In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Jordynn Jack and Viji Sathy, UNC-Chapel Hill professors in rhetoric and comparative literature and psychology and neuroscience, respectively, assert that it’s time to cancel the word “rigor,” arguing that it is both “outdated” and “an exclusionary concept” that professors use as a “code” for an elitist sorting mechanism that rewards only economically privileged students. Jack and Sathy suggest that professors invoke the word “rigor” to mean “some students deserve to be here, and some don’t.” Pitting rigor against inclusion like this makes rigor the latest battle in the campus culture war and positions faculty members — rather than institutional policies — as responsible for whether students succeed, and perhaps even whether the economic inequalities in our society are eliminated.
In his response to the Chronicle article, David Randall of the National Association of Scholars argues that Jack and Sathy’s suggestion that rigor is not inclusive is “a stalking horse for differential standards by race and sex.” Randall further asserts that instructors designing transparent assignments, as Jack and Sathy propose, “treat college students as toddlers or machines” rather than as “capable of taking brief instructions and using imagination, initiative, and, yes, background knowledge, to produce a sufficient piece of work.” For Randall, canceling rigor “will damage universities and harm students in the name of helping them.” I agree with Randall about the damage canceling rigor does. Besides, pitting rigor against inclusivity makes the rather insulting presumption that race and gender predict academic merit.
However, rather than taking a side in this rigor war, I want to embrace rigor and inclusive teaching techniques that support students’ transition to college and that give them a fair shot at learning. I design my assignments in the transparent style championed by TiLT Higher Ed because students, particularly historically underrepresented minority and first-gen students, learn more and perform better when assignments are created in this way. I incorporate the principles of Universal Design for Learning, for instance, by incorporating fun forms of creative expression in my serious, rigorous courses. I make appropriate accommodations for students who have documented disabilities. I reach out to, or seek targeted interventions for, students who are disengaged or not turning in work.
In short, in these ways, I do everything I can to help students learn, but if they don’t or can’t do the work and meet those standards, I should not have to pretend that they did for fear of being ostracized and deemed an insensitive elitist.
Rigor should not promote any “preferential practices” other than recognizing students who learn the material. As others have noted in greater detail, rigor helps students develop skills that enable them to become engaged and nuanced thinkers as well as responsible and competent workers in their chosen fields. Rigor is part of helping students develop understandings of complex arguments and ideas that are ambiguous or contentious.
To their credit, Jack and Sathy don’t explicitly advocate that we dumb down our courses or teach to the lowest common denominator. They suggest they don’t really want to reduce that thing that we are not supposed to call “rigor.” They explain: “Showing students the process — the nuts and bolts of how to do the assignment — is not doing the work for them. In fact, you may well be asking students to do more, not less.” Here they really underscore that transparency and rigor can coexist.
But their argument, made in the name of inclusion, actually admits to wanting to lower standards when they start talking about students who cannot complete all the practice problems because they have “work or caregiving responsibilities.” Even transparent assignments still require time to complete. They still require that a student work hard. The “nuts and bolts” might be clearer, but the assignments still require students to have or make the time to read and study the materials, do the library research, formulate strong arguments, memorize certain facts, and develop specific skills. The authors state their opposition to the approach where “you, as the instructor, set up the tasks and each student has to finish them (or not) to a certain standard and within a set time.” But even if instructors use a mastery-based grading system, we still teach a class within a limited time frame (typically a 15-week semester). In other words, there is a “certain standard” and we do operate “within a set time.” We can have students write a nontraditional, rule-abandoning unessay, but we should not make it uncollege.
I concur with Randall that banishing rigor “will damage universities and harm students in the name of helping them,” but, unlike Randall, I don’t want to stop with that observation. I want us to recognize that there are students with caregiving responsibilities and work responsibilities — indeed, at least one quarter of all U.S. college students are raising children and one quarter are working full-time in the paid labor force — and find institutional accommodations for them.
The more rigor is framed as the enemy of these traditionally underrepresented students — be they single parents, students from underrepresented racial groups, first-gen students, or poor working students — the more pressure we place on instructors to be the solution to problems facing higher education today. But the instructor’s primary job is to use their expertise to teach their material and assess students’ mastery of the knowledge and skills they teach, as they are demonstrated in their course assignments. This is where a student’s course grade comes from. Rigorous grading is neither arbitrary nor capricious. It is designed to identify who knows the material, not who grew up rich.
Institutional solutions for the problems these students face include scholarships, financial aid packages, pathways to attend college part-time rather than encouraging students who have multiple commitments to “finish in four,” and subsidized on-site daycare centers and after-school programs. Universities’ student fees could be reallocated to services that help students overcome barriers to academic success. Specifically, institutions charging students big athletic fees could instead charge students a fee that would give food-insecure, overworked, and parenting students more time to study. These structural changes would relax the constraints such students have around time without relaxing the constraint of learning and rigor. Policies, not just professors, could be more inclusive.
Policies that enable a broad range of students to face fewer barriers and be fully engaged in my classroom would ensure that all students get a chance to learn and contribute. Rather than lower my standards (which harms all my students) or take on the blame for rigorous learning (which slows me from teaching well), institutional changes along with inclusive approaches could work to support rigorous teaching and students’ academic growth.
Changing the structure of support so that students can get a solid education treats students as capable of learning the material, whereas canceling rigor for the sake of inclusion is not really inclusive or equitable at all. Making it easier for students by lowering academic expectations is an individual, instructor-level solution that robs those busy students of the best version of the material I can offer, the education they deserve. Rather than framing individual faculty practices as the answer, we should be seeking institutional policies and practices that help us achieve our goals. Such policies would aim to give all students, who are admitted to college because they are intellectually capable of meeting its demands, the opportunity to meet rigorous standards of learning and growth.
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