2006 Academic Affairs Faculty Symposium Unicoi State Park and Conference Center April 14-15, 2006
TASK: In preparation for the Academic Affairs Faculty Symposium, the organizers invite you to share with fellow participants some brief reflections on the concept of academic rigor. We would appreciate receiving by Friday, April 7th, your perception of academic rigor, your personal experience with academic rigor as a teacher or student, and/or your thoughts on what faculty and the University should do to promote rigor in our academic programs
I recently had the opportunity to work with a master’s teacher and mentor. She was remarkable in her insight into the nature of teaching and learning, a keen and intense observer of teacher/learner interaction, and a wise, enthusiastic guide as I worked to improve my skills. She was not attached to the academy, but I found in her the essence of the academic—a devotion to rigorous learning, engagement, teaching, and reflection. Rigor (or, as she termed it “mild push”) describes not an endpoint, but an attitude or approach.
How unfortunate, then, that the word’s definitional history is almost wholly associated with the negative (cold, harsh, stern, hard). This woman who I cite as an example of rigor is one of the warmest and most vibrant people I’ve ever encountered. To rectify this disconnection, I prefer to meditate on the following sense of the word from the OED–” Strictness of discipline, etc.; the austerity of life; an instance of this.” Rigor’s association with discipline, and by extension, disciplinarity, seems appropriate to the consideration of the life of the academy and to our experiences of our own disciplines. We submit ourselves to the austerity of this life, to the rule of the discipline (of study, research, learning, teaching). By so doing, we are free to explore that which we profess.
Any promotion of rigor will not work if there is not an attitude that rigor is valued. Strong modelling of a rigorous approach can go toward that goal. Can we consider, for example, ways to make our research and our work more visible to students, not through publications, press releases, and scheduled talks, but through more intimate, classroom centered engagements? As a student, I found the enthusiasm of my instructors infectious. I realize now that they were good models to me of the life of an active, engaged mind that took a rigorous approach to academic work.
The appearance of academic rigor is easy to achieve. By maximizing the tangibles (grade distributions, accreditation experiences, faculty pedigrees, student scores and GPAs, placement statistics, etc.), an externally focused approach to improving learning quality can seem extraordinarily successful. I suggest, however, that by turning inward, by committing to a culture of rigorous engagement with student learning, we may better achieve sustainable increases in those tangible markers while also shifting the culture of the academy.