Against Rigor

When I wrote “Against Cop Shit” back in February, I did so because I was angry about how many educators prefer to assume adversarial relationships to their students rather than to treat them as equal participants in the project of classroom education. Little did I know that the occasion of a global pandemic would give cover to whole new genera of cop shit, and today I saw a post on Twitter that sufficiently broke me such that I felt compelled to Blog Through It:

(On the off-chance that the student who tweeted the post that I’m quoting above deletes it, here’s the basic gist: an instructor at my university is demanding that students still hold to extant deadlines and workloads—even increasing those workloads—during a pandemic, rather than practicing compassion and cutting them some slack.)

Some of the forms of cop shit that have emerged over the past month fall well under the rubric of the ed tech that I discussed in my previous post. In an effort to prevent cheating at online exams, some instructors and institutions have intensified their surveillance efforts, as intimated in this Washington Post story about live proctors that constantly watch students and grade them with a “suspicion score” (looking too long off screen? suspicious). These new forms of adversarial surveillance are obviously ghastly, to the point that I don’t even know how to begin to persuade anyone not to use them, as choosing to use them only seems to me to evince such a lack of moral compass and pedagogical imagination as to render them unfit for this profession. While I could dedicate a whole post to these new and intensified forms of pedagogical surveillance, they’re not what is truly raising my hackles right now as I write this.

What I am deeply, irrationally, distractedly angry about are instructors who are taking the occasion of the pandemic to intensify already crushing workloads. Instructors who are holding fast to artificial deadlines.1 Instructors who regard student anxiety as overblown. I want to try to understand this tendency as I find it completely alien.

I can only speak anecdotally, from my own students and from those folks I see on Twitter, who tend to be like me, think like me, and teach similar courses as me. But one thing that I have noticed is that thse instructors who are using the pandemic as an opportunity to intensify workloads and assume heightened positions of suspicion are not evenly distributed across discipline, race, gender, and class. Namely, my students, the vast majority of whom are STEM or business majors, are reporting to me that it is their instructors in these home disciplines who are ramping up the work, leaving instructors in the arts and humanities—like me—to slacken workloads in response.

Many of these instructors intensify work under the assumption that their students are like them—white, male, upper-middle class, with a support structure at home caring for them during the pandemic. They assume that their students now have ample free time. Setting aside the fact that we should not regard “free time” as an empty vessel to be filled with work, but rather protect it as an important part of simply being human, these assumptions are patently untrue. Without going into too much detail about my students’ living and working conditions, I can say that many are back to working full time, are caring for sick family members, do not have the same material resources (food, shelter, internet access) in their homes as they do in their dorms—on top of which they are beginning to get sick themselves, despite the pernicious assumption that young people are impervious to covid-19 and thus can live life “as usual.”

I have radically scaled my class back both because I believe it is the right thing to do and because my hand is forced by these other instructors. I can’t ethically ask my students to read the same amount, to view the same amount, or to write the same amount when I know they are dramatically overburdened not just by life but by school. I can’t make that ethical ask because ultimately I know—because I follow the same employee handbook and use the same grading systems as the rest of my colleagues—that I have the ability to cut my students slack. As an instructor of record, I have tremendous latitude to shape my class in response to my students’ needs. Why haven’t other instructors availed themselves of this latitude?

I am trying to find a logic here that goes beyond sheer cruelty, although cruelty is certainly part of the equation. One provisional answer I might offer is that we teachers are often too enamored with the concept of “rigor.” There is a certain amount of pride in being a “difficult” professor, even as we fret about what it might do to our student evaluations. To be difficult and to study difficult things is a tacit argument of one’s own importance. If our subjects were easy, then we wouldn’t need to study them—or fund them. Difficulty works rhetorically both ways: for the sciences, difficulty can be a badge of honor, one that substantiates one’s studies as important and useful; for the humanities, particularly for scholars in minoritized fields, difficulty can be a cudgel through which adversaries think they can prove how useless the work “actually” is. (For example, consider how frequently critical race studies is simultaneously marginalized as “fluffy” as well as “incomprehensible.” Or how a woman of color professor is “difficult” for asking white students to consider the perspectives of marginalized people.)

For many, particularly it seems for those who are ramping up work in a crisis, rigor is a useful way to substantiate one’s importance. Perhaps what we are seeing here is the endgame of a house of cards built from standards. To what extent have some instructors—to be clear, not just in the sciences—profited by artificially enforced standards of rigor? Seen through this lens, the move to ramp up pressure on students is not just cruelty, but also an attempt to cling to a system of power that has been revealed as utterly artificial.

The dirty secret is that we really could just give all our students A’s, cut the semester short, and move on to the more urgent work of caring for each other. I don’t know a single instructor who would argue in good faith that the legitimacy of their projects—or their students’ ability to go out into the world safe in the knowledge that they have a worthwhile education—would be imperiled by cutting short one single semester.

If speaking that aloud shakes the foundations of our entire enterprise, then our enterprise needs better foundations. I can only hope that as we wrap up this shitshow of a semester and transition into the summer and fall, that these instructors learn what I recall Kevin Gannon tweeting once a few years back, and which has stayed with me ever since:

  1. One point of clarification I would like to make here. There are many kinds of assignments that require hard deadlines. When I teach intro to composition, I ask my students to submit a lot of drafts, on which I leave comments such that they can practice the work of revision. And because of institutional obligations, there are lots of assignments in that class. Deadlines are necessary in that kind of class not because they make my job easier, but because they make all our work—student and instructor alike—possible in the first place. There are plenty of good reasons to keep deadlines during a pandemic. But I would suggest that there are very few reasons to be absolutist about deadlines during a pandemic (or ever!). 

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