Magic Numbers: 20+40

Since the publication of Richard Arum and Josipa Roska’s Academically Adrift early in 2011, 20+40 have become “magic numbers,” evidence of “academic rigor.” The study (which I haven’t read, but which has been much discussed) claimed that 32% of the students they studied did not take courses with more than 40 pages of reading a week and that 50% did not take a single course in which they wrote more than 20 pages during a semester. As I haven’t read the book, I cannot comment on how these numbers relate to course rigor—I’m sure there’s some great explanation. And as my semester has started and the volume of stuff to do has multiplied, there’s a good chance I won’t be able to read the book to understand how these particular numbers exemplify academic rigor.

Magic numbers seem to offer appropriate tools in an age of assessment: are you assigning 40 or more pages a week? Your course demonstrates rigor. Are your students writing up to or more than 20 pages a semester? Your course demonstrates rigor. Magic numbers can become easy solutions, or at least convenient ones. They are also deeply seductive. One can assign a novel a week, a common practice in upper-level English classes, and pick up a merit badge. Since many of us assign multiple writing assignments, ranging from one-minute paragraphs to 30-page papers, we also get a gold star. If numbers tell the story of our teaching—and of student learning—then English instructors must be somewhere at the top of the pile.

Except when we are not.

Some of us—I confess to being one of them—assign one short story a week or, even worse, 2-4 poems. In my earlier teaching days, I regularly assigned one poem per class in an Intro to Poetry class. I believed then, as I do now, that close reading, the foundation of literary analysis, demands a deliberate pace: one learns to slow down, to unlearn skimming, to read what is on the page. To consider slowly and carefully the relationships among parts: text to white space, punctuation to words, words to sentences, sentences to stanzas, stanzas to white space, punctuation to sentences, and on it goes. Something important happens when students spend one or two 75-minute class sessions on Phyllis Wheatley’s 8-line “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” Something about learning to pay attention, to listen, to consider, to reconsider. To complicate not only what one knows, but how one knows.

Even in upper-level classes, one must be deliberate about teaching. One can certainly teach a class in, say, queer studies, that focuses on one major book a week—a standard Freud through Foucault, Butler, Sedgwick, Bersani, Berlant, Somerville, Cathy Cohen, Eng, Ferguson, Delany (okay, standard for me)—but it’s not clear that the class will benefit anyone apart from the instructor and two or three exceptional students. Granted, the bar could be lower if one teaches fiction, but I want to be careful about such a claim: James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man merits just as much time and care as Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.

Mindful teaching attached to specific goals and objectives is always more than a numbers game. It has to be. I don’t buy the 40 pages a week paradigm as evidence of rigor.

As for the 20 pages of writing over the course of a semester.

Many years of experience have taught me to substitute word count for page count. Given that my students submit their work electronically, word count simply works better. No more guesstimating. 500 words is 500 words, no matter how fancy the font or creative the spacing. Also, one teaches specific things. In a class focused on writing, for instance, I can envision a very deliberate process of working from sentences to paragraphs to pages to a short paper of, say, 4-5 pages over the course of a semester. And this not as a remedial class, but as a class deeply focused on how language works and on how argument proceeds. Spending two weeks or more on thesis statements would help many students.

Effective writing is revised writing. A few people, very few, are one-draft geniuses. But one can’t base pedagogy on the achievements of the exceptional.

In other words, different kinds of writing have different goals. It might be that students produce many pages of low-stakes writing—journals, impressionistic writing, reports of reading experiences—and a few pages of high-stakes writing—a 5-page paper, say. One might want to emphasize that writing is more than one thing: a process, a space, a practice, a discipline, a pleasure. One might want to alleviate anxiety over writing. One might want to exacerbate it.

Different goals, different strategies.

One’s writing styles and strategies shape pedagogy. I am, for instance, a concise writer in a long-winded profession. My typical reaction to most presentations, articles, and books is that they could be shorter. I also understand how difficult it is to get to the core of an idea—many of us write until we find the idea. By that point, we are so attached to the process of finding that idea and to our labor (rightly so) that we feel injured when asked to eliminate either or both of those: I spent 20 years working on that 2,000-page book, the scholar claims. And you want it cut to 200 pages? Never!

Many years of writing abstracts—condense your idea to 250 words or to 50 words—and, perhaps more importantly, many years of blogging and writing for non-academic audiences have taught me how to write relatively concise, readable prose. And while I like many kinds of prose, including the luxurious and the luscious and the obscure and the decadent, I try to model for my students a transferable skill: write lucid, concise prose. I am not disputing that students should write a lot—students in my classes write anywhere from 15 to 120 pages a semester, and this is not counting the drafts that I do not see. Instead, I’m interested in thinking more deliberately about magic numbers.

It might be that there’s valid research that establishes 40+20 as the magic numbers to establish rigor in college classes. What makes these numbers magical, however, is their being abstracted into a measure through which accomplishment is assessed all the while bypassing actual teaching strategies and learning goals.

That is bad magic.