challenging rigor

As the first snow of the winter softly falls outside, and as a pile of program assessments nestles against me, I’m thinking of the successes and lingering questions from last semester.

Despite teaching the most students in a semester I ever have, the semester was good. I would even call it fantastic. My classes were lively enough, interesting, engaging, and fun. My students read and read and wrote and wrote and wrote, and I read and graded and graded. In between, we discussed. We listened. We learned.

Last week, as I finished my 5th year retention dossier, I thought about student evaluations. I always approach their comments and their filled-in bubbles with a queasy anticipation. My eyes quickly scan the bottom of the bubbles for “overall instructor” and “overall course,” and I flip the sheets to read their often funny, kind, and sometimes jarring comments. Last semester’s batch left me pleased with the results for the two key questions, and for their comments (my favorite? “give this professor a raise!” I’m just kidding, although that was a real comment).

But then my eyes drifted upward to see the question that haunts me, about the relatively difficulty of this course compared to other college courses. This is always my lowest score. And so I’ve been pondering the concepts of “challenging course,” and the more academic-ese topic of academic rigor.

Critics of Higher Ed love to assail courses as being light, filled with fluff and nonsense and inflated grades. Such courses, they argue, do nothing to prepare students for the rigors of the post-college world. Scholars are taking note.  Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa became a media flashpoint last winter with its study of 2,300 students at 24 universities. In a review of the book on the website Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik cites this particularly interesting finding: “Students whose classes reflect high expectations (more than 40 pages of reading a week and more than 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more than other students.”

By this definition, my classes have high expectations. And yet, student perceptions that the classes are not rigorous persist.

I think of one particular day in one of my classes, when students were unprepared, not having read the scholarly essays for the day’s discussion. “Why didn’t you read?” I asked.

“Because we don’t have to. You don’t make us,” one student piped up.

I asked for clarification, tamping down my outrage.

“It’s not like we have reading quizzes, and we just have discussion, so we don’t need to read.”

The rest of the class looked concerned. I asked if they wanted quizzes. They did not. I explained my philosophy of treating them like responsible adults, who would come to class prepared for discussion, or group work, or whatever other pedagogical activity the day might hold. I tried to explain how they were accountable for the reading; not doing the reading meant their understanding was limited. Their written assignments would suffer.

And yet, that comment stuck. In what ways do I make the reading essential? In what ways do I hold students accountable for reading? Must I devise assignments targeted towards every reading to insure that students complete it? I’ve gone that route before, and to my mind, and my pedagogical approach, it is time not wisely or usefully spent.

And so, we’re back to questions of rigor. My classes have a decent amount of reading—depending on the class, we have between 20 and 100 pages a week. They demand at least 20 pages of writing. They rely on interactive participation.

What don’t they have? Memorization. Exams. High-stress performance indicators. I suspect that these kinds of assignments are seen as more rigorous than the essays–reflective, analytical, research–group projects, blogs, and discussion that my classes use.

I believe in the power of reading, writing, and discussion as a trio. I believe in creating assignments that allow students to be critical, and creative, and that feel more natural and applicable to their lives. The fact that numerous students in my multi-cultural literature class wrote about how reading different genre texts by multi-cultural authors challenged their perceptions of culture, made them more interested and open to others’ experiences, and even inspired them to read MORE, outside of class, for FUN, was perhaps the best outcome of all.

And maybe, rigor is all in the eyes of the beholder.