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Crossing the Rubricon

Posted: 2008-04-22

Using a rubric, the author provides a final assessment report of Emily Dickinson.

from Chronicle of Higher Education, April 25, 2008

Conclusion: "It all comes down to just two categories: great and sh____." It's actually a very handy rubric.

Ohanian Comment: Actually, the author's rubric is too easy on Emily. Imagine if Emily were a Chicago public school student. THEN, her teacher could draw on the Rubric Bank and might well use the following:

Holistic Scale
6 Exceptional achievement/Exceptional writer
Unified, focused compositions.
Topic or ideas consistently clear, no digressions.
Typically clear beginnings, middles, and ends.
Transitions typically smooth and logical.
Details varied and vivid.
Details consistently support logic or idea.
Points are often extensively elaborated (8-10 clauses).
Mechanical errors are minor and infrequent.

5 Commendable Achievement/Commendable Writer
Generally well organized according to definite plans.
Topics or ideas generally clear.
Typically clear beginnings and ends.
Most transitions smooth and logical.
Details generally varied and vivid; metaphors may sometimes be appropriate.
Most details consistent with overall plans.
In each composition, at least one point is fully elaborated (6-9 clauses.)
Mechanical errors do not confuse reader, but in each composition
there may be several minor errors or one or tow [sic] major errors.

4 Adequate Achievement/Competent writer
Controlling topics, ideas, or overall plans always present but do not always focus the writing.
Endings may sometimes be awkward or abrupt.
Transitions are typically logical but may on occasion lack depth and/or direct relevance.

3 Some evidence of achievement/Developing Writer
Topics or overall plans may not be clearly present.
Possible digressions or elaborations confusing to reader.
Some transitions.
Beginnings and endings may be awkward or abrupt. Key elements may be unevenly developed or omitted. Details used inconsistently.
Restricted elaboration of one main point (2-4 clauses).
Mechanical errors, some minor, some major, which may on occasion confuse reader.

2 Limited evidence of achievement/Emerging writer
Topics, ideas, or plans may often not be clear. Use of supporting details or events may not be logical.
May be digressions or overelaborations that significantly interfere with reader understanding.
Typically little sense of beginnings or endings.
Few transitions.
Minimal use of supportive detail; detail may be irrelevant or confusing.
May mechanical errors that interfere with understanding.

1 Minimal evidence of achievement/ Insufficient writer
Topic may be clear but no overall organizational plans.
Many digressions or overelaborations or little development altogether.
Little sense of beginnings or endings.
May mechanical errors interfere with understanding.
Incomplete sentences.

by Carolyn Foster Segal

In the real world, there are three grades for writing: A ("We love your work! We want to publish your story/poem/article!"), A- ("We like this very much. It just needs a bit of editing. â¦), and F ("The tremendous volume of work that we received precludes a personal response.").

As every hopeful contributor knows, there are variations within even this evaluative system. The "bit of editing" may be a matter of replacing a semicolon with a comma, or it may turn into a major overhaul, the writerly equivalent of a root canal without the anesthesia. And of course, occasionally and happily, one editor's F may be another's A.

In academe, however, there are many more grades. Many, many more grades. And for every assignment, there must be a rubric.

For those (few) readers who may have somehow happily escaped any familiarity with this term, a rubric is an itemized "assessment tool" designed to measure a student's prowess in completing particular academic tasks. Viewed from a distance, the physical rubric is aesthetically pleasing: all those symmetrical little boxes filled in with tidy parallel phrases. Like an object of fine art, the rubric embodies the themes of new understanding, joy, and tragedy.

Clearly, though, this is not an art reserved for the elite. A 10-second online survey via Google reveals that there are hundreds of thousands of rubrics to be found. In the general category of writing alone, there are more than 200,000 entries available, although that impressive number pales in comparison to the numbers for speech (284,000) and math (546,000). When the object of our assessment turns to creative writing, however, the number of entries drops off precipitously: At last check, there were only 137,000.

I learned these alarming facts recently, when I found myself dangling above the slippery slope of assessment with a deadline to meet. My mission was to create a rubric for the creative-writing portion of our department's newest "assessment tool": the senior portfolio.

I've worked with and on a number of rubrics over the years. It quickly became apparent, however, that merely tweaking earlier rubrics would not suffice. I needed something comprehensive, something that would capture the ineffable essence of the products of four years of work, something that would break a holistic product down into many pieces whose sum would always be greater than its parts.

