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The Problem with Rigor

Today: ICU beds in six states have reached capacity as COVID-19 overwhelms American hospitals; a hurricane more powerful than Katrina is headed with increasing speed for New Orleans; the Supreme Court decided to allow the eviction of up to 3.5 million Americans; twenty percent of American children live another day in poverty; and, in the midst of all this, professors somehow still have time to write about rigor.

Take, for instance, Deborah J. Cohen’s recent essay, “Professors should Uphold Rigor when Assessing Students even in the Pandemic.” I have explored the problem of essays like in these pages before: in particular, how they rely upon a neoconservative arsenal of overly coddling mothers and hand-wrenching do-gooders who indoctrinate students into progressive thinking when they would be better served by a good spanking and more ardent professor worship. What is remarkable about Cohen’s essay is how far she goes in applying such tropes. To her, the pandemic requires no flexibility. Adopting a metaphor more commonly used by gun rights activists to advocate the use of deadly force, Cohen insists that now is the time for faculty to “stand their ground” as their classrooms are invaded by the rigor-less.

Cohen’s essay is a good example of how rigor talks. It is a type of talking that distorts reality for the purposes of meritocratic fantasy. The world becomes an obstacle to the true purpose of the academic, to assess superiority and keep inferiority at bay. Life—and the struggle to live that our students face daily—are hinderances. Communities, families, viruses: what’s important to the scholar who talks of rigor is the maintenance of a standard, especially if it comes at a human cost. There is always something perverted when one talks of rigor, and by this I do not mean sexual sadism alone, but the utter fiction of mind that an academic could be so omnipotent and righteous.

The COVID pandemic has shown us many things, including education’s ability to thrive in troubling times. My colleagues and educators across this country have gone to extremes previously unimaginable so that students can continue to learn. If the pandemic is a temporary interruption in an otherwise normal life, then it will be because of the faculty’s audacious work. And if it proves to be an interruption, it will also be because of students and their commitment to learn in ways equally unfamiliar to them. COVID has shown us that there is no need to uphold rigor. We do not need this discourse. To go further: COVID has shown us that rigor itself is a fiction.


The rhetoric of rigor turns pedagogy into pathology. The world of rigor is not a world of correct or incorrect, it is a world of right or wrong: it is rigor’s moralizing that should concern us. Let me suggest two ways of thinking more genuinely about rigor.

Rigor is a pose when our pedagogy is not yet born. I was introduced to talk of rigor my freshman year when a professor, teaching his first semester, walked into the classroom with our graded essays, threw them on the floor, and walked out. We sat, stunned and uncertain, for a while—about fifteen minutes, if I remember correctly—before realizing that he was not going to return. Some of us picked up our papers as we walked out the room; others walked to the registrar to drop the class. Myself and two others checked our grades—he had failed the entire class—and walked to his office. We knocked. His silhouette cast an enormous shadow on the mauve glass of his office door. But he did not answer and we departed. Years later at a conference, I asked him if he remembered doing this. “I was trying to teach you something,” he squinted as he spoke, “but I didn’t know how.” To this day, I don’t know what he was trying to “teach.” What I hope is that whatever it is, he has learned how.

Rigor is what happens when something inside us dies. Much of Cohen’s essay is taken to lamenting the “vague confusion and stress about anything and everything” that she sees in her students. It does not often occur to those who preach rigor that vague feelings are part of the experience of living, especially for students who have entered a new and, for them, temporary world of higher education. One is trying to lose old identities and forge new ones, trying to make friends, mature, gain intellectual and professional skill, and realize that the world is large and incommensurable. (And if we were honest, we would admit we are doing much the same albeit in a different register.) Cohen overreads this as rigors’ theologians are prone: for her, “confusion is frequently code for “I haven’t read the syllabus or the assignment.” Perhaps they have not: perhaps they have and are still confused. Perhaps they need assurance or someone to share those vague feelings with. The syllabus may guide the course but it does not guide life outside the course, and to forget this is to let go of our own living.


Today: the first day of class. I read the syllabus aloud, virtually word for word, with my own additions. “The university does not discriminate and neither do I,” I said. “The university strives for a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment, and we will put that striving into practice in our course,” I said. “Academic dishonesty will be adjudicated for appropriate punishment,” I said, stiffening the tone of my voice as I continued with that sentence. I paused and glanced across the room. A few students averted their eyes; a few shuffled in their seats.

Then I stepped away from the podium, sat on the desk at the head of the room, and asked, “What do you need from me this semester?”

This is what I heard. I need you to stick to the schedule. I need you to explain to me why you grade the way you do. I need you to read drafts. I need you to respond when I e-mail. I need you to understand my family situation. I work from seven at night until three in the morning. I need you to understand that I was just diagnosed with depression. I need you to not scare me.

And then I received a response I had not anticipated. A student asked, “What do you need from us?”

This is what I said: I need you to do the reading assigned on the syllabus. I need you to be present while you are in this classroom. I need you to ask questions. I need you to be honest and open with me. I need you to tell me if something happens that complicates your learning. And I need you to know that I know you can do the work in this class and succeed.

My needs are as simple and as fair as theirs. Surely they need more and I need more but in the space of the classroom we can satisfy these needs and through our pedagogy exercise habits that can transcend the classroom.

Dr. Cohen concludes her essay by seeing her call to rigor as “a clarion call about remembering education as something sacred.” Respectfully, I disagree. Education is not sacred. It is human: inchoately, vaguely, virally human. We are human and our students are human and if we choose to embrace sanctity over humanity than we become fools of our own making. We neither build solidarity nor inculcate the democracy our society is desperately in need of. Even worse, we become the enemy to others and ultimately to ourselves. And today, I think the world has enough enemies.


Douglas Dowland is Associate Professor of English at Ohio Northern University. He can be found on twitter at @profdgd. He would like to acknowledge Catherine Denial’s (@cjdenial) twitter thread as a source of inspiration for this essay.


Image: P L Martin des Amoignes, In The Classroom, 1886

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