Monthly Archives: April 2020

We Don’t Have a Rigor Problem

The close of last week brought a perfect storm of opinion pieces that would seem to herald the inevitable backlash against higher ed’s shift to remote learning and working from home. All three of the essays examined here adopt a posture and rhetoric of standards and rigor, suggesting that in the few short weeks since this shift occurred all hell has broken loose. Rather than arming the barricades for a presumed descent into anarchy, the authors would all do well to take a different set of lessons from this situation. We don’t have a rigor problem, we have a compassion problem.

Claire Laporte and Leonard Cassuto are authors of a piece intended as a tentative blueprint for opening campuses in the fall. As a question weighing heavily on the mind of everyone in higher ed, myself included, I was hoping for an enlightened plan. Instead, in their eagerness to open campuses back up (please note: their model for this assumes an almost exclusively residential campus–which is not the reality for the vast majority of college students), they made their rallying cry the restoration of face to face instruction and took things one step further to lob cheap pot shots at online education calling it “thin pedagogical gruel.” They even went so far as to assert that “online learning just isn’t as good” as in-class instruction. Their desire to open campuses back up is at its core built on an elitist and classist model of dorms and small classes. Its disparagement of online education is an insult to those who have been doing it with integrity and creativity for years.

The same day that this piece appeared, Inside Higher Ed also published an opinion piece that urged us all to wash our hair and present a clean and well-dressed online persona to our students. The author criticized her fictionalized, and tellingly female, target for appearing onscreen with “disheveled, unwashed hair,” and piles of “unattended laundry” in the background. The article brazenly fails to acknowledge the innumerable constraints that have made the shift to remote learning challenging at best, and positively overwhelming and demoralizing at worst. For this author, shared and improvised work spaces, child care, illness, limited resources, not enough time, and perhaps just the oppressive existential doom created by this whole pandemic are no excuse for not putting forth a tidy and composed image.

Often overlooked amid the justifiable outrage at the deeply gendered attempt to get professors to dress and practice a particular standard of hygiene was the Inside Higher Ed author’s concomitant demand that we not abandon standards in the assignments and assessments that we give our students during these difficult times. She and David Brooks would get along well, since his opinion piece also expressed a deep–but ultimately flawed and unsubstantiated–concern about grade inflation and students being coddled. He believes that this moment of hardship can teach us about tenacity and help us educate the next generation to “master hardship” and “endure suffering.” What he fails to acknowledge, however, is how many of them are already too familiar with both. Students are sitting in library parking lots trying to access wifi and complete assignments on their phones because they don’t have reliable access to internet or computing equipment. I’m fairly certain I don’t need to provide them with any lessons in hardship and suffering.

In short, all of these articles, have sought to capitalize on the current moment in higher ed to return us to their artificial and elitist notion of rigor and standards. They have defined online education and disheveled professors that hand out too many good grades as the problem. Those of us in the trenches know, however, that the problems are deeper and more complicated than that.

What all of these essays clearly demonstrate is that higher ed doesn’t have a rigor problem; we have a compassion problem. We are unwilling to see each other for who we are as faculty and students. The academy is deeply fractured along class lines and still sexist and racist. There is a thinly veiled disdain for and even hostility towards any pedagogies that depart from the model of the sage on the stage. There is also a deep unwillingness that keeps some faculty from seeing the harsh financial and socio-economic realities that shape the experience of the vast majority of our students. We have failed to acknowledge or remedy the fact that many of our faculty experience similarly precarious financial circumstances. Outside of the academy this is the story that we need to tell others like David Brooks who continue to rely on facile and outdated notions of what higher ed looks like.

Higher ed is broken and we will not be saved by clean hair and face-to-face instruction. We might be saved by a willingness to acknowledge the gaping rifts in higher ed that this crisis has exposed. We might be saved by taking this moment to really see one another in all our messy humanity through the lens of grace and compassion. Like you, I despair and worry that we won’t, in fact, take the opportunity to do these things. But if I don’t start by at least asking myself these questions and opening myself up to these realities, then all hope is lost.

On Perspective in Pandemic Times

If your social media feeds are anything like mine you’re watching family, friends, and even strangers wrestle with the landscape of pandemic. Isolation, quarantine, illness, working from home, fears about the health of our loved ones, childcare, the stress and exposure of being an essential worker. The fears and anxieties are all very real.

And I also see many of these same people catching themselves and being quick to acknowledge what they do have: plenty of food, a roof over their heads, a job. And this reflex towards gratitude is a healthy and good one. Recent studies (some are discussed here) have demonstrated that feelings of appreciation and gratitude increase activity in the hypothalamus and other parts of the brain that produce feel-good neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine. Practices like keeping a gratitude journal can contribute to better sleep patterns and other positive behaviors. I am in no way suggesting that the practice of gratitude is a substitute for other mental health or behavioral interventions, but the impulse towards gratitude certainly has its benefits.

That said, it is hard to find this gratitude when the pandemic is robbing us of the things we love. And in the sector where I work, higher ed, the isolation and confinement of these times is accompanied by waves of disappointments and losses: seniors who won’t walk across the stage at commencement, papers that won’t be presented at conferences, a semester with a great group of students cut short.

In these dark times as friends lament these losses and seek a stance of gratitude, their reflections often come couched in a self-flagellating apology, usually some version of “but know I shouldn’t complain about X because I’m really lucky to have Y and Z.” Or “I shouldn’t be sad about this when others have it so much worse.” In other words, a version of what we often refer to as “perspective.” And such perspective is not a bad thing necessarily. It is good to place our disappointments within a broader context. It encourages a compassion for the plight of others and may even inspire us to take action to reduce that suffering in some way.

But I’m also going to argue against this kind of perspective (hear me out). And the reason I’m going to make this argument is because I think the either/or dichotomy of “perspective” sells us short as living, breathing, feeling humans. It suggests that I can’t simultaneously be disappointed about my own loss while ALSO acknowledging and feeling compassion for larger and more acute suffering. My brain and my heart can do BOTH, and so can yours, I suspect. And I worry when I see people not giving themselves the space to be sad about things. Higher ed friends: it doesn’t make you heartless, even against the backdrop of unprecedented worldwide suffering, if you need to take the time and space to say that you miss your students, you’re sad you won’t see your friends at a conference, or your research trip got canceled. In fact, I would argue that not speaking and feeling those things out loud is more harmful.

You don’t have to choose between either your grief or compassion for the world’s grief. Cry. Rage. Scream. And then dust yourself off and fight the good fight. I choose to believe in your heart’s and my heart’s capacity for BOTH.