Rue the Rubric

The rubric is a popular notion in academia.  If a professor assigns a paper, students often expect to see a detailed list of specific components the paper is to contain and their corresponding points.  The assumption is that the student will strive to fulfill every point on the list and that the professor will assign the appropriate number of points, based on the student’s performance.

Although a seemingly logical approach to getting students to focus their writing and get better grades, rubrics are detrimental to education.  First, they stifle creativity by forcing students conform to a professor’s preconceived notion about a writing assignment.  Some students parrot a professor’s lectures or assigned readings when they write a paper, but the more venturesome students may see beyond the professor’s interpretation of the subject matter or challenge traditional thinking.  Second, rubrics are not grounded in reality.  In the workplace, a manager or client may require a report, proposal, or analysis, but never will they provide an outline of what they are expecting to see.  Were that the case, they might as well do the thinking and writing themselves.  If professors are to prepare students for the workplace, they cannot coddle their students, and students need to challenge themselves to produce written materials of the highest caliber.

In the absence of a rubric, what is a student to do?  The answer is quite simple.  The first step is to analyze the assignment to determine specifically what the requirements are.  If something is unclear, ask the professor for more information.  Should the assignment be an actual question, make sure to answer it and not something else.  Two-part questions require two-part answers, and the student will have to decide which percentage of the paper he or she will devote to each part of the combined question.

Any writing assignment, regardless of the length, implies some basic components.  First, there must be an introduction that includes a succinct and preferably unique thesis and a minimum amount of background information for the reader to comprehend what is to follow.  Second, the body of the paper presents the evidence and analysis that support the thesis.  Finally, the conclusion summarizes the thought process that the writer applied in his or her defense of the thesis.

Written communication requires clear wording.  Writers always must apply the highest standard of grammar and style to ensure that readers understand precisely what the author wishes to convey.  Speculating about the author’s meaning and rereading passages to fathom the author’s intent are signs that a writer is an ineffective communicator.  Writing in an engaging style does not require an author to adopt the approach of sensationalist journalism.  Instead, it involves discriminating content, active (as opposed to passive) voice, and varied sentence length and structure.

Writers also must pay attention to format, which involves paper margins, indentation, pagination, and font.  Citations must be in the proper style and reflect the standard usage of abbreviations and punctuation.  Citations are shortened descriptions for finding sources, a process which is easier when the literary traveler realizes that each map employs the same scale and symbols.

One may contend that this brief essay is, in itself, a rubric.  That may be true, even though it lacks the traditional weights and specifics that appear on most rubrics.  It is more appropriately a simple guide that one can apply to any written task: an essay, a research paper, a response paper, or a report.  Following it will enable an individual to constantly improve his or her writing and to enhance his or her ability to engage and convince their readers.

Rubrics are shortcuts that focus a person’s efforts to complete a basic writing task, but because they attempt to force students to conform to a specific pattern, they have the potential of turning the written product into a convoluted piece of prose that exhibits the sort of shoddy workmanship, quick fixes, and flimsy construction of a complicated contraption that would make Rub Goldberg proud.

REV. 30. XII. 2017