What is Rigor in a Writing Course? -- Part 3 of 3

This post is part three in a three-part series that responds to Erik Armstrong's (@mr_e_armstrong) Tweet. Thank you, Erik, for asking these questions. If you haven't, read part one and part two

Is a labor-based grading contracted course rigorous? Is it as rigorous as a similarly structured writing course that uses conventional grades?

My quick answer is: Yes, and No. Yes, a labor-based grading system can be just as rigorous as a conventionally graded course, even more rigorous. And no, it is not the same kind of rigorous. Rigor means something different in each kind of grading ecology. These two kinds of assessment ecologies are differently made, often have different functional definitions of rigor, and are just not very easily compared. Comparing what rigor looks like in labor-based grading ecologies next to conventionally graded ecologies is comparing rigor-apples to rigor-oranges.

But then, just because a teacher grades papers by some standard of quality does not mean that their course is rigorous, nor does it mean that the standards being imposed or how they are applied in those grading practices are rigorous either.

Photo by Gaetan Bourque, "Nocturnal"
Let me back up a bit.

What is rigor though? I mean, if we want to question rigor in a labor-based grading system, we should figure out what we are asking about first, then we'll know how to understand better the answers we come to. We'll also know better how rigorous any course grading system is -- and what we really mean when we say that.

We should keep in mind that being a hard grader, limiting the frequency of the highest grades in a class, does not automatically mean a course is rigorous. It could mean that the course is unfair. That is, being a "hard grader" does not make you a rigorous grader. It may mean you're just creating  unfair conditions for your students.

Rigor in Conventionally Graded Ecologies
In a conventionally graded writing classroom, grades circulate in the ecology in at least a few important ways:
  • Grades offer a simple assessment of how well a student has done on something (according to the teacher's estimation of things) and communicate this simple assessment to the student, even though most of the time, students tend to overly-focus on the grade and not other more formative feedback usually attached to the grade. 
  • Grades offer a simple, linear expression of learning for students, but they do not express what students have learned, nor what they still need to learn, making grades only administratively helpful in the classroom and not pedagogically meaningful. 
  • Grades offer external motivation to students, despite the fact that most research shows that intrinsic motivation is better for learning. 
Grades do a lot of other things too, but let's focus on these popular ways they circulate in classroom grading ecologies, all of which contribute to the way rigor is created in a classroom ecology. I'm going to put aside the issues around how reliable and valid any teacher's grades can be (see my last post on this), but know that these are serious concerns if grades are in a classroom, concerns that most teachers are not only unprepared to answer but untrained in figuring out how to address. They are technical in nature, but have pedagogical or learning implications.

In conventionally graded classrooms, rigor is often formed by how grades circulate, how they are used to communicate how well student do, how much they've learned (or need to learn), and how much they push or motivate students. Put simply, grades tend to be the prizes and penalties teachers dole out to students.

And rigor is often associated with how frequent penalties are distributed in a grading ecology. The more penalties, or lower grades, the more rigorous the course is assumed to be. This also assumes that all rigorous courses give fewer prizes than penalties to students. This kind of grading ecology is often silently toxic to students and their ability to learn. Rigor often means, "toe the line," "do what I (the teacher) says," or "follow these orders." I think, we can be more creative and imaginative with our conceptions of rigor, especially in the highly diverse and creative space of a literacy classroom.

It is difficult, though, for a teacher to imagine what their courses, and their rigor, would be like without grades. How will students know how well they are doing? How will I push them to do better? How will I motivate them? Good questions, but not ones that I believe need to be accomplished in a system that coerces students. Still, it's hard to imagine that other classroom. Most of us have few experiences of any other kind of formal learning environment than a graded one.

Photo by BJ Enright, untitled
I mean, it's like being given the same meal every day for your entire life, say a turkey sandwich with Swiss cheese, never seeing or experiencing any other food, not even knowing that other options exist. How are you going to assess the turkey-ness or the Swissy-ness of your meal? How nutritious is it? Well, that doesn't matter, and likely you've never considered your food's nutritional value since you only eat turkey and Swiss. Such judgements like how nutritious a meal might be is meaningless. In fact, you may not even put much value on food or eating since those activities always equate to a turkey and Swiss sandwich.

Then one day someone gives you a bowl of chili with beef in it. Now, this may not even look like food to you. You may not even know what to do with it. Remember, your whole life, all you've known as food was a turkey and Swiss sandwich. You may be tempted to ask yourself what you should do with this -- it's not a meal. But that other person tells you that, no, this too is food, and it has things that your turkey and Swiss does not have. Try it! But you ask: How turkey is it? How Swissy is it? It's neither of those things. It's something else that is also edible. It offers a different nutritional profile. It's a different kind of meal with different affordances.

My point is, conventional grading ecologies create a certain kind of turkey-and-Swiss rigor from the elements that are available in that kind of ecology, like those grades and a teacher's habits of language used to make judgements that are then used to form grades. In short, turkey-and-Swiss rigor is made in ecologies by the circulation and use of grades, as the list above shows. Chili rigor is made differently because it uses labor to generate course grades, and removes quality-based grades on all papers and performances, thus it's rigor is about time on task, and engagement in tasks. It affords students opportunities to resist, take risks in language, and attend differently to the same quality-based feedback on their writing. The real question is: Which kind of rigor do you prefer? What kind of rigor is best for students and their learning?

