Ken Lindblom’s “Is Interesting to Read” and the Rubric Dilemma Redux

At the 2003 National Council of Teachers of English annual conference in San Francisco, I met Ken Lindblom, then a column editor for English Journal and later an outstanding editor for the same.

Ken is among an important nucleus of NCTE colleagues and friends who have enriched my professional life in ways I can never repay; I have served as a column editor for EJ under two different tenures of editors and as the Council Historian just after the centennial along with being awarded the 2013 George Orwell Award—just to name some of the personal accomplishments that I cherish as examples of the collegiality and kindness found in the NCTE community of teachers and scholars.

So Ken’s The Rubric Criterion That Changed Everything has put me in a predicament since I value Ken as one of my go-to thinkers on teaching writing but I also have a long and firm stance against grades, tests, and rubrics (see my chapter on de-grading writing instruction).

The central point addressed by Ken captures exactly why his post inspires me and gives me pause:

Once I was reading a stack of papers, and I remember thinking, “Man, I wish these papers were more interesting!” Then it hit me: Students will work on what’s listed on a rubric. In my next paper assignment, I added this to the rubric: “Is Interesting to Read.”

Rubrics—as Maja Wilson and Alfie Kohn deconstruct—often become the chore to fulfill when students write, and while they can provide structure and clarity in grading for both students and teachers, rubrics can often be nightmares for those same teachers when student writing flounders but fulfills the rubric or soars in ways that the rubric never addresses.

Instead of rubrics, then, I offer students guiding questions, and do agree that students need structure (see these concepts and questions [1] grounded in developing genre awareness).

Regardless of using rubrics or guiding question, I want to stress that raising student awareness of being interesting is both powerful and essential. That awareness, however, must be fostered by examining with students the many ways in which writers accomplish being interesting.

First, we must highlight that embedded in “Is Interesting to Read” is a focus on audience. In my first-year writing seminars, I stress that I want students to stop writing for me, and to develop essays with clear and real audiences in mind. This is part of my on-going goal of encouraging students to stop thinking as students and to start thinking as writers.

Some of the concrete strategies that we focus on that contribute to being interesting as a writer include the following:

  • Creating openings, instead of writing mechanistic introductions, that are compelling first and then focus the reader on the central purpose of the essay. We do several reading like a writer activities (here and here) throughout the semester, but focus on openings in the first few weeks.
  • Expanding tone beyond the faux academic pose of objectivity, and acknowledging the power of humor. Notably in our reading of Kingsolver, for example, students notice that essays are often humorous (especially in the opening), and thus, more interesting.
  • Emphasizing the power of narrative (and description) as a mode that creates interest. Drawing on Style, we think about nonfiction essays in terms of fiction—character, plot, and setting. Inherent in narrative, as well, is the importance of details (see Flannery O’Connor).
  • Allowing drafting to be an act of discovery, brainstorming. Another key aspect of resisting the traditional introduction/thesis approach is helping students recognize that the act of drafting often leads writers to their purpose; in other words, drafting as discovery opens the door to finding the interesting instead of trying to fulfill the obligation of a predetermined thesis.
  • Reimagining the essay form not as an introduction/thesis, body, and conclusion but as a cohesive form better served by framing—developing a few opening and closing paragraphs that share a story, detail, or compelling element that both engages and compels the reader (thus, interesting).

I remain less optimistic than Ken that rubrics can serve our goal to foster students as writers who are aware of their audience and committed to being interesting. I do believe, however, seeking ways to encourage specific strategies for being interesting as a writer is achievable, but it is also essential, as Ken argues, not simply something extra.

[1] Prompt Analysis for Genre Awareness*

To the students: As you prepare to write, revise, and edit, consider these questions, particularly if you are given a writing task in your academic classroom:

[Note: If you cannot answer these questions from the task you have been given, how do you find out the answers?]

  1. GENRE NAME: What is this text called (its genre name)? What do you already think you know about what a text from this genre looks and ‘sounds’ like? For example, how should the text be organized? What kind of language do you need to use?
  1. PURPOSE: What are you supposed to DO as a writer when completing this task? Are you asked to make an argument? To inform? To describe or list?
  1. CONTEXT: If you are writing this task in, or for, a classroom, what do you know about the context? What does the discipline require for a text? Under what conditions will you be writing? For example, are you writing a timed, in-class response?
  1. WRITER’S ROLE: Who are you supposed to BE in this prompt? A knowledgeable student? Someone else?
  1. AUDIENCE: Is your audience specified? If it is your instructor, what are his or her expectations and interests? What goals for students does the instructor have?
  1. CONTENT: What are you supposed to write about? Where do you find this content? In your textbook? In lectures? Are you supposed to relate what you have heard or read in some way?
  1. SOURCES: What, and how many, sources are you supposed to draw from to write your text? Have the sources been provided in the class? Are you supposed to look elsewhere? Are the sources primary or secondary?
  1. OTHER SPECIFICATIONS: What else do you know about the requirements for this text? How long should it be? What referencing style (MLA, APA) should you use? What font type?
  1. ASSESSMENT: How will your paper be graded? What does the instructor believe is central to a good response? How do you know? If you don’t know, how can you find out?
  1. MAKING THE TEXT YOUR OWN: What about the paper you write can be negotiated with the instructor? Can you negotiate the topic? The types of sources used? The text structure? If you can negotiate your assignment, it might be much more interesting to you.

* Created and published in Johns, A. M. (2008). Genre awareness for the novice academic student: An on-going questLanguage Teaching, 41(2), 237-252.