At times I am gripped by an absurd desire: that the sentence I am about to write be the one the woman is reading at that some moment. The idea mesmerizes me so much that I convince myself it is true: I write the sentence hastily, get up, go to the window, train my spyglass to check the effect of my sentence in her gaze, in the curl of her lips, in the cigarette she lights, in the shifts of her body in the deck chair, in her legs, which she crosses or extends.
– From the diary of Silas Flannery in Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveler
Last week Meagan, one of my struggling ninth-grade writers, wrote a compelling essay on the subject of personal tragedy. The essay transitioned smoothly among narrative, analytical, and expository modes, and the command of language was strong enough to convey energy and deep thought. I don’t know much about Meagan’s family background, but over the course of the year I have received enough signals to piece together that something in her upbringing has been particularly painful. She alluded to this pain briefly in her essay in an effective and unaffected way, and she was careful not to become explicit about it. That care, in this first salvo fired on behalf of her freedom, only added to her essay’s force. Even in skirting the issue, Meagan had found ways to use language to better understand her experience and to record a kind of desideratum regarding it.
I thought about Meagan’s essay when reading Adrienne Rich’s 1972 essay “Teaching Language in Open Admissions,” which describes her years teaching basic writing to “ghetto students,” inner-city adults whose journey into writing coincided with – or perhaps hastened – their journey into “a frontier of self-determination” of a personal, political, and social nature (18, 24). To Rich, a composition teacher gets across grammar, mechanics, organization, style, and the many other skills traditionally associated with her job. But Rich believes that a composition teacher also aims to “release [her students] into language” – that is, to help her students discover that “they would not be content with a perpetuation of the conditions which have betrayed them.” By way of explanation, she states the inverse by paraphrasing Simone Weil: “those who suffer from injustice most are the least able to articulate their suffering” (26). Meagan, too, is taking small but firm steps in the direction of self-determination, and her paper benefitted from the power of those steps.
Rich understands her primary job, then, as reading her students’ writing. Putting herself in her students’ shoes, she realizes that “in order to write I have to believe that there is someone willing to collaborate subjectively, as opposed to a grading machine out to get me for mistakes in spelling and grammar” (23). This passage’s two key words for me are “collaborate” and “subjectively.” Regarding the former, literary theorist Louise M. Rosenblatt believes that literary critics and many of her fellow theorists have let the reader escape their collective peripheral vision as they’ve focused exclusively on the author and the text. Her own theory, on the other hand, centers “on the reader’s contribution in the two-way, ‘transactional’ relationship with the text” (ix). Her ideas have given me the theoretical bottom for my understanding of the teacher’s most essential role in a writers’ workshop – that of a model reader.
Rosenblatt believes also that the reader, as a collaborator with a writer, must be subjective. The subjectivity comes through an immediate awareness and reporting of his response to the text – the kind of metacognition, then, that we train our students to do in their reader responses:
[A reader or critic] can avoid the dessicating [sic] effect of excessive abstraction by incorporating as much as possible the personal matrix within which the work crystallized. Hence my insistence that much greater concern than is usual should be accorded the “first step,” the registering or savoring of the literary transaction. Whatever the reader may later add to that original creative activity is also rooted in his own responses during the reading event. His primary subject matter is the web of feelings, sensations, images, ideas, that he weaves between himself and the text. (136 – 137)
Of course, Rosenblatt recognizes that critics go further than their initial, subjective impressions, and I think she would agree that composition teachers also must go further: critics and teachers also have a necessarily objective response. She warns, though, against subsuming the subjective response into a fully text-oriented, objective response:
The “close reading” of the New Critics centered on the text. The transactional view also assumes close attention to the pattern of signs. But it assumes an equal closeness of attention to what that particular juxtaposition of signs stirs up within each reader. (137; emphasis original)
Rich quotes Sartre to the same effect: “the literary object has no other substance than the reader’s subjectivity . . . . Thus the writer appeals to the reader’s freedom to collaborate in the production of his work” (23). Sartre and Rosenblatt believe, in other words, that people don’t write to be critiqued. They write to persuade and move the reader, and they write to be understood. Like Sartre’s collaboration model, Rosenblatt’s subjective transactional model, with its consequent avoidance of desiccation and undue abstraction, allows the reader to come out from the shadow of the professional critic. From a less theoretical perspective, it allows the reader as well as the writer to move toward their respective freedoms. Rosenblatt’s model, then, is perfect for a basic composition course and aligns well with Rich’s practice.
My first, subjective response to Meagan’s essay involved wonder and, eventually, tears. Against the backdrop of my reading experience, her essay’s academic context wasn’t irrelevant, but it stood out to me at that moment as tangential, even cold; her writing was her second draft of the culminating essay assigned for a yearlong, inquiry-based-learning project. Early in the academic year, all high school honors students in our district select or create a “big question” and, throughout the year, examine the course’s texts through their chosen question’s lens. From an administrative standpoint, the essay assignment is our district’s answer to a relatively new state requirement: a district school system may allow English honors students to earn a half-point bump of their grade point averages only if the students complete an assignment that demonstrates the honors courses’ rigor relative to the district’s academic English courses. For the final draft, which counts as half the student’s final exam, a student’s essay is graded using a district-wide rubric by an anonymous English teacher who is not permitted to be her own teacher.
