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Philosophy of Teaching

Specificity is Tyranny

You think specificity is good; we’re taught it’s good.  But it’s not.  It’s oppressive.  All those who hate rubrics, raise your hands.

I get it.  I spent many years being more and more detailed in my assignments, being clearer and more precise about exactly what was expected of my students.  That way, they knew exactly what they had to do.  Bonus:  If they didn’t do whatever exactly that way (which they hardly ever did), I was fully justified in giving them a lower grade.  Yay.  No guilt.  I even had a great little mini-lecture about why it was so important to do the outline precisely the way I instructed:  “Hey, we all have to fill out forms according to precise directions.  Otherwise, we don’t get paid, or don’t get our taxes back, or get in trouble with the police, etc. etc.”  See?  I’m doing them a favor by preparing them for faceless irrational stubborn bureaucracies.  But you know what?  CUNY does that part just fine.  I’m here to teach.

So I’ve become more general and more vague and I like it.  The endless precision (hello rubrics) focuses them on details and checking off boxes or making a checklist, instead of the deeper more meaningful aspects of the assignment. It brings their attention to the surface details and atomizes the assignment, instead of approaching it in a more holistic way. Yes, I want them to write grammatically and stand up straight and use proper formatting. But breaking down the assignment into its most minuscule parts does not necessarily engender those actions.  (Not to mention that writing properly is a multi-semester endeavor.)

I’d rather they focus on the meaning of the assignment, on creating a speech or paper that expresses what they want it to. I’ll give them feedback on the details.  And they’ll learn those specifics over time.  But it’s much more interesting to pay attention to what the student is actually saying than it is to pay attention to the minutia of grammar or para-linguistics. It’s much more fun to talk to the students about what they are saying and why, rather than how they are saying it. We have much better conversations when we’re all talking about what the student wants to talk about, instead of preordained categories of evaluation (goodbye rubrics).  Specificity traps the teacher as much as it traps the student.

What this looks like then is fewer evaluation categories (I’ve talked about this already) fewer required assignments and more freedom for the students to create their own assignments.  I am going for MEANING not details.

38 thoughts on “Specificity is Tyranny

  1. Now I understand the method behind your “maddness” with the assignments. In where I found myself confused for multiple reasons on several assignments. But I was able to actually sit and open my mind to how I would veiw and translate the assignments being ask.
    Overall I’m glad you give the students the ability to be creative and unique on each assignment. Its a great way to make the mind expand and curious on what’s next.

    1. I think it’s nice that your not overlooking details. Your mainly focusing on if the student comprehends what their doing in general. How to make it better or close to perfect can be taught along the way. This is a great teaching tool when you have certain students who just don’t quickly catch on.

  2. I really appreciate your thoughts on this as I’ve been reconsidering the usefulness of detailed rubrics. It may depend on the context, but I’m leaning away from them at the moment as being less useful. Thanks for this!

  3. So, you probably find it hard to give a grade. How do you grade someone’s meaning? Or meaningfulness? Besides giving up rubrics, you may have to give up grades because the grade would be for how much or well the student appealed to your sense of meaning or “creativity.” I think that’s fine. Let the student give themself a grade for how satisfied the student is with the result.

    1. I don’t give a grade, Gay. Just credit or no credit for assignments accomplished. And I don’t evaluate the degree of meaning. I’m just trying to encourage meaningful assignments.

  4. I agree with your new style of teaching, credit/no credit. Speech has its own feel, its not a English class, it has its own challenges not only do we have to be creative but we also have to stand in front of a class and explain our thoughts and subject matter. in this class you can tell peoples personalities every time they come up, the DJ, the pothead, the pronounced self loved, the sexually opened one. it would be a little harder and discouraging if instead of listening to what we say, you take points for grammar

    1. I agree. Teaching and learning should be less focused on perfection and more on participation, effort, and on comprehension. With a course like SPEECH it seems difficult to expect perfection from a bunch of students who are all extremely different who are giving speeches that require their specific personality/flavor.

  5. The fact that you’ve made assignments credit/no credit has definitely allowed me to relax as a public speaker as it clears up mental space in my already incredibly anxious mind. I’ve made it a conscious effort to speak at a moderate pace and make eye contact. My priority is to deliver a speech that makes sense and to connect with my audience in a meaningful way. Due to the fact that there are less things I am trying to remember that NEED to be done in order to receive a higher mark I now focus on delivering the speech and its content with intent.

  6. I appreciate your holistic approach towards the assignments. In a class like public speaking, everyone is different and with various mannerisms and ways of expressing themselves. This approach helped me switch the gears from “Oh I hope I’m standing super straight and I hope I am using the proper language” to “this is just a conversation I am having with a big group of people, there is no need to act a certain way as long as my information is being delivered effectively.”

  7. I really love this idea to be honest Kerri f student be free to do and think what they want on a assignment and give people credit or not on them. This let me stay stress free for you class and more comfortable with the class as well. I have to say thank you for this cause it’s amazing

  8. I agree with your new style of teaching. I feel like many professors have way too much “checklists” they expect students to complete, which takes away their focus on the general topic. As a student myself I can relate to this topic you choose to talk about because lots of times I find myself trying to complete rubric expectations that my actually assignment struggles with the meaning of the topic itself. Sometimes I give in a paper not remembering half of the things I even tried to explain! I applaud you for thinking of the students perspective & incorporate that to your teaching style because not many professors consider this.

  9. I for one do not like the idea of rubrics. I agree that having to follow a certain outline might have a student not be able to talk about something they really want to speak about as it might not “check all the boxes” required. For my assignments, I always choose a topic that I not only feel comfortable about but something that should be heard. It creates a much better vibe for the speech and helps the speaker feel it more as a conversation as opposed to an assignment.

  10. This obviously applies to certain things. But in this class I can see how being less specific can be helpful to students.

    1. Being as this is a public speaking class I believe the credit/no credit system that is in place is way more effective then actually giving a grade to someone just because for this class its way more than if you made a good speech it has a