Rubrics Are for Rubes: Is There Any Softer Way to Couch This?

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The answer is no, but please read on in spite or because of this two-letter word.

I am certain I am not the only individual in the world to have made it through or done very well in excellent programs of study in college, both graduate and undergraduate, without ever having seen a rubric in any of my classes.

Admittedly, I majored in English and did not learn education theory that would likely necessitate the introduction of such lined, reclining beasts, but I am certain plenty of history and art majors also made it through their studies, with relish even, without the sighting of a rubric.

My professors somehow managed to facilitate learning (excuse that expression, all that education-language must be rubbing off on me even as I try to remain pure) and I was able to write and discuss literature in a way that would make homo sapiens a truly proud exemplar of upright walking and clear thinking.

As soon as I say “thinking” one of the problems with rubrics enters the equation and that is observable behavior must be demonstrated by the student without anyone supposedly taking into account or evaluating a process we cannot observe. Well, wouldn’t that then eliminate thinking as part of the educational experience for those who are rubric-inclined?

Not so fast, as long as the student demonstrates on a piece of paper, for example, that he or she can write paragraphs that show focus and fluency, for example, something can be recorded in the rubric to rate that behavior. Yes, lots of examples are needed and then the definition of the terms, “focus” and “fluency,” I want my green eggs and ham.

I feel bound, even by my own words, as if I were part of some lab rat experiment in a maze, excuse me, rubric like a three-dimensional cage, ruling the situation. Wouldn’t that be something, a three-dimensional rubric. I hope they have not made one to assess student learning outcomes, but with my luck one is in existence and some clever person is using the instrument (am I using “instrument” correctly?) to monitor the learning of students. Wait, let’s not even combine “learning” and “students”; learning outcomes is so much better. See, I told you that education-language was rubbing off on me.

I think it would be fair to say that many of us have had wonderful educational experiences without even the sight, sound, taste, or smell of a rubric. When a rubric falls and no one is in the paper binder or in the document file, can the falling of the rubric be heard?

Imagine my shock when all grown up, having taught for several years, I found that some of my mentors all of a sudden had rubrics and learning outcomes in their course materials. A subset of these professors (excuse the term “subset”), when I knew them as a student, never even had a course syllabus. It was great–we read, discussed, wrote essays, thought, debated, learned, and the rubric was something only to be associated with that plastic toy cube that would twist your mind and patience into a Gordian knot.

When I asked my former professors in colorful language about the sudden change on their course guide, I was told, “Oh, that’s for SACS.” Later yet, I discovered that my institution had also had rubrics and learning outcomes, but somehow both the department chair and the accreditation evaluators had left me alone when I was a junior faculty member. They came and went, it is tempting to reference, “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo,” while my students and I were working on learning to write essays, none the wiser of this rubric movement that was so important and occurring around us.

I can only imagine, and I must laugh, a wonderful art professor now retired from the college, grading a work of art, be it ceramics or painting, his two strengths, using a rubric. I am of course not denying that some of the elements contained in a rubric are “built-in” in teachers, but the time it would take for some of us to complete the rubric, the wasted time that could be spent communicating with the individual student about art or English and the student’s, if we must, “learning experience.” A student will learn so much more from a professor telling a joke about perspective and then returning with the student to look at the railroad and telephone poles the student has sketched in pencil than if the professor marked some number in some section of the rubric. Demonstrating to a student how comma splices, even commas, and breathing go together and sometimes don’t, will initiate a constructive (reconstructive if you will) dialogue that will have the student write sentences that are not fused. What good does it do to engage in some metrical (not related to poetry) exercise to satisfy an administrator’s or accreditation agency’s idea of documenting learning?

To return to return to T.S. Eliot and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” again, with apologies for appropriating his words so badly, “Let us go then you and I,” into a classroom where no rubrics are.

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