Really Writing Writing Rubrics

I’m writing this post from the Landmark Ballroom, Salon 4, in the Renaissance Hotel in St. Louis, MO. Even more specifically, I just left a session at the Conference on College Composition and Communication titled, “Teaching Reading and Writing in New Media,” featuring presentations by Barclay Barrios, Richard E. Miller, and Cynthia Selfe. Their talks were titled: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Digital Literacy…” (Barrios), “Learning by Doing: A Year of Thinking in Public” (Miller), and “A More Capacious Conception: Long-Form Scholarship in Digital Environments” (Selfe). For me, what resonated across the presentations was the idea that the way that writing is composed and presented (whether to the public, to a select group of friends, or to instructors/colleagues) is changing–gravitating rapidly towards what Miller refers to as an “eternal future on screen.”

For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to find the language to write about something that happened in my Composition 2 class, a class that revolves around the theme, “Pay Attention: Or, What is our Brain on the Internet?” Thus far, we’ve spent the semester working through texts that focus on our relationship with the Internet—how the web changes the way we interact with the basic tenets of a traditional composition classroom—writing and reading and thinking. We began by reading Nicholas Carr, who clearly states, “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving steam of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”)

I’m not sure that I agree with Carr’s point, yet when faced with my first batch of papers to grade, I literally didn’t know what to do. After weeks of reading and writing together, and after weeks of conversation and thinking together, I was at a total loss. I had no idea what to do with this stack of twenty-eight, typed and printed (12pt. font/double-spaced), three to five page papers. I find myself thinking about how, in this class, we use technology, we blog, but we also write papers and every single student must purchase the required books for the class—the print books—no e-readers, we hold the books in our hands, the pages are turned and folded, and we explore a world where those things might no longer exist. It feels crucial to me that I do not fully abandon the formal typed paper, but what do I do with them? And, how do I approach reading this form of writing, when I am so accustomed to the experience of reading the student blogs—the low stakes posts they make on a regular basis. Has the internet done something to my assessing brain? Why now?

A few thoughts (in which I tip my hat to Cathy Davidson, whose Now You See It is required reading in this course, and whose NY Times response helped me think through the issue at hand:

  •  One of my priorities when creating essay assignments is that they should be either student-generated, or at least should propose a question that is open enough so that no two papers will deal with the same idea or argument.
  • If my modus operandi behind assignment design is to privilege student input and curiosities, why not do the same with my assessment process?
  • Baruch students almost always ask for a rubric so they can see “how” they are being evaluated–they seem accustomed to rubric-based grading, and might even “like” it.

After thinking through these things, I decided to see what would happen if I asked my students to design their own rubric, to give them a chance to really think through how they are graded and how they wish they were graded.

The above image is what the class decided to do after being asked to write about their experiences being graded on their writing. As a class, they decided to generated a list of terms that felt important and put it all up on the board. I tried to relinquish my authority to the class–and basically kept silent as they generated this list. I want to point to a few terms that I was interested in and surprised by–effort, creativity, compelling, arouse curiosity.

The class then decided to take their “key terms” and organize them by category–they then turned these categories into the prose that filled the boxes of the rubric.

Again, I was surprised and fascinated by the decisions the class made–particularly in the category of “writing style” and its link to “organization.”I felt as though the rubric the class wanted and created was far better than any rubric I’ve used in the past.

But, in the piece of process writing we did after creating the rubric, a number of students expressed frustration with the task–they wanted the teacher to tell them what to do, despite the fact that those who voiced displeasure were the same students who demanded that terms like “creativity” be included.

I’m still not totally sure what to make of this experience. But, I do wonder if the same issues raised in the panel discussion I attended (online writing, the “end of privacy” when all writing is public) might have something to do with the way the class handled the task at hand. Do students now value their own ability to create more than ever? Are students learning to take responsibility for what they write and  how they write it (since they are essentially producing more language than ever)? What does this mean for the world of assessment and high stakes assignments? And, what do we do as writing teachers?



  1. Sarah Jacobs says:
  2. Sarah Jacobs says:

    Oh, right, if you weren’t out of the country–forgot.

    Anyhow, I like your point about how students want teachers to tell them what to do. It’s kind of sad that so much of schooling is about relinquishing authority. :[

  3. Ben Spatz says:

    It seems to me that in considering the different possible formats of writing assignments, we should think not just about the process of writing but also about the writer’s expectations when it comes to readership. I mean: The difference between a term paper and a series of blog entries is not just a matter of writing style, organization, and the work students have to do in order to complete the assignment. Perhaps even more important are the differences in how students expect their writing to be read.

    Blog entries, in theory, are part of a horizontal dialogue between students, with the teacher as only one of the readers. This obviously has many advantages. A paper, on the other hand, is intended for reading by the professor, who is not just a single individual rather than a community but who is also older, an expert in the field, etc. As a student, I was glad to have this opportunity to communicate directly with my teachers and get their specific feedback, rather than having it diluted in the context of a mini-blogosphere. On some level, the class blog has the same structure as in-class discussion, whereas the term paper has a radically different one-on-one structure that I think is also valuable. And I think my sense was that the teachers would respond more thoroughly to my paper, and take their responsibilities as readers more seriously, because they were the only ones reading it.

    I thought of this also yesterday, while attending Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s talk, which touched upon the emerging practice of putting papers and manuscripts online for open review, either before “real” publication or as a new form of publication in itself. What makes me nervous about this—although I do think it’s a good idea—is not so much the loss of authorship but the potential effects on readership. Do people tend to read differently when they know that they are part of a large group of readers? For example, the current system of peer review creates two or three readers who know that their responses to a manuscript will carry a lot of weight. If we replace this with a system in which many voices comment on a paper, do we also lose something in terms of encouraging a particular kind of reading?

    Just some questions.

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