A3Writer: Rubrics and Organ Failure
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Monday, May 6, 2013

Rubrics and Organ Failure


            I talked about my House, M.D. marathon and diagnosing essays. All the parts connect, so a true diagnosis for a single cause is difficult. Rubrics present themselves as a way to accurately and speedily diagnose an essay, allowing the instructor to tick off gradations in select categories while seeming to make in-depth comments regarding the essay. The comments are supposed to allow a student to realize the specific errors, then go back and correct the incorrect writing habits, which produced the errors in the first place.
            I’ve never come across a rubric that could actually do this. The seemingly in-depth comments are too vague and generalized to offer specific guidance. This is the reality of rubrics as language applicable to a wide variety of situations and writing must be employed. Rubrics, by their very nature, must be generalized. The nature of a rubric itself also is to simply speed up the grading of essays, making them into the equivalent of an optical mark reader such as the sciences and mathematics enjoy.
            To me a rubric is the equivalent of saying “take it easy for a few days, don’t hurt yourself, and you’ll be fine,” all the while the patient is suffering from massive organ failure, but the doctor cannot be bothered to spend in-depth time truly diagnosing and offer specific advice to the patient.
Why is it acceptable to tick off marks on a rubric, slide some numbers around, and then come up with a grade? The advice isn’t really valid or even prescriptive. The generalized meanings of the comments don’t offer anything except adjectival differences between “employs an adequately-constructed argument” and “employs a well-constructed argument.” What’s the difference? What is the difference between an adequate argument and a poor one, or an insufficient one?
Rather than spend time and energy coming up with vague descriptors for a rubric, I would prefer to tailor my comments specifically to the writer and the writing, offering concrete examples using their writing on what they could do or what else they should consider. This makes my grading time much longer, but it usually means, for the students who want to improve, that they won’t undergo massive organ failure and flatline at the end of the semester.

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