Others are completely different. For them, course policies, assignments and assessments are not shipping costs. They are part of the boat.
Professors in the first group said students needed flexibility and support. Their slogan is sympathy. The second group of professors said they needed structure and standards. Their requirements are very strict.
Emotions run high during periods of anxiety and exhaustion. Social media magnified disagreement into anger. As a result, a debate over teaching before the pandemic has intensified into what one observer has memorably called “hard war.”
The terms of the debate are now familiar, with predictable patterns. But taking a step back, it doesn’t make much sense.Most professors don’t care both students and standards?
What exactly does it mean to be strict in a college curriculum? Why do some professors invest so much money? Are rigor and compassion really contradictory?
Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh thought about it. These days, Sorensen-Unruh, a full-time chemistry instructor at Community College in Central New Mexico, is outraged to hear professors demand rigor. Like some similar instructors, she doesn’t like the word itself.For a while, she tweeted Merriam-Webster’s definition of “harshness” is, first of all, “stereotyped rigidity in opinion, temper, or judgment” before referring to acts of cruelty and, yes, harshness after death.
Still, Sorensen-Unruh remembers seeing it differently. In 2009, she overhauled her teaching methods to fully embrace active learning. Sorensen-Unruh is convinced by the evidence that this approach is better for learning. Adopting it, however, means she won’t be able to cover as much in the course as she used to. She worries that it might make her curriculum less rigorous.
The shift to active learning led Sorensen-Unruh to struggle with her understanding of rigor. Is covering everything the right goal? No, she decided. Some of the content she builds into her courses to maintain rigor is actually the equivalent of busy work.
Sorensen-Unruh continues to be thoughtful, and that’s where she’s at: “I think rigor is a gatekeeping mechanism,” she says. “I don’t mind the word ‘standard’.” As a chemistry teacher, Sorensen-Unruh knows that students must carry content and skills from one course to another. But she argues that “rigor” allows professors to push students in ways that don’t really push that goal.
Difficulty is sometimes seen as the purpose of higher education. Indeed, those who suggest doing anything to make it easier for students to go to college are sure to hear the objection that they are making it stupid.
But some forms of challenge support learning; others are arbitrary barriers that are likely to hinder it.
Here’s how Kevin Gannon can tell the difference. Classes can be intellectually difficult; they can be logistically difficult. Professors sometimes conflate the two, imagining content and policy moving together. But they don’t need to, said Gannon, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Grand View University and a professor of history at the university.
An intellectually difficult course meets the dos and don’ts that most people nod: it challenges students’ assumptions, motivates them, requires their effort, and improves their skills. Intellectually difficult courses push students to learn.
A logistically difficult course has strict policies on when and how work is produced and assessed. During the pandemic, many professors have tried to reduce their logistical demands on students, relaxing their policies on how and when assignments are produced. This is to make life easier for students, and it probably does. But that doesn’t necessarily mean students are learning less or doing less work.
From this vantage point, flexible curriculum policies may not contradict strict requirements, as the terms of debate are often delineated. But intellectual rigor has proven difficult to pin down.
Some forms of challenge support student learning; others are arbitrary barriers that are likely to hinder it.
That’s what Jamiella Brooks (who coined the term “Grim Wars”) and Julie McGurk described in a session last fall at the POD Network Conference. Brooks, associate director of the Penn Center for Teaching and Learning, and McGurk, director of the Faculty Teaching Program at Yale’s Pulver Center for Teaching and Learning, don’t see rigor as a bad teaching goal. In fact, they believe that having high standards for students conveys a professor’s belief in their abilities, which helps students succeed. They point out that this is especially important for students classified as minorities.
Instead, teacher developers argue that professors often rely on misinformation as evidence that they have met strict requirements. They argue that grading on the bell curve does not prove that the curriculum is rigorous. It compares students to their classmates, but doesn’t show what they know or learn. Neither does assigning a lot of work: there is no strong correlation between learning and the amount of information absorbed or returned repeatedly. However, much of the evidence for rigor comes down to grades or time to complete tasks.
Brooks reflected a few months after the conference that the presentation on rigor elicited a greater response than any other conference she had attended. The professors are clearly eager to understand these issues. Brooks and McGurk were sometimes asked to define strictness, but they refused. Rigor, they argue, is too situation-specific. This is something that professors have to figure out on their own.
How do they do it? Some professors have found that the best evidence that students are meaningfully challenged comes from the students themselves.
Jessica Zeller, an associate professor of dance at Texas Christian University who teaches both studio and theory classes, said students will tell you that a class is rigorous in words and actions. If a course challenges students in the best sense, students will say so, she said. They will come to class. They will be engaged. The class will come together and work together.
Despite the many biases identified in course evaluations, art historian Sonal Khullar, an associate professor of South Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, found they could provide useful evidence that she met her goals in terms of rigor. Khullar was surprised to hear that grades, assignments and standards were considered key evidence of rigour. “I measure by their own standards,” Kular said. The goal is not to get students to meet the benchmark she sets; it is their improvement.
Khullar believes flexibility and understanding can coexist with challenging students. For Khullar, that means even art history newbies need to analyze works of art rather than simply memorizing slides, as has long been the norm in her discipline. In the comments section of the course evaluation, one student once wrote that Kular “took seriously and rigorously a classroom of students with graduate, art history, and other intellectual backgrounds.”
It’s not just individual teachers who see students’ perceptions of whether they are being challenged as important evidence. Alexander C. McCormick, the recently retired director of the National Student Engagement Survey, described adding a question to the survey on the subject, in part because of other measures aimed at addressing academic challenges, such as curriculum requirements The amount of work and no doesn’t seem to catch it. In 2013, the NSSE began asking students: “To what extent have your courses challenged your work this academic year?”
Later, Warner found himself thinking about the meaning of rigor in the context of writing. He is a writer. He asks himself, “When do I work the hardest at something?” The answer is: when he’s interested, or when “the stakes make sense to me.”
Warner believes that getting students to pursue the things they care about will lead to better work than anything he can coax through grades “even praise and feedback.”
This is in line with Warner’s project to teach the attitudes and habits of mind employed by student writers, which he calls The Writer’s Practice (the title of one of his books). These processes can be learned, but not imposed.
But Warner believes this rigorous vision is at odds with many traditional classroom practices. For example, a focus on grades can encourage students to be risk-averse and pursue a less ambitious project that they can refine by doing something that makes them feel stressed.
In the case of Warner, he’s turned to ungraded: a natural fit for writing courses — and a teacher who, in all his years of teaching, considers himself a bit of a higher education outsider.
That rigor, then, might be a little far-fetched. Maybe “Grim Wars” is actually about how much the Equity Professor is invested in the status quo.
The goal of most professors is to support and challenge their students. It’s just that some of them think the standard structure of higher education works toward these goals — while others are less sure.