In anticipation of the final draft’s requirement, I used the district’s rubric in assessing Meagan’s second draft. Of course, this formal assessment based on the rubric didn’t begin to express my reaction to the paper as a reader. After I had read and graded her essay, I spoke with Meagan about how her paper had interested and moved me, and she took the compliments with genuine excitement. She asked me specific questions about what I had found to be powerful in her writing, and I answered her questions in detail. I had lots of suggestions for revising her essay for its final draft, but I left those in writing on the draft’s electronic version. Despite the suggestions, she had scored well on that second draft under the rubric’s categories. She approached her final draft with a resolve to make it even better than her second draft.
A rubric’s necessarily canned response, as Maja Wilson points out, is the antithesis of Rosenblatt’s engaged reader: “Instead of emerging from what Louise M. Rosenblatt would call the transaction between an individual reader and text, the feedback offered by a rubric made bypassing that interaction all too easy” (63). Wilson finds that most rubrics don’t place value on things that matter in Rosenblatt’s transaction, such as risk-taking and voice. Rewriting rubrics to include better or more subjective values, however, only makes the rubric’s insult to the reader-writer relationship stand out more:
Writing rubrics to include risk-taking or promise didn’t help matters much since not every paper needed to meet all of my values about writing: while Krystal’s writing forged new ground, Felicity was a more traditional thinker and I didn’t think it fitting to hold her writing to the same set of values demonstrated by Krystal’s writing. The standardized criteria didn’t capture the nuances of students’ writing. More importantly, I found that my values shifted as students approached writing in new ways and we talked about their work and purposes. (Id.)
What’s an alternative to rubrics? Something straight out of Rosenblatt is in order, something that involves an awareness of ourselves as model readers collaborating with writers who need them. Wilson suggests that “we make ourselves transparent as we read – that we pay attention to what goes on in our minds and try to put our reactions and questions and wonderings and musings and connections and images into words – that we give students the gift of a human response. We are, after all, their audiences, while a piece of paper is not” (63 – 64). Humanity can replace paper. Conferences and revisions can replace bad marks. And we can still assess for specific, formative matters of grammar, syntax, usage, craft, and the like. Summative work, however, should be read by readers qua readers.
I don’t blame myself or my fellow English teachers for rubrics as long as we have looked into the matter, registered our complaints, and done what we can do to minimize rubrics’ negative influence. It’s hard to blame the teachers; after all, it cannot be said that rubrics are for the convenience of English teachers since they spend far too many hours grading with or without rubrics. Instead, rubrics help districts and states get away with sky-high writer-to-writing instructor ratios and help them also perpetuate the myth that, even in the English classroom, all assessments must be quantifiable to be qualitative. Rubrics also perpetuate the related notion of an objective standard for good writing with its usually unstated warrant that objectivity is preferable to subjectivity. Paulo Freire’s ethical pedagogy, in contrast, was founded on the reality and superiority of subjectivity: “I am not impartial or objective; not a fixed observer of facts and happenings. I never was able to be an adherent of the traits that falsely claim impartiality or objectivity” (Freire 22). Rubrics as a genre make the kind of false claims that Freire eschewed.
If one admits, for the sake of argument, to an objective writing standard, one must also deny any writing a subjective reading. “It’s possible,” Alfie Kohn points out, “to get a bunch of people to agree on what rating to give an assignment as long as they’re willing to accept and apply someone else’s narrow criteria for what merits that rating. Once we check our judgment at the door, we can all learn to give a 4 to exactly the same things” (13). When teachers agree on what a paper must have and look at no other attribute with which it may present, they are refusing to read that paper on its own terms.
Rubrics therefore perpetuate the idea that a text can be read only one way and is, consequently, subject to a single standard. The rubric’s poor example, therefore, helps to keep poor readers reading poorly. How can we encourage students to explore our chosen texts if our exploration of their texts ends in facile objectivity before it even starts? Part of fostering the art of reading, and the art of writing with it, is “rejecting the preoccupation with some illusory unspecifiable absolute or ‘correct’ reading or ideal reader” (Rosenblatt 140), the notion of a false absolute that rubrics tend to perpetuate no matter how subjectively their cells are written.
Despite any rubric’s reassuring, pseudo-mathematical claim to objectivity, teachers often find that even the same paper graded with the same rubric receives two different – sometimes widely different – scores from two different teachers. A few days ago I received Meagan’s final draft back from the committee that had graded it. The teacher assigned to her essay gave it the lowest possible mark. The mark was without explanation – each of us graded all day and didn’t have time to give feedback – but I have no reason to doubt that the grade was the teacher’s honest attempt at applying the rubric to Meagan’s essay.
In a writers’ workshop, a teacher must model not only writing but also, and just as importantly, reading. Deep revision – and therefore good writing – comes only from someone else’s deep reading. Young writers need deep readers. If a teacher can model the deep reading of a student’s writing, she will, in so doing, tend to help the student grow to give the same close attention to the teacher’s selected texts. Though I’ve never heard anyone else express this relationship, a teacher’s transactional and initially subjective reading of student writing is the foundation for teaching students to read like writers.
Calvino, Italo. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. London: Everyman’s Library, 1993. Print.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Trans. Patrick Clarke. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998. Print.
Kohn, Alfie. “The Trouble with Rubrics.” English Journal 95.4 (2006): 12-15. Print.
Rich, Adrienne. “Teaching Language in Open Admissions.” Teaching Developmental Writing: Background Readings. Ed. Susan Naomi Bernstein. Fourth ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. 12-26. Print.
Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1994. Print.
Wilson, Maja. “Why I Won’t Be Using Rubrics to Respond to Students’ Writing.” English Journal 96.4 (2007): 62-66. Print.
 Not my student’s real name.