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The Rubric

By August 14, 2013 3 Comments

Jennifer L. Holberg will be away from the blog for several weeks. Her replacement is T. Jefferson Underhill. Underhill, thinking about a career change, is a Professor of Humanities.

As usual, I am late to the party. I discover that the world of higher learning has gone over to the rubric. We have long offered rubrics of sorts for student evaluations, and done our darnedest to convince one another that a 3.5 means more than a 3.3 in some substantial way legitimately related to salaries and promotions and the like.

But now we have gone to rubrics across the board: we use rubrics to assess student essays and examinations, judge the worth of a colleague’s sabbatical proposal, observe one-another’s classes, evaluate institutional effectiveness, and summarize the given worth of individual programs within the university curriculum. On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being really bad news, I rate this trend a 1.

I realize mine is a voice crying in the wilderness of the assessment culture, but I object to the assumption that institutions of higher education can eliminate the subjective. I object to the dehumanization implicit in the proposition that important matters can be measured in pure and unassailable metrics. I object to the retreat into the “easy” approach to the substantial challenge of evaluation. Much of what can be measured isn’t worth the formulaic trouble, and much of what really matters cannot be quantitatively measured.

So my student hands me a research paper on the tangling conundrum of poverty in America. I can slap the rubric form on top of the stapled pages and declare that this student should get 18 points of a possible 20 on the “quality of research sources.” I can award 12 points for use of statistics and another 12 for meeting the requirements of length and deadlines. Of course, there’s another handful for matters of punctuation, grammar, spelling, and mechanics, and the points to be given for that elusive category we label “integrity.” The student thus has an incontestable justification for the grade. And it can all be done quickly. So what have we accomplished?

Speed and the need for rankings have sacrificed the real stuff of education: the conversation about content. Abandoning the stuff of enlightenment, a too lofty goal and who knows anyway, we have opted for the mechanical over the humane.

Wondering if there is any alternative to this trending wind, I pondered whether or not any alternative exists. I thought about the questions I ask myself after the day of the final exam. How do I parcel out those grades in a way that is both objective and subjective? So, an engagement rubric, if you will:

1. How many perceptive questions based on thoughtful reading do I remember coming from this student?

2. How many times did this student interrupt the flow of a class by arriving late, leaving early, toying with a mobile device, falling asleep, visiting inappropriately with a neighbor, and the like?

3. How many times do I recall this student coming to class clearly unprepared? If this student missed classes because of athletic events or other unusual circumstances, what indications do I remember that the student was committed to making up the missed work?

4. Do I remember I chatting with this student in the gym, in my office, in the cafeteria, or on the quad? Did these informal conversations ever verge into course material?

5. What did this student’s choice of seat, facial expression, and body language communicate about his/her general attitude toward this class and toward learning in general?

6. What do I remember about this student’s written assignments, quizzes, and exams, and what does this information add to my sense of the student’s investment?

7. What is my general impression of the progress (change) that occurred in this student’s attitude and engagement over the course of the semester?

8. Did any other member of the university community mention something to me about this student’s reference to our class material or experience?

9. How many visits do I recall from this student where the subject was not the grade?

10. On a scale of 1-10, how would I rank this student’s attitude (not aptitude), his/her “Curiosity Quotient”

I was hoping that “rubric” was related to the word “rue.” I thought that would provide nice irony. It turns out that the word derives from the Latin for “red,” as in the red ink annotations in medieval documents or the red ink notes scribbled in the margins by old-time professors. The attempt to transform these invitations to conversation into formulaic judgments is part and parcel of the business model that would make a factory of the college.

As with many of the wondrous innovations besetting higher education today, considerable push back has ensued. Credible voices have cried out warnings and cautions only to be silenced by the corporate entities that produce the rubrics and the programs surrounding them, marketeers and accrediting agencies, and delighted prognosticators of the demise of traditional approaches to classroom learning. As usual, the victims of this innovation will be the student whose genuine voice and possibility is lost in a cacophony of numbers.

Rereading the Sermon on the Mount this morning, I gave it a 10 for organization. I had to go lower, however, on the matter of clarity. How much salt would it take to salt the entire world? And I feel sure there were some bored folks in the back consulting their watches and fooling with their iPhones. Christ himself accused them of hearing without listening.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.


  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Dear TJ, Please keep crying in the wilderness. Some of us are huddled there with you, afraid but determined. Love, Deb.

  • Paul Janssen says:

    You didn't, perchance, happen to read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" and its extended discussion of "quality" somewhere along the way? It was an element in the Philosophy 101 canon some years back (late 70's, early 80's), and skirts on some of the issues you raise here — particularly the indefinability, or at the very least the unquantifiability, of quality. Speculation: might it be possible that, once 'information' is defined digitally, hence essentially in a binary fashion, are not rubrics like this inevitable? Which raises the philosophical question regarding whether technologies themselves (and not just their uses) have inherent moral qualities; that they are not simply tools for accomplishing discrete tasks, but that that by their very nature they have "extensions" that accrue to their use. (A hammer, for example, is by its nature a pounding instrument and opens up a certain kind of possibility to the human condition; it may accomplish the same end as a flat rock, but as a product of human manufacture, and as a tool that enables work more quickly, it will by its very use change the life — and hence the moral choices — of the user. Thus it is not a neutral "equivalent" to that rock, because both its existence and use extend in different directions) To bring it back — digitizing information and treating people as information will devolve into "rubrical thinking" and hence non-ambiguous evaluation of the human animal. Making that human — those students, that employee — simply an accomplisher of tasks, and not a moral agent. And we end up with the moral logic that qualifies an Anthony Wiener to run for mayor (with the argument — 'He can do the job; who cares about his character?'). Too long of a ramble. Sorry.

  • Lee Delp says:

    I served on a private secondary school board for 15 years. We, The Board, experienced parent disagreements on grades given their student!
    Why not simply use pass/fail? The reason is that our culture, or maybe our nature, demands that we rank people and if we aren't the "best" then the rules need to be changed so that somehow we are.
    It seems to me the disciples had the same problem.

    By the way Jennifer, I sure hope you don't rank the quality of this post!

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