Rethinking Rigor by Getting Out of the Way
By denying students constant access to grades, I've made my course more challenging.
But how will I know if it’s any good?
This was the refrain coming from a good portion of my students when I told them that I would not be responding to the short stories they had written for our introductory fiction course.
My belief is that early on in the writer’s journey, the more important thing than trying to write a “good” story is to write any story, so at the start of the semester, I assign a series of “warm-ups,” exercises that result in full-length short stories and serve to get students over that hump. After writing three stories over three consecutive weekends, the act of writing a story of at least 2500 words with a beginning, middle, and end begins to seem fairly pedestrian.
Telling them that I would be reading, but not responding to the stories freaked them out.
I am both surprised and not by this response. On the one hand, I am well aware that these students have been conditioned to defer to their teachers to judge whether or not they have “succeeded” on an assignment.
On the other, with the use of the grading contract, with my exhortations about the nature of the creative process, I thought we might be able to shake free of a system that puts so much power in the instructor’s hands.
It’s important to note that students don’t see their teachers as infallible. They’re not craving feedback because they necessarily believe that I am the ultimate arbiter of quality. They want the feedback because what has mattered to students is the grade.
Even if they loved the process of writing the story and felt thrilled by their own effort, if I do not approve, that effort suddenly becomes unimportant.
This makes me feel...what's the right word? Sad, and not in a Trumpian way, where declaring something "sad" is more like a triumph. No, it makes me feel sad, sad, like wondering what the heck we're doing to these nice young people sad.
I tell my students at this point in the semester, barely two weeks in, that questions of “good” or “bad” are unimportant. In fact, I tell them, those same questions will be unimportant at the end of the semester as well.
Sure, if one is going to seek an audience for their creative writing, ultimately an outside entity will judge the merit of the work, but those of us who have entered the arena know that this is largely subjective. Trying to groove your work to a particular person or place is almost a surefire recipe for failure.
Ultimately, for most of us who write, our only consistent audience is ourselves. If we’re ever going to find an audience, we first have to get past that particular gauntlet. The sooner we banish the outside voices impinging on that process, the better.
Having experienced this response from my students confirms something I’ve been noodling over for the last several months. Tell me what you think of this: assessment (as we’re mostly practicing it) is the enemy of “rigor.”
Or maybe, what I’m trying to say is that when it comes to student learning we have to get beyond “rigor.”
As a word, “rigor” is interesting, as by definition, it assumes the experiencing of something unpleasant, or worse than unpleasant. It means both difficulty and inflexibility.
In teaching, we tend to discuss rigor in a fairly narrow sense of a course’s “difficulty,” namely how much work is done and how hard it is to receive a good grade for that work. Organic chemistry is viewed as a rigorous course because it is difficult to get an A.
On the other hand, creative writing is viewed as not rigorous because it is difficult to get anything less than a B.
These definitions have very little to do with the amount of work or time the student puts into the course. The definitely do not track with “learning,” as I’ve heard many medical professionals confess to remembering almost nothing of the organic chem course that almost deep-sixed their career before it started. That definition of rigor also doesn't take into account the process of learning itself, the questions students may need to confront about themselves or their motivations as they navigate the course.
By denying my students the feedback they’re so conditioned to expect, I’m realizing that I have made the course more rigorous than when I was putting grades on their work.
Those grades, even when they weren’t what the students wished for (anything less than an A), were nonetheless a comfort. By making students self-accountable to their own learning, I am creating discomfort, a challenge that requires them to construct and act on their own motivations.
I’m having a hard time imagining a more important learning experience in college. What else are we here to do, other than helping students become curious, self-motivating, and self-actualizing?
And all it takes is me getting out of the way.
 This has been a career-long struggle for me, as I constantly wonder if I should be writing something “else” that people might like (and therefore purchase in larger quantities) more. Every time I allow those thoughts to creep in, though, I either stop writing, or end up writing something so bad, I’m indifferent to it as well, so it quickly dies on the vine.
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