Subjectivity, Rubrics, and Critical Pedagogy
This post was originally published on the blog of the Office of Digital Learning at Middlebury College.
In "Embracing Subjectivity,"مها بالي (Maha Bali) argues "that subjectivity is the human condition. Everything else that attempts to be objective or neutral is pretense. It is inauthentic. It is not even something I strive towards."
And yet we try very hard to be objective in the way we evaluate student work. Objectivity is equated with fairness, and is a tool for efficiency.
For too long—really, since its inception—instructional design has been built upon silencing. Instructional design generally assumes that all students are duplicates of one another. Or, as Martha Burtis has said, traditional design assumes standardized features, creates standardized courses, with a goal of graduating standardized students.
Despite any stubborn claims to the contrary, instructional design assigns learners to a single seat, a single set of characteristics. One look at the LMS gradebook affirms this: students are rows in a spreadsheet. Even profile images of students are contained in all the same circles, lined up neatly along the side of a discussion forum: a raised hand, a unique identifier, signified. "This is your student," the little picture tells the instructor. And now we know them—the LMS has personalized learning.
This design is for efficiency, a thing that online teachers—especially those who design their own courses—desperately need. Digital interfaces can feel alienating, disconcerting, and inherently chaotic already; but add to that the diversity of student bodies behind the screen (an adjunct at a community college may teach upwards of 200 students per term), and staying on top of lessons and homework and e-mail and discussions feels hopeless at worst, Sisyphean at best.
And yet this striving for efficiency enacts an erasure that is deeply problematic.
Sherri Spelic writes:
Inclusion is a construction project. Inclusion must be engineered. It is unlikely to “happen” on its own. Rather, those who hold the power of invitation must also consciously create the conditions for sincere engagement, where underrepresented voices receive necessary air time, where those contributing the necessary “diversity” are part of the planning process. Otherwise we recreate the very systems of habit we are seeking to avoid: the unintentional silencing of our “included” colleagues.
If we are to approach teaching from a critical pedagogical perspective, we must be conscious of the ways that "best practices" and other normal operations of education and classroom management censure and erase difference. We must also remain aware of the way in which traditional classroom management and instructional strategies have a nearly hegemonic hold on our imaginations. We see certain normalized teaching behaviors as the way learning happens, rather than as practices that were built to suit specific perspectives, institutional objectives, and responses to technology.
The rubric is one such practice that has become so automatic a part of teaching that, while its form is modified and critiqued, its existence rarely is. I have spoken with many teachers who use rubrics because:
- they make grading fair and balanced;
- they make grading easier;
- they give students clear information about what the instructor expects;
- they eliminate mystery, arbitrariness, and bias.
Teachers and students both advocate for rubrics. If they are not a loved part of teaching and learning, they are an expected part. But let's look quickly at some of the reasons why:
Rubrics Make Grading Fair and Balanced
Rubrics may level the grading playing field, it's true. All students are asked to walk through the same doorway to pass an assignment. However, that doorway—its height, width, shape, and the material from which it is made—was determined by the builder. مها بالي reminds us that, "Freire points out that every content choice we make needs to be questioned in terms of 'who chooses the content…in favor of whom, against whom, in favor of what, against what.'" In other words, we need to inspect our own subjectivity—our own privilege to be arbitrary—when it comes to building rubrics. Can we create a rubric that transcends our subjective perspective on the material or work at hand? Can we create a rubric through which anyone—no matter their height, width, or shape—may pass?
Recently, collaborative rubrics are becoming a practice. Here, teachers and students sit down and design a rubric for an assignment together. This feels immediately more egalitarian. However, this practice is nonetheless founded on the assumption that 1. rubrics are necessary; 2. a rubric can be created which will encompass and account for the diversity of experience of all the students involved.
Rubrics Make Grading Easier
No objection here. Yes, rubrics make grading easier. And if easy grading is a top concern for our teaching practice, maybe rubrics are the best solution. Unless they're not.
Rubrics (like grading and assessment) center authority on the teacher. Instead of the teacher filling the role of guide or counsel or collaborator, the rubric asks the teacher to be a judge. (Collaborative rubrics are no different, especially when students are asked by the teacher to collaborate with them on building one.) What if the problem to be solved is not whether grading should be easier, but whether grading should take the same form it always has?
Self-assessment and reflection, framed by suggestions for what about their work to inspect, can offer students a far more productive kind of feedback than the quantifiable feedback of a rubric. And they also make grading easier.
Rubrics Give Clear Information about What the Instructor Expects
Again, no objection here. A well-written rubric will offer learners a framework within which to fit their work. However, even a warm, fuzzy, flexible rubric centers power and control on the instructor. Freire warned against the "banking model" of education; and in this case, the rubric becomes a pedagogical artifact that doesn't just constrain and remove agency from the learner, it also demands that the instructor teach to its matrix. Build a rubric, build the expectations for learners in your classroom, and you also build your own practice.
The rubric doesn't free anyone.
Rubrics Eliminate Mystery, Arbitrariness, and Bias
This is simply not true. No written work is without its nuance, complication, and mystery. Even the best technical manuals still leave us scratching our heads or calling the help desk. Rubrics raise questions; it is impossible to cover all the bases precisely because no two students are the same. That is the first and final failing of a rubric: no two students are the same, no two writing, thinking, or critical processes are the same; and yet the rubric requires that the product of these differences fall within a margin of homogeneity.
As regards arbitrariness and bias, if a human builds a rubric, it is arbitrary and biased.
Critical Digital Pedagogy is a decolonizing effort. bell hooks quotes Samia Nehrez's statement about decolonization at the opening of Black Looks: Race and Representation:
Decolonization … continues to be an act of confrontation with a hegemonic system of thought; it is hence a process of considerable historical and cultural liberation. As such, decolonization becomes the contestation of all dominant forms and structures, whether they be linguistic, discursive, or ideological. Moreover, decolonization comes to be understood as an act of exorcism for both the colonized and the colonizer.
For Critical Pedagogy, and Critical Digital Pedagogy, to work, we have to recognize the ways in which educational theory, especially that which establishes a hierarchy of power and knowledge, is oppressive for both teacher and student. To do this work, we have to be willing to inspect our assumptions about teaching and learning... which means leaving no stone unturned.
With regards to our immediate work, then, building assignments and such (but also building syllabi, curricula, assessments), we need to develop for ourselves a starting place. Perhaps in an unanticipated second-order move, Freire, who advocated for a problem-posing educational model, has posed a problem. A Critical Digital Pedagogy cannot profess best practices, cannot provide one-size-fits-all rubrics for its implementation, because it is itself a problem that's been posed.
How do we confront the classrooms we learned in, our own expectations for education, learners' acquiescence to (and seeming satisfaction with) instructor power, and re-model an education that enlists agency, decolonizes instructional practices, and also somehow meets the needs of the institution?