This week:

  • I share a different way of thinking about rigor.
  • I ask how you’re handling finals this semester.
  • I point you toward some recent articles on teaching you may have missed.
  • I remind you that Thanksgiving is next week, and we won’t be sending a newsletter then.

Rigor, Re-Examined

If you follow conversations about pandemic teaching on social media, then you’ve likely run across the “rigor wars,” the fitting term Jamiella Brooks used during a recent online session of the POD Network Conference. On one side are faculty members worried that students will be harmed if standards slip. On the other are those who center compassion and humanity, who sometimes point out the word “rigor” is connected to the term “rigor mortis.”

It can seem like the two groups of instructors, both of whom care about teaching, are talking past each other — perhaps from different planets. Given all of this, some have suggested that “rigor” has become meaningless, and argued for dropping the term entirely.

But Brooks, an associate director in the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Pennsylvania, and her co-presenter, Julie McGurk, director of faculty teaching initiatives at Yale University’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, are working instead to reframe rigor. In their presentation, they laid out three principles:

  • Rigor, when defined apart from a deficit ideology, is necessary to teach more inclusively.
  • Inadequate definitions of rigor produce poorer learning outcomes, particularly for underrepresented and/or underserved students.
  • Rigor is not hard for the sake of being hard; it is purposeful and transparent.

When professors lower standards, McGurk explained, it communicates that they don’t believe students are capable of doing the work — and the students might believe it. That, of course, can hinder their learning.

The problem, as Brooks and McGurk see it, isn’t pursuing rigor. It’s that faculty members often look to the wrong indicators as evidence of it. Giving students a boatload of work doesn’t mean a course is rigorous. Neither does the grade distribution. “There’s an assumption a nice, wide bell curve means we’re being rigorous,” McGurk said. But a professor could achieve that bell curve, she noted, by grading students on their height.

It is crucial, the presenters emphasized, that rigorous courses address inequities. If some students perform poorly because they were less prepared or familiar with the ins and outs of college, that also doesn’t show that a course is rigorous. It shows that students were insufficiently supported. There’s a whole literature showing disadvantaged students perform on par with their peers when those barriers have been addressed.

During the session, Brooks and McGurk encouraged attendees to refine their own definitions of rigor, and ask themselves whether practices they consider “rigorous” adequately address equity.

Brooks and McGurk have been asked to define rigor when they’ve presented on this topic before, they said in an interview after their session. But they don’t think that they can. Rigor, they think, is context-specific, related to both the material being taught and the students taking a particular course.

I found the session intriguing, and I wonder what you think of this conception of rigor. Is it important to you that your courses are rigorous? How do you know that they meet that bar? Have you found a way to pursue rigor and inclusivity at the same time? What else comes to mind when you see professors debating the idea of rigor? Share your thoughts with me at and I may include them in a future newsletter.

Final Exams

Like many Twitter users who’ve lost their basic grasp of time over the past 18 months, I was stopped in my tracks by a Tweet that Tressie McMillan Cottom posted last week saying, “Thanksgiving is in two weeks and I think we haven’t accepted this yet. It’s over, y’all. The year is over.”

The end of the semester, of course, comes before the end of the year (sorry!).

That realization led me to revisit one of my early pandemic teaching articles, about how professors were approaching finals during emergency remote instruction. I’m curious whether professors who adapted their final assessment because of the pivot online have kept those changes in place, gone back to what they were doing before, or done something else entirely. Share your approach with me at and we might include it in a future newsletter.


  • Diane Mendoza Nevárez describes her experience as a “churned” lecturer in the University of California system, and lays out the impact adjunct turnover has on students, in this op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.
  • Although it focuses on secondary schools, this article about grades and the pandemic, also in the Los Angeles Times, explores challenges that affect college teaching, too.

Gobble, Gobble

We won’t be sending a Teaching newsletter next week, in observation of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Beth and I are thankful for all of you who read the newsletter and share your feedback, observations, and expertise with us. We hope you get a chance to relax, eat some good food, and think about something other than work for a few days. We’ll be back in your inboxes on December 2.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at or

— Beckie

Learn more about our Teaching newsletter, including how to contact us, at the Teaching newsletter archive page.