hour course load should devote roughly 32 hours a week to homework, spending a total of 48 hours each week dedicated to academics. Perhaps that would have been reasonable in 1906, the year that the Carnegie hour was invented, when only a small sector of the population went to college and more than 80 percent of college students attended elite, private, residential institutions.
Now, however, over 80 percent of students attend public institutions. Forty percent of all students work 30 hours a week, and a quarter hold down full-time jobs while attending college full-time. Some 22 percent of today’s students are also parents. At commuter campuses, including community colleges that enroll nearly half of the nation’s students, they also have to spend travel time getting to and from classes. Forty-eight hours of schoolwork simply does not fit into the calculus of our students’ busy lives.
In Introduction to Transformative Teaching and Learning in the Humanities and Social Sciences, a graduate class that I co-teach with LaGuardia Community College professor Eduardo Vianna (an M.D. who also holds a Ph.D. in developmental psychology), our students are rethinking every possible aspect of graduate, professional and undergraduate training. In this class, we ask what counts -- and who gets to count. We ask what we teach, why and how and to whom. We ask what it means to introduce students to a field. In our student-led, participatory course, we do not just talk about requirements, but we also ask the far deeper question of what students require for mastery of a field. What kinds of mastery serve students beyond college? Is the goal of higher education to learn from an expert? Or to gain the tools and skills that will allow students to become experts themselves in whatever they hope to accomplish? How does one do that?
As a final project, several of our graduate students are creating syllabi for undergraduate courses they will soon be teaching. One question they start with is “How long should a syllabus actually be?” This is a good question because, if one looks at the many syllabi available online, they often seem created with the unrealistic Carnegie prescriptions for homework in mind. Many are so unrealistic (one could say “padded”) that one has to wonder if they were written only for the eyes of their students or also for scrutiny by supervisors -- chairs and deans. Meanwhile, those supervisors are thinking ahead to the five-year scrutiny by their formal educational accreditation bodies.
How much homework should we assign? There is no one right answer, but it is crucial to spend time thoughtfully focusing on the question. We can begin by asking what we wish students to accomplish outside of class and why. We also need to ask about the level of the class, the amount of preparation students bring to it and the material constraints on their time outside of class. Finally, we need to be honest with ourselves about the actual amount of work we are assigning, and we need to make the hard choices before the class begins. As an undergraduate English major, I was assigned Moby Dick to read in a week; in graduate school, we had a week to devour Being and Time. I am positive no one finished either tome.
A handy tool created at Rice University’s Center for Teaching Excellence helps anyone, students or professors, come up with a more realistic assessment of how much time students spend on their assignments. The Course Workload Estimator allows anyone to enter in data for the reading, writing, exams and other homework assignments for a course. One specifies not only length of an assigned reading, for example, but also the text’s difficulty and the purpose of the assignment (to survey, understand or engage). The tool provides an instructor or a student with an estimate of how much out-of-class time is required to accomplish this work. Extensive supplementary materials, including surveys and other data, explain the assumptions behind this convenient tool. Although hardly definitive, the Course Workload Estimator provides a useful reality check.
What are we actually communicating when we create an unrealistic syllabus? No, a student will not be able to read Thomas Piketty’s 817-page Capital in a week. They might, however, manage the Instaread Summary that clocks in at a lean 34 pages or the 4,900-word Wikipedia entry or a 500-word exam crib sheet prepared by another student and available online. Given the realities of our students’ lives, it is time to admit that when we overassign, we are really rewarding the skim, the summary and the cheat. Is that rigor?
Homework seems like a simple and perhaps even superficial place to begin an analysis of our inherited practices, but it is actually a subtle dog whistle that signals assumptions about the values of our profession. How much is the “rigorous” syllabus telling students who do not have the previous training, insider vocabulary and cultural capital to know how to fake it that they will never, ever catch up -- so why bother? What is the relationship between a daunting syllabus and a student’s willingness to take a course -- or ability to finish one?
I am suggesting that “rigor” can be deployed as a code word that leads to far deeper assumptions about our profession, including its function as an echo chamber that rewards those few students whose values, background, demographics and family educational background match those of their professors. “Rigor” can too easily translate as professorial self-replication.
Someday, this heinous COVID-19 crisis will be over, and then it will be time to pick up the pieces and rebuild. Given the abandon with which programs are being cut right now, one must worry that there will still be enough pieces left to start that process. I fervently hope that, in the current crisis, higher education is not jettisoned, that the future of students isn’t sacrificed to other economic considerations.
At the same time, as we rebuild, I hope that we can also reimagine higher education. Let’s reconsider the meaning, scope and purpose of the work we do as well as the work we assign. Let’s think about how we measure excellence and success. Let’s decouple quantity and quality. Perhaps from this pandemic we might all learn some lessons that we should have learned before.