What Rigor Really Is 
The term "rigor" has Latin roots meaning "stiffness." Rigor mortis means "stiffness of death." So in one old sense, when we claim our courses, or teaching, or grading is rigorous, we draw on a Latin term that is actually describing something as stiff, unbending. That may not be a problem for everyone, but in a diverse society like the U.S., in changing contexts and environments, in dynamic societies of flux, in places that requires teachers to be compassionate and open-minded, I find the opposite a better way to frame my own ways of judging and assessing students. I'd rather be bendable, open, engaged, flexible than stiff and unbending. Things that bend are less likely to break. Things that are stiff, are more easily broken.

Additionally, rigor is also a code word for white racial habits of language since all literacy teachers have been trained and certified in white supremacist educational systems and academic disciplines. Teachers work in educational systems that demand they follow or mimic such linguistic codes. If rigor means unbending, then when you grade rigorously, you are less willing to bend from your standard, from the one you know, which comes from your training and histories of language use. And what are those histories? White supremacist.

But why buy into the turkey-and-Swiss rigor, or rigor as unbending? The main reason I can tell is the assumption that grades help the teacher control students and what is passable writing "quality." If I as the teacher do not approve of your languaging, then you will get a lower grade, and that shows me that I have a standard, and when I can enforce it in this way, I know my class is rigorous, tough, stiff, unbending. I hold my standards, and those standards are the sign of my stiffness. I am doing my job very well.

Notice the hierarchical language, a sign of white supremacy. Forming hierarchies out of other things, like language -- or rather someone's judgements of language -- is a racist and white supremacist practice that began as soon as race became a concept that was socially important in identifying people and their qualities in history. Rigor in conventionally grade classrooms is simply another way to do racism without being racist. It's a code for a single standard that comes from and is controlled by the same group of language users that have always controlled such things in the world: White, middle- to upper-class, monolingual, English speaking men. Only now, many people of color and women have been colonized by the language of this group (usually out of necessity), and have become the taskmasters and gatekeepers of it, most notable are writing teachers.

Rigor, then, is synonymous with a white standard of language because it means a classroom or teacher is stiff and unbending, acknowledging only the language practices that they understand as good and right. It is a parental orientation to students and their learning. There is only one group on the planet who has assumed a near universal, parental, we-know-what-is-best attitude toward everyone else: White, European groups of people. This has always resulted in that group's dominance over others.

Photo by Bill Satterfield, "Bowl of Chili (Delicious)"
What this means today is this. We don't ask our students how white their languages are (we did this in the past). We ask how rigorous are WE as teachers. This pedagogical question, one meant to be about how we are helping our students learn, turns out to be a parental question about ourselves. How colonialist are we? That's pretty whitely. How stiff are we? How unbending are my standards as a teacher? No matter how you garnish the ecological dish, conventional grading ecologies are still the same old turkey sandwich.

Rigor in Labor-Based Grading Ecologies
Rigor in labor-based grading ecologies can be different because there are no grades circulated, so those three elements listed above are not present in the classroom. Other things are. And the various kinds of labor of students are all valued more than a teacher's judgements of quality, or that teacher's idea of the standard as the main way to go. In labor-based classrooms, rigor is more easily defined by:
  • How much labor students do (in terms of words written or read), regardless of what that labor produces, even though what it produces is the focus of feedback and discussions.
  • How engaged or intense any session of labor is as an educative practice, which offers ways for students to consider their own individual learning, motivations, histories, and goals about their work in the course.
  • What meaning the student makes from their labor through reflections on their labor practices and sessions, which provides some way to take control of what they learn and flex it, or bend it to present and future purposes that they control. 
Of course, this does not mean that the teacher doesn't have some influence in how a student progresses, or that the teacher doesn't provide the same degree of feedback on drafts. It just means students are not coerced into doing language just because the teacher said to do it that way, or because the teacher is upset or unhappy with a draft. Those are not good reason to revise a draft.

A more ideal reason to revise, in my mind, would be the product of a process of gathering information from rich feedback from multiple readers, all taken together by the writer. As I like to say, good writers make decisions; they don't follow orders. But in order to be a good writer, you also need the right ecology that allows you to be able to make decisions and not force you to follow orders by those who mean to punish you if you do something else. Labor-based grading ecologies allow the former, while conventional ones allow the latter.

A labor-based grading ecology allows writers to learn through their own exercising of agency and control, not through a teacher's coercing them by withholding grades. Rigor in labor-based grading is not centered on the teacher's language practices and how they judge others by them. It's based on how students work, how they labor, and what meaning they draw from such laboring.

Regardless of the classroom ecology, students learn exactly what they can learn in this moment in the course, no more, no less. Grades give students lots of reasons to follow orders, but very few reasons to make critical and brave decisions as writers and learners. I want the rigor we create in my classrooms to be the kind that helps them be brave, critical, and ethical, to be open, bending, and flexible, and not stiff, unbending, or grade-grubbing sheep that just follow orders in racist systems.