I don’t formally teach composition, but my lower-division history courses are officially supposed to focus on writing, and I like focusing on writing (will they remember the battle of Lepanto in five years? Probably not. But they might conceivably remember that pedantic crap like “it is important to consider the biases in the documents during analysis” is motherfreaking BORING and should just be done, not said. I hope) so I take writing seriously and talk about it a lot in class and bombard my students with all sorts of handouts and give way too many comments.

Anyhow, I’m trying to work out a rubric. Years ago, I started out with essay criteria like “An A essay does X, A B essay does Y…” etc. Then I switched to explaining to students that I was largely grading them on four different things—ideas, evidence, structure, writing—and started writing my overall comments like that, e.g., “good ideas, good use of evidence, messy structure, writing awkward.”

Now I’m trying to see if I can figure out some way to make individual assessments for those four elements add up to the overall grade, in a way that is transparent to the students and consistent for me.

But it’s not working out. The problem is, I’m not entirely sure consistency is really a worthy aim in grading things as diverse as essays—that is, for some essays that deal with an really ambitious idea, maybe I should weight the ideas more heavily than I would otherwise. I don’t want to penalize every student for only achieving functional, grammatical writing, so when a student comes along that achieves true elegance, I have to weight writing higher to reward that. Similarly, a truly messy structure or extremely weak ideas can mean that an essay only deserves a C even if the other elements are acceptable.

Before the Four Elements method, I tried working out a flow chart, which at least matched the way I grade. Unfortunately, it got hopelessly complicated once I got past the A papers.

Triggers: a while back, there was a teaching composition theme going around (Bardiac, Bardiac II, Not of General Interest).

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