Reject the Rubric: Reject the Neoliberal Quantocracy in Higher Education

Rubrics exemplify the idea that everything must be reduced to numbers to measure performance objectively. This makes no sense when it comes to overtly subjective things like the quality of writing or learning. 

The other day—as we were discussing the mid-term take-home essay exam for one of my classes—a student raised his hand and asked, “Where can we find the rubric?” My response was, “What rubric?” The look of consternation was immediately evident as this student, along with others, started to squirm over not being able to know the exact inputs that would lead to the output of a nice grade.

I’ve never provided much in the way of rubrics when teaching. Instead, I provide a general outline of how I think about grades in my syllabi. Still, rubrics seem anathema to helping students learn to write because they focus student attention on hitting the appropriate check boxes rather than developing critical thinking skills and encouraging creativity.

From my perspective, rubrics promote conformity to conventional tropes of writing.   In middle school, as students are learning how to write and how to develop an argument, this makes some sense. But by college—and even in high school, where students now learn essays have set numbers of paragraphs—rubrics usually do more damage than good.

But there is another serious problem with rubrics. They are part of the neoliberal attempt to reduce education and learning to numbers. In other words, rubrics represent yet another symptom of the Neoliberal Quantocracy at work. Rubrics exemplify the idea that everything must be reduced to numbers to measure performance objectively. This makes no sense when it comes to overtly subjective things like the quality of writing or learning.

However, this does capture a general trend in higher education—the subordination of quality to quantity. We see this in the endless metrics used to “measure” the performance of individual faculty members, departments, and institutions. In essence, higher education has become rubric-driven—administrators conceptualize assessment of virtually every aspect of higher education around the idea that we can tick off check boxes associated with numbers that somehow objectively (or, more realistically, magically) measure inherently subjective qualities of the academic endeavor by placing the products of our work into categories that often have little relevance to the quality of what is produced.

High H-Index?  Check. Numerous publications? Check. Strong impact factors for journals? Check. Write-ups on research in the media? Check.

We have a good scholar or a prestigious institution. Indeed, the emphasis so often is on “prestige” represented in a set of numbers like research production and ROI of an institution rather than the quality of research and teaching or the abilities of graduates to understand and contribute to society in ways both dynamic and incremental.

This approach fails to recognize that education is a quality of human experience. And applying the rubric-centered, neoliberal model undermines qualities like creativity and willingness to take risks in student writing and faculty research.

Indeed, as Adrian Lenardic notes, “The business model, with its use of metrics to quantify productivity, has been quietly adopted by working scientists. Vitae from scientists spanning a range of academic ages now includes publication metrics, the amount of money a scientist has generated, and media contact metrics to quantify the amount of attention a scientist has received.”

In other words, the bean counters have provided the rubrics that identify “good” science and “good” scientists—and the scientists, as well as scholars across the university, have bought or been forced to buy into that concept in part because they were trained in environments that were themselves driven by the rubrics assigned by the bean counters and also because adherence to the rubric has been deemed essential by administrators to achieving tenure and developing an academic career.

With the influence of neoliberal ideology, modern universities have become institutions driven by the idea that everything must be organized into “objective” categories to which numbers can and should be assigned.

This becomes parsed into binaries in which more/higher is inherently good and less/lower is inherently bad.

Unfortunately, this is an empty approach to learning and scholarship because it subordinates quality to quantity and creates an educational environment that forces students and faculty alike to focus on figuring out how to work the rubric to get the score deemed a measure of quality and success. From the perspective of administrators who create the rubrics, as long as the numbers add up to a good score, students, faculty, and universities are doing good work.

This rubric-driven approach to the university ignores the fact that there are things that can’t be quantified. For example, is a good writer or researcher someone who conforms to conventions represented in simple and usually simplistic categories with assigned numerical values? In the Neoliberal Quantocracy, the answer is an unequivocal yes. But if we truly want to produce students, teachers, and researchers who value intellectual risk-taking and generate creative and innovative intellectual products, the answer should be a resounding No! 

In the Neoliberal Quantocracy that has become the modern university, rubrics are another way of emphasizing that we should care about how much we have of things and ideas over the quality of what is produced. But, unfortunately, that devalues the much more important task of understanding the qualities, experiences, and meanings of those things and ideas that help to build a better world and support the diversity of perspectives and people.

Rage against the rubric! It is among the most pernicious and subtle examples of the destructive forces of neoliberalism at work in higher education.

***Cover graphic courtesy of The Chronicle of Higher Education


John Traphagan, Ph.D., is chair Advisory Board, Faculty of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, University of Massachusetts Lowell, Professor of Anthropology, Program in Human Dimensions of Organizations, University of Texas at Austin, and Visiting Professor of Japan Studies, Center for International Education, Waseda University. Dr. Traphagan’s podcast, How to Be Wrong, is available via the New Books Network. His latest book, published by Academic Studies Press, is the Russian translation of Taming Oblivion: Aging Bodies and the Fear of Senility in Japan.

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