Prof: Academic rigor reinforces 'power and privilege'

Toni Airaksinen
New York Campus Correspondent

  • A Purdue University engineering professor recently lamented the emphasis on academic "rigor," calling it a “dirty deed” that upholds “white male heterosexual privilege.”
  • Donna Riley calls for doing away with the notion of academic rigor entirely, suggesting that higher education pursue "other ways of knowing" in order to "build a community for inclusive and holistic engineering education."
  • The leader of Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education recently declared that academic “rigor” reinforces “white male heterosexual privilege.”

    Donna Riley, who previously taught engineering at Smith College for 13 years, published an article in the most recent issue of the journal Engineering Education, arguing that academic rigor is a “dirty deed” that upholds “white male heterosexual privilege.”

    "Scientific knowledge itself is gendered, raced, and colonizing."   

    Defining rigor as “the aspirational quality academics apply to disciplinary standards of quality,” Riley asserts that “rigor is used to maintain disciplinary boundaries, with exclusionary implications for marginalized groups and marginalized ways of knowing.”

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    “One of rigor’s purposes is, to put it bluntly, a thinly veiled assertion of white male (hetero)sexuality,” she writes, explaining that rigor “has a historical lineage of being about hardness, stiffness, and erectness; its sexual connotations—and links to masculinity in particular—are undeniable.”

    Hence, Riley remarks that “My visceral reaction in many conversations where I have seen rigor asserted has been to tell parties involved (regardless of gender) to whip them out and measure them already.”

    Riley also argues that academic rigor can be used to exclude women and minorities, saying, “Rigor may be a defining tool, revealing how structural forces of power and privilege operate to exclude men of color and women, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, first-generation and low-income students, and non-traditionally aged students.”

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    She claims that rigor can “reinforce gender, race, and class hierarchies in engineering, and maintain invisibility of queer, disabled, low-income, and other marginalized engineering students,” adding that “decades of ethnographic research document a climate of microaggressions and cultures of whiteness and masculinity in engineering.”

    She evens contends that “scientific knowledge itself is gendered, raced, and colonizing,” asserting that in the field of engineering, there is an “inherent masculinist, white, and global North bias...all under a guise of neutrality.”

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    To fight this, Riley calls for engineering programs to “do away with” the notion of academic rigor completely, saying, “This is not about reinventing rigor for everyone, it is about doing away with the concept altogether so we can welcome other ways of knowing. Other ways of being. It is about criticality and reflexivity.”

    “We need these other ways of knowing to critique rigor, and to find a place to start to build a community for inclusive and holistic engineering education,” she concludes.

    Campus Reform reached out to Riley multiple times for comment, but did not receive a response in time for publication.  

    Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen





    Toni Airaksinen

    Toni Airaksinen

    New York Campus Correspondent
    Toni Airaksinen is a New York Campus Correspondent, where she reports on free speech issues and social justice research. She is a senior at Barnard College, majoring in Urban Studies and Environmental Science. She is also a columnist for PJ Media, and formerly held a post with USA TODAY College, The Columbia Spectator, and Quillette.
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