Rigor Is BS

Many course policies, assessment measures and other supposedly objective performance standards at best get in the way of learning and at worst make it impossible, argues William Duffy.

September 22, 2021
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Inside Higher Ed recently published an essay by Deborah J. Cohan that outlines the author’s frustration with college instructors who are “afraid to stand their ground” to students who resist the demands of academic rigor. I’d like to respond to the arguments she made in that essay.

I should first note that, at this point in such a response, I would usually define my key terms vis-à-vis the article or at least qualify the primary idea I’m writing about. I can’t do that here, however, because I’m not sure what Cohan means by “rigor” in the context of her piece.

Early on, she calls out “the grace and compassion police” and “people who are the most performatively woke” -- phrases that convey hostility more than they do concern. Later, she criticizes “colleagues who refuse to assign grades of D and F” and who “allow endless revisions.” But the kicker for me is this assertion: “Like children who can see how to manipulate self-sacrificial parents, so, too, do students learn how to maneuver among educators who are unable to be both gentle and firm.” Our students are not children, and we are not self-sacrificial parents. Sure, this is metamorphic language, but it’s still condescending and derisive to me.

All in all, it’s unclear how Cohan defines “rigor,” unless it’s a blanket term for not being “performatively woke,” a willingness to give failing grades and not answering students’ questions if they can or should be finding the answers for themselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting instructors shouldn’t have attendance policies or work expectations or be unwilling to assign a failing grade. What I am saying is that it’s ingenuous to pretend these things uphold some abstract measure of rigor. Moreover, the idea that rigor itself is something we should strive for in our teaching is equally questionable.

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I’ve learned a lot about myself and my students since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, not the least of which is that many course policies, assessment measures and other supposedly objective performance standards at best get in the way of learning and at worst make it impossible.

Take, for example, course policies that require students to run their writing assignments through “originality” checkers like Turnitin. When I served as the director of my campus’s writing center, I quickly lost count of how many students showed up for assistance because they were anxious about the so-called similarity reports that gave their writing a certain percentage score that had to be lower than whatever number had been arbitrarily set by their instructors. In such instances, the work of writing for these students becomes an exercise is performing for software that plenty of research has suggested can often cause more harm than good.

When I was a freshman in college, I enrolled in an Introduction to Statistics course. I was an English major, but I needed the course to satisfy my gen-ed math credits. The first day of class, the instructor organized us into groups of four. He then wrote “Chapter 1” on the blackboard and explained to us how the course would proceed. Every day, we would show up, sit in our groups, and work through all the questions in each chapter of our textbook, beginning with Chapter 1. If we had questions, we could talk to our group members. If our group members couldn’t answer our questions, we could then approach another group for help. Finally, if we still had trouble, we could come to his office and ask for assistance, he told us. Except for the days when he gave exams, this professor spent our class periods in his office.

Was this instructor upholding rigor? Perhaps he was simply working from a clear set of boundaries, something Cohen says there are not enough of these days in comparison to the “charades of instructors who do people-pleasing cartwheels.”

Regardless, whenever I hear instructors lauding the importance of rigor, this is the experience I always think about. How many times did I not go 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 might be a hyperbolic example, a rare extreme on the spectrum of rigor that Cohan thinks instructors can appropriately navigate by striking a balance between “being gentle and firm.” But I don’t buy it.

If rigor simply means being firm, we should decide what being firm specifically means and in regard to what. A request for a couple more days to finish an assignment? Letting students revise an essay? More important, we must ask ourselves how such rigor benefits student learning. One of the inevitable responses always falls back on the idea of fairness. What about those 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 redo an assignment?

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What does such a vague notion of fairness have to do with learning? If one answer to this question is to point to grades and the guidelines we establish to make grading fair, this gets me back to the point I made earlier about how policies can get in the way of learning.

One of the best teaching manifestos to come out of the pandemic is Jeffrey Moro’s “Against Cop Shit,” a piece in which he criticizes plagiarism detection and ed-tech proctoring services -- practices that embarrass students and, yes, make vague appeals to rigor. As he writes, “Like any product, cop shit claims to solve a problem. We might express that problem like this: the work of managing a classroom, at all its levels, is increasingly complex and fraught, full of poorly defined standards, distractions to our students’ attentions, and new opportunities for grift. Cop shit, so cop shit argues, solves these problems by bringing order to the classroom.”

Every argument I’ve read about the merits of rigor makes these moves -- it focuses on imposing order to deal with classroom issues. But cop shit is like the ouroboros eating its own tail: it attempts to solve problems with practices that often create those problems in the first place. To return to the example of plagiarism detection software, such companies defend themselves by invoking abstract values like the importance of maintaining a level playing field, but as John Warner recently wrote in his Inside Higher Ed blog “Just Visiting,” paper mills use this software, too. And they even certify that their products won’t be flagged if subjected to the same “originality” detection software.

There is nothing inherently wrong with establishing general standards that we want students to meet, but when those standards get in the way of learning, we need to rethink them. I’m an avid supporter of ungrading, especially the labor-based variety that teachers of writing like Peter Elbow articulated decades ago and that, most recently, scholars like Asao Inoue have taken up and theorized. Within these approaches, gone is the need for nitpicky explanations for why a paper should get a B instead of B-plus, for example. Instead, an instructor can provide feedback on the paper and invite the writer to revise it. The writer then gets credit for engaging with that feedback through revision, which is a far more effective practice for encouraging students to pursue the kinds of thinking and experimentation that actually help them develop as writers.

I also believe in the practices of critical digital pedagogy as outlined by the educators behind the open-access journal Hybrid Pedagogy. One of these practices I especially support is inviting students to have a say in what becomes the content of a course, even if all that means is giving students a range of options for completing a specific assignment.

Of course, I also believe in treating my students like whole human beings who don’t have to be policed.

None of these practices by themselves amount to good pedagogy, but they are excellent tools when taken up in a spirit of generosity and an interest in removing arbitrary barriers to student learning, ones like the complicated procedure my former statistics professor established for asking questions.

Rigor, however, is not good pedagogy. Rigor is bullshit in the sense that philosopher G. A. Cohen defines bullshit as “discourse that is by nature unclarifiable.” That is, rigor can mean everything and nothing at all when it gets deployed by educators as a virtue with a supposed object behind it -- which is the reason rigor has become a watchword for administrators and ed-tech companies that want to keep higher education locked in a system of hoops and barriers that only benefit a privileged few.

I have no doubt that most educators who are thoughtful about what they perceive as a lack of rigor in the classroom ultimately have their students’ best interests in mind. But the problem is that their perceptions of students’ best interests are their perceptions, not necessarily 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 police students instead of giving them the resources to learn and experiment and take risks, we are locked in a performance -- one that unfortunately forces our students to play along.

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William Duffy teaches in the English department at the University of Memphis and is the author of Beyond Conversation: Collaboration and the Production of Writing.


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