On “Rigor”

Recently, The Chronicle published Jordynn Jack and Viji Sathay’s spirited defense of inclusive teaching practices, full of wonderful suggestions about how to make success possible for all students. Unfortunately, the title of this excellent article was “It’s Time to Cancel the Word ‘Rigor,’” and its authors exhort us to “stop using the word ‘rigor.’ Ask your colleagues to stop using it.” The essay’s conditional subtitle hedges–“If it’s code for ‘some students deserve to be here, and some don’t,’ then it needs to go”–on its way to this salutary advice: “set high standards and help as many students as you can to meet them.” These authors are not insisting that inclusive teaching involves a lowering of standards, but their, er, rigidity, about language certainly makes it sound that way. 

If” rigor requires gate-keeping, obscure references to bootstraps and embarrassing metaphors of firmness, then cancelling it is a tempting proposition. Would we be losing anything of value, or would we all just be shedding a notion that makes us sound like Cruella Deville? I want to push into that “if” and argue that disallowing a word like “rigor”–and please can “grit” be banned first?–does not help us solve its misapplication. If the problem is an attitude that defines excellence as “that which has not been weeded out,” perhaps the solution ought not to be to eliminate a problem word.

Can “rigor” be compatible with inclusive pedagogy? Derived from the Latin word describing a material state of inflexibility, it became associated with “hardness of heart,” “harshness” or “severity” in the strict application of a law. Instead of referring simply to a material property, the meaning of the word drifted toward the experience of hardship–how it feels to encounter, for instance, “the rigors of the Arctic.” But when something is “rigorous,” it still also means “requiring great effort or commitment,” or holding to “strict or exacting standards…[being] conscientious” or “precise…strictly accurate or exact.” Rigor does not mean a willingness to leave some students behind; it means making our own “great commitment” to stay with every student through a challenging course that “requires great effort.”  

Inclusive teaching is a good-faith invitation to rigor without harshness, a place for students to claim the intellectual challenge they are actually seeking. We can trust ourselves to demand “great commitment” without giving our students the experience of harshness or severity. For several years now, I have asked my students, a month or so before the final exam, what kind of exam they want to take. I liken it to a musician’s recital, where their hard work and skill can be triumphantly displayed and admired; so what piece will showcase your learning? I ask them to design a section of the final exam, complete with scope of content, time limits, what materials may be used, etc. I make a mix-and-match final exam based on their answers, a bank including at least two of every kind of section they designed. They can take an exam composed of two different modules they devised themselves, or they can choose two completely different modules (designed by others). First of all, students across the board design a more challenging test than I’ve ever been tempted to make for them; more to the point, they almost always choose to combine two different formats on the final exam: they take a section of the test they designed, and they also take a section that someone else designed. Finally, they want to show their range, their commitment. This is a version of rigor–collaboratively undertaken, difficult, exacting–that I think is worth claiming. Can we give the half-broken word rigor new vitality rather than banishing it?

Lauryl Tucker, Associate Professor of English