6.4.12

ORDINARY AND PROPER.

With Passover and Easter according to the Gregorian calendar taking place, let's consider rubrics.
Among the ancients, according to Columella, Vitruvius, and Pliny, the word rubrica, rubric, signified the red earth used by carpenters to mark on wood the line to follow in cutting it; according to Juvenal the same name was applied to the red titles under which the jurisconsults arranged the announcements of laws. Soon the red colour, at first used exclusively for writing the titles, passed to the indications or remarks made on a given text. This custom was adopted in liturgical collections to distinguish from the formulæ of the prayers the instructions and indications which should regulate their recitation, so that the word rubric has become the consecrated term for the rules concerning Divine service or the administration of the sacraments.
If you're attending an Easter mass, these program notes explain what you're seeing, and they distinguish the ordinary from the proper.
The Mass can be divided into two categories: the "ordinary," or unchanging part, and the "propers," which change from week to week. The traditional Roman rite differs from the Novus Ordo in both respects.
When the College of Deaducation takes over for the College of Cardinals, however, that red earth takes on a new significance.  It is the faddish term for the rules concerning the administration of the grades, albeit the red marks ought not be applied to a given test, lest the novices and postulants suffer a loss of self-esteem.

Cold Spring Shops has long been skeptical of this fad (and somewhat amused at this appropriation of a liturgical term).  Now comes Highered Intelligence, with theses to be nailed to the cathedral door.
A teacher who uses an undisclosed rubric that the students never see is still "being fair" in the sense that all papers are being treated equally and according to a uniform standard. People who argue that grading of papers is arbitrary have never graded any significant number of papers; grading is very rarely arbitrary. It might be mysterious to students who haven't been taught about quality, and there may be elements of subjectivity to it, but it's not arbitrary.

What I suspect is that rubrics are really used as a way to avoid conflict over grades (both with parents and students), to give teachers something to point to and say "Bobby didn't set forth a clear and interesting thesis, and it's obvious that he was on notice that this was required because it's right here in the rubric." Never mind that the reason that Bobby didn't set forth a clear and interesting thesis is that he doesn't actually know how to. That you, the teacher, failed to teach the principle is irrelevant; you put it in the rubric, so the student is responsible!

That gets the moral principle backwards, though. The student is responsible not because it's in the rubric, but because you taught him how to write a paragraph with a clear and effective topic. (Again, unless you're using the rubric as a textbook, a task for which it seems ill-suited.)

What's more, I think that rubrics pose a danger: students can come to see the writing of a paper as a sort of checklist of things to accomplish, rather than an organic process that involves first the birth and development of ideas, and then the translation of those ideas into writing, and finally the hard work of editing. The rubric expressly sets forth the paper as a grade to be gotten, and focuses student attention even more on the grade than it is already, rather than trying to shift some of that (entirely natural) grade-focus onto the act, the process, of writing itself.
Ite, missa est.

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