By the end of the first day, I had come up with one entry for one box under "A," and it wasn't even original: "If I feel as though the top of my head has been taken off, then I know that is poetry." What, I wondered, would Emily Dickinson do? Come to think of it, perhaps that was why she had so little success in publishing during her lifetime. If she had had my rubric for, say, WRI 100, she would have realized that she depended far too heavily on the dash.

On the second day, I wrote a poem.

On the third day, still desperately seeking inspiration, I turned to the Internet, more than willing to give the full credit that he or she so richly deserved to anyone who had crafted a document that my administrators would accept. There was even a final fallback: a site that offered the promise of a "rubric generator." I hoped I wouldn't have to go there.

I didn't. I found an excellent resource in the work of Dawn Formo, chair of literature and writing at California State University at San Marcos, and Brandon Cesmat, a lecturer in the department and a poet who instructs not only undergraduates but also teachers of poetry. Their 1999 document was among the earliest creative-writing rubrics, and, as many others have, I found it inspiring. It was clear, succinct, and graceful. If I simply added another 500 or so words, it would be perfect. I asked for their permission to use their rubric as a working base, promising them acknowledgment. I would have offered my firstborn child in exchange, but she, a high-school English teacher, was secluded somewhere, grading papers according to the five rubrics that she uses on a regular, rotating basis.

While waiting to hear from Professors Formo and Cesmat, I pondered the comparatively low number of rubrics for creative writing. The reason for that may lie in the fact that on the high-school level, creative writing is still primarily an elective (at those schools where it hasn't gone the way of art appreciation and musical instruction). The relative paucity of evaluative grids may also be related to the very topic: creative-writing rubric. In other words â some readers have probably been waiting several paragraphs for this pronouncement â don't box us in. Could low numbers â among what is, after all, a pretty competitive bunch â have to do with resistance?

It isn't mere posturing. The fact is that in creative-writing workshops, especially for beginners, I write copious notes on students' papers: from "great image" to "check punctuation" to "check Donne/Plath/so-and-so's blog â does this line seem too familiar?" But those notes are afterthoughts â reflections in tranquillity â following that first reading or hearing when, sometimes even in the beginners' class, I feel as though the top of my head has been taken off.

With just hours to go before the deadline, I yearned for the graceful, salient words of my husband's freshman-writing teacher, back in simpler, happier times: "It all comes down to just two categories: great and sh____." It's actually a very handy rubric.

But that was clearly another academic country, and my task was to cease to resist.

The fate of the program depended, after all, on my laying out, once and for all, the finer distinctions of those two categories. I was not alone; over the course of four hours, the number of Google entries under "creative-writing rubrics" increased by 300, still lower than that for argumentation but a respectable number and evidence of the enforced march of educational progress.

It was heartening to think that while the number of writing assignments and writing courses â along with the general ability of students to write â has diminished (or, in dizzying rubric-ese, "has continued to fail to improve"), so many people were in fact busy writing â generating! â rubrics.

And so I began to type, and I completed my rubric, and it was good. After all, I'm a creative writer.

So are my students. By the time writing minors and concentrators within the English program present their portfolios, a detailed rubric is beside the point. They don't need a series of checks or a multicolored matrix. They've already revised, rewritten, re-revised, and honed the pieces in that folder, not just for senior seminar but for graduate-school applications, editors' queries, and that voice within that says, Keep working. The force that drives them doesn't exist in any document except the portfolio itself. I couldn't fit it into a rubric box, but if I had to name the category, I'd call it something like Dylan Thomas's "force that through the green fuse drives the flower."


Content: Clearly shows originality, though subject matter is sometimes questionable.
Use of language

Use of Language: Again, clearly shows an original cast of mind, but student is advised to check some of those mixed metaphors. In several instances, images seemed confused/confusing. Remember to keep your senses straight!

Awareness of audience: Exactly whom are you addressing in poem Nos. 7, 19, 64, 115, 338, 772, 905-17, and 1342?

Completion of task: You've produced a large quantity of pages, but a number of these "poems" seem almost too concise.

Tone: Are these supposed to be funny?

Punctuation, grammar, format: Writing fails to follow formal conventions, but somehow works.

Carolyn Foster Segal is an associate professor of English at Cedar Crest College.

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