Kendall Dunkelberg

Kendall Dunkelberg is Director of Creative Writing and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium at Mississippi University for Women. He has published two books of poems, Time Capsules (Texas Review Press 2009) and Landscapes and Architectures (Florida Literary Foundation Press 2001), and one of translations of the Flemish poet, Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus (Green Integer 2000).

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Handout: Sample Rubrics or Large Print version
Handout: New Sample Rubrics (2010) Character in Fiction and Image in Poetry
Handout: New Sample Rubrics (2011) Setting in Fiction and Rhythm in Poetry
Handout: New Sample Rubric (2012) Use of Language

The Joys and Pains of Rubrics

I confess that I did not begin as a fan of rubrics, especially not for assessing Creative Writing programs. On the surface our field does not seem to lend itself to analysis by a rubric, where everything has to be understood and ranked based on a grid. Furthermore, I teach in a small program and the data we can generate from the small sampling of students each year seem statistically insignificant. Yet I am required to go through program assessment, and if I must spend a significant amount of time and energy doing something, I want to find some value in it.

One value can be found in actually reading our Senior Portfolios carefully. We use these as our primary assessment tool, yet though we have collected them for the past ten years or so, I confess that I have only begun to read them cover-to-cover since we began assessment. It is a joy to read these portfolios without the need to place a grade on them. We have mapped out our curriculum and defined our program objectives, and we are only required to assess a couple of objectives each year.
So when I read portfolios, I assess a few narrowly defined sets of skills and can enjoy the rest. The value of reviewing our students’ work happens despite the rubric, but the assessment process forces me to do it.

So, though I question the validity of the final outcome of assessment, I can believe in the process. If the goal is to improve the way we teach, then there may be value in it. When I was the only person teaching creative writing in our program, I might have argued I had no need of assessment. I could intuitively understand more about my students and my program with much less effort than I could learn by going through assessment. Assuming I was committed to doing this on an ongoing basis, individual self-assessment would be preferable to institutionalized assessment. Yet now that my program has grown to include two faculty, an institutionalized process has its advantages.

Assessment gives me a reason to meet with my colleague and discuss what and how we teach without evaluating what he does. We collaborate and evaluate each other, and we are assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the program as a whole. My colleague teaches fiction and I teach poetry, but we both teach a cross-genre introductory Creative Writing class, thus it is imperative that we both understand how the other teaches each genre. Assessment provides a platform for this conversation. I do not believe there is only one way to teach creative writing or that we need to standardize the way we teach, but we do need to understand each other’s methods.

Herein lies the greatest challenge for assessment. Creative Writing is inherently paradoxical. When I initially considered sitting down and coming up with a rubric to assess creative writing, it felt impossible. When I consider what I want my students to be able to do, there are too many options. I don’t want them to rhyme unless they can rhyme well. I want them to write realist fiction, unless of course they don’t. For every rule or skill I could come up with, I could think of one or more exceptions. So the question became, “How can you assess something when there is no one right way to do it?” I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I will present a possible solution to this conundrum.

The first step toward a solution, I feel, is to consider broadly defined learning outcomes for assessment. When I consider rhyme, for instance, I don’t think that all poets should even use it. But I do think all poets should have a good sense of how sound works in a poem, whether that is a free verse poem or a formal, rhymed poem. So I opt for the broader objective of being able to use rhyme or other sound techniques. For fiction I might look at how well students structure plot and the narrative arc of the story. In both cases, I want to consider several ways of fulfilling this objective to give students with different writing styles a chance to excel.

When constructing a rubric, there are two basic options. I could opt for a holistic rubric, which would list one criterion: use of sound techniques such as rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and consonance. If I chose this approach, I would have to come up with one description for each level of ranking in my rubric: what constitutes excellent use of sound, adequate use of sound, or poor use of sound. Personally, I would find this confusing, since my descriptions would be too convoluted and contradictory. An acceptable use of sound might include end-rhyme that isn’t predictable or it might include no end-rhyme at all but some internal rhyme. An acceptable use of time management and narrative techniques might involve a clear chronological progression, or it might include effective use of flashbacks, but it wouldn’t include a confusing structure, inefficient chronology or over-used flashbacks.

Because the choices are complex and because my goal is to develop a clear statement of criteria, I prefer the analytical rubric over the holistic form. An analytical rubric allows me to break the broad learning outcome down into ways a student might demonstrate proficiency in this area. A student need not excel on all the criteria, so I try to set them up to reflect my real expectations for this outcome and to allow students to score well if they do meet these expectations. Talking about expectations with my colleague is one of my main values in the process, so establishing clear criteria that match our common expectations is extremely important. How students actually score is less important, though testing the criteria on actual student writing does validate whether or not our descriptions are useful.

A few examples from the handout may help clarify the process. Use of end-rhyme is one issue I face when teaching about sound in poetry. Many of my students come to me expecting poetry to rhyme and using very predictable rhyme combinations. I am actually happy and feel I’ve taught them something, if they stop using end-rhyme altogether, so I put no use of end-rhyme at level 3 (acceptable), along with limited use of end-rhyme, some of which is predictable. Level 2 included use of some predictable end-rhyme in a serious poem, and Level 1 (unacceptable) involved many predictable, forced rhymes. I included the qualifier, “in a serious poem” to account for surprising, humorous or ironic use of predictable, forced rhymes, which I might include in level 4 or 5, depending on how well it is done. Similarly, I developed criteria and rankings for the use of off-rhyme, internal rhyme, rhyme scheme, alliteration, and assonance and consonance. I also included one criterion for the overall use of sound in the poem as a way to give a little more weight to the areas of strength for each student.

Similarly in fiction, I expect any story to have some narrative arc, a beginning, middle, and end with tensions or conflict, complications or rising action, and some sense of change in a conclusion. I look at both linear and non-linear narrative techniques, and I include a criterion for the use of narrative breaks, regardless of whether they represent forward or backward movement in time. And I rank each student on the overall use of time and narrative structure.

Students can be expected to score higher in some areas and lower in others, though I try to set my average expectations for each criterion as a 3. I set our program’s objectives for these learning outcomes at 90% of our seniors having an average ranking of 3 or higher. For our entry-level class, though, we set the objective as an average rating of 2 or higher to show that they have been introduced to these concepts but haven’t achieved a level of mastery yet. When we applied these rubrics in real-world assessment, we found that they worked relatively well. They were relatively easy to apply to student writing, and yielded the results that matched our general impression of our students’ writing, though we did see the need to better calibrate the way we apply the rubric, especially in assessing our introductory class. In general, we met our objectives, though we did learn that our students favor traditional linear narratives and avoid end-rhyme, perhaps too much. We agreed that we could push them to experiment with other options, though given our small student population, these results may not be typical. Over a period of several years, we might find an acceptable level of experimentation by some students. We did “close the loop” with some recommendations, notably to make the Senior Portfolio into a one-credit class, allowing us another chance to mentor our students and encourage experimentation. We also decided that it wasn’t appropriate to assess all students in our introductory Creative Writing class, so we are now only selecting English majors who are likely to continue in our program.

Though I am relatively satisfied that these rubrics are both specific enough and flexible enough to assess complicated and contradictory learning outcomes in creative writing, I don’t believe they are perfect. You’re welcome to use them, but your expectations may be different and the way you teach poetry and fiction may be different. Ultimately, I want to develop rubrics that help me and my colleagues communicate about what we expect of our students. I want rubrics that make sense and are easy to apply to student writing. And I want rubrics that yield results that match my intuition and lead to improvements in teaching or confirm the quality of current teaching methods. If this is the result, I can put up with the bureaucracy and the busywork, and maybe even find some joy in assessment.

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