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Declaration of a Peaceful Revolution

Why rigor in instruction matters

To the editor:

If an English professor is ever confused about what “rigor” means — as in this Inside Higher Ed essay — I recommend that they speak with someone in the sciences.

I’m sorry, but we all know which fields have median grades at the A- or even A level, and it’s not any of the sciences.

The humanities absolutely can be rigorous. My first quarter in college I took a world literature class where for the first couple essays not a single student was given an A (a shock to a class of students used to 4.0 GPAs from high school). The instructor was challenging, but also engaged and inspiring, and he pushed us to do better. Eventually some of us started getting A’s. They weren’t unattainable, but he wasn’t going to hand them out like candy or pretend like there are no consequences in life for substandard work.

I remember him with fondness to this day, along with the math professor I had that same quarter who taught me the meaning of “rigorous” (a word I had rarely if ever used before that). Proofs that had holes in them were not rigorous, and would not get full credit. Because proofs that have holes in them might be wrong. The concept of true rigor in math arose in the 19th century as concepts because so abstract and difficult that intuition and sketchy proofs didn’t cut it anymore. Rigor allowed progress.

To this day I insist on rigor in my classes, in part because an engineer who doesn’t know their stuff and just got by with prizes for effort could literally kill people. I also do a lot of low-stakes and no-stakes assignments to encourage fearless engagement with ideas, but at some point you have to ask “Did the student learn this skill?”

The axis of rigorous/non-rigorous and the axis of good instruction/bad instruction are orthogonal. Duffy pretends not to understand this — “was my professor who didn’t teach us at all being rigorous, and if so, why would anyone want to be rigorous?” In doing so, he does a disservice to the entire idea of academic standards.

–David Syphers

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