on rigor

19Oct11

update: I’m in the weeds, majorly, and should not be writing this blogpost.
update: I love teaching.
update: laptop ban’s working fine. Not a single complaint.
update: My diss is due in mere days, and I should not be writing this blogpost.

And yet…

So a few weeks ago, a couple of posts went around about rigor in teaching. What is it? What does it look like? Does it involve being a bitch in your demeanor? Can you be fun in your demeanor and still rigorous? And when that conversation happened, I found myself wondering about why I turned out to be more relaxed and more fun in class than I thought I would be. And I wondered for a half a minute if I was just fooling myself when I claimed to be all about rigor.

Yeah, no.

Yesterday, I found myself laying down the law for the second time in a class where I shouldn’t have to lay down the law. It’s a seminar for majors, not the survey. But alas…

Over the past two class periods, we’ve been discussing this book, a well-written classic work of history. It’s long and narratively (but not theoretically) dense, but I scheduled this accordingly. The first class we discussed this was after fall break; the second class was after a weekend, so that in total, the students had 12 days to work through the book. The first day of discussion, we got sidetracked on a methodology issue, which meant that we only had yesterday’s discussion to lay out the chronology etc. I’d planned to work through the timeline in class…guide them through the narrative thicket of events.

So I’m going about this in class. I’m writing things on the board. And I start to notice a trend. I ask a question about major events from the reading, there’s silence from them, and then I answer the question.

A few times? Okay, it was narratively dense. But this starts to happen every time I ask a question, leading me to think that they had retained none of the material.

Not okay.

So I decide to take a stand. I ask them a question that was intimately tied to the very subject of the course; nay, the title. As in: they didn’t need to do anything more than read the title of the course to realize that this kind of question was fair game AND that they should have noted this information as they were reading. It would be as though this were a class on famines in world history, we read a book about the Irish famine, and I asked when the potato blight started. We’re at that level of basic.

So I asked the question. And nobody could answer me. And I stood in front of the classroom waiting and waiting. Minutes are ticking by. They start doing the very unconvincing paper shuffle. You know, the one where the professor asks a question that nobody knows the answer to, and so you try to deflect the professor’s attention by making a big show of trying to find the answer, but you aren’t actually looking for it? They were doing that…and I could tell they were waiting for me to swoop in with the answer. So I decide that we won’t move on until somebody produces an answer. I give them a clue, and announce that I’ll wait. The clue, which should have guided them towards at least the relevant section, didn’t work. More time passes by, perhaps as many as five more minutes. Still nothing. At this point, I remind them again that I’m not going to be answering this question, so maybe they should turn to the index. (Yes, people, nobody had yet turned to the index.) In total, at least ten minutes of silence went by, maybe as many as fifteen, before somebody produced the answer.

Yeah. One of the nation’s best institutions. Students aren’t retaining information, nor are they producing enough written or marginal notes to get them to the information with any speed.

Me, on the other hand? I’m not playing games.



6 Responses to “on rigor”

  1. This is fantastic–I came here through Historiann, and I am definitely going to do this in my class(es).

  2. 2 thefrogprincess

    Thanks for stopping by, Alchemist. I should warn you though: you really have to commit b/c it can be excruciating. So I’d hold off until it becomes clear that the students really aren’t doing what they need to be: i.e. missing the kinds of information that are central to the subject of the class, or are proving to be completely unable to find information in something they supposedly read. So I waited until it was a fact of utmost importance.

  3. 3 Susan

    FWIW, my colleagues and I were recently realizing that our students read for discrete facts, not arguments, which ironically makes it harder to remember facts. We’re now trying to teach them this…. I think this is related to consuming information on the web.

  4. 4 thefrogprincess

    Susan, I’m noticing this as well. My students are decent at picking up overall arguments–this seems to be how their minds work, which is a big step up from my brain, which tended to (and probably still does) get bogged down in facts. However, I’m also noticing what you are, that their ability to sort out what’s important and what isn’t and then retain some number of facts is diminished. Even more surprising, my students are expressing a real distate for more narrative and lively forms of history, which don’t have arguments that they can latch on to and then sort through the remaining material from there. I’ve been shocked by this reveal. In some cases, I’m fine with their discomfort–i.e. the work in question was selected for coverage purposes rather than conceptual purposes and can easily be eliminated from my syllabus. In other cases, however, and the book I mention in my post is one of them, the students are just going to have to learn how to read this kind of material.

  5. 5 Western Dave

    I spend a lot of time teaching my 9th and 10th graders how to code a text and my 12th graders how to read a monograph. But I never learned this stuff ever and eventually developed a totally terrible coding system of my own (writing important p. #s with brief descriptions as to why they were important in the front of the book – doesn’t work for articles that don’t have cover pages). Did you have a discussion with them later (say the next class after they’ve felt appropriately guilty), about how to read the frickin text and what the index is for?

  6. Western Dave, that’s a really good idea. I did have a brief discussion with them the next class period, but I didn’t do as much instruction as I could have. I basically just indicated that they needed to retain more and be able to find information more easily. But I think your idea’s a good one, and there’s still plenty of time to talk about methods, something we’ve done quite a bit already throughout the semester.


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