So the good news is that I finally got off my procrastinating ass and graded for one class for which I’d been procrastinating about grading. There is much good news to report here: a) I did the grading; b) the papers were not nearly as bad as they could have been, and some of them were actually quite good!; c) I did the grading!
So now I’m having a beer and resting on my laurels. And I’m thinking about “rigor.” I started thinking about this today because of Dr. Koshary’s post here and because of Historiann’s post (and Dr. Koshary’s comment on it) here. The thing I’ve been thinking about is this: does rigor equal not making the majority happy?
But let me back up a minute. I actually agree with what Historiann said, that “I don’t think that making the majority happy is a terribly noble goal as a Professor.” I don’t think that my students’ happiness is, ultimately, the point of what I do. But. I suppose I do think that if they are happy, or at least if they aren’t actively miserable, then they typically do learn more. I know that was true for me when I was a student. And student learning is, as far as I can tell, the only goal, whether noble or not, when it comes to teaching. And I’m mercenary about achieving that goal: I’ll sort of do whatever I can to make them learn, whether it means that I have to relax certain “standards” at certain points in order to get them there. It’s sort of like how I’ll make any changes an editor or a reader’s report wants in order to get a publication. At the end of the day, I’m kind of an “any means to the end” sort of a girl.
But so the question is, if students are “happy” (whatever that means) then does it mean that I’m not a rigorous professor?
I know that I have colleagues who think that is true. Basically, they equate student misery with rigor. If students are happy, then you’re not pushing them hard enough. If students are happy, then you must be inflating their grades, or assigning easy stuff, or whatever. Basically, there’s an either/or in play: either you’re “challenging” them or you’re “pandering” to them.
But I think that sometimes it’s the case that there’s a middle ground between those two poles. I suppose I think that it is important to take student responses into account, and if everybody’s unhappy, well, then not a whole lot that’s productive can happen in the classroom. I don’t think taking that into account is pandering so much as taking a “spoonful of sugar will help the medicine go down” approach. And while it might be an effort for me to administer the spoonful of sugar, it’s a hell of a lot less of an effort than beating them into submission is.
The longer I teach, the more that I feel like I am most successful when students learn in spite of their basest instincts – when they learn by accident, only to discover they’ve learned something when they get the assignment back, or when the course is at an end. I want them to learn without it feeling like drudgery. Does this mean that I don’t push them?
I don’t think that it does. It’s just I don’t want them to feel pushed, to feel backed into a corner. Because as often as that works – and it does work for a certain sort of student – it also backfires. And the backfires are a real bitch to recover from. And yes, I’m self-centered about this: I want to deal with teaching problems that are not of my own making, as opposed to ones that I create for myself.
But what I’m going to say next will probably surprise you: I’m actually pretty intolerant when it comes to what I expect a class of mine to run like. What Koshary describes about students waltzing in 20 minutes late and then proceeding to text? It doesn’t happen in my classes. I don’t tolerate it. I ask them to leave. With a smile on my face, and with a spring in my step, so the rest of the class thinks it’s funny, but I don’t hesitate. It happens, and they’re out. Do that a few times, and it stops. Late papers? I don’t care about your reasons: you lose a full letter grade a day. I don’t care if your grandmother died and you were in the hospital – deadlines are deadlines. You show up unprepared, and you’re out. You complain about the reading and I’ll tell you, again, with a smile on my face, that this is college and if you’re not prepared to do the work then you really should consider dropping out. And then I giggle. In front of the whole class. Because while I want everybody to be on board, I am the captain of this ship. The point isn’t that it’s not work, but rather that if we all do the work, then it can be fun, albeit in a nerdy way.
Rigor doesn’t have to be about pulling teeth. And god, I hate it when it is. So you know what? Maybe I do pander to my students. But if we’re all having a good time, and if they are learning, why is that such a bad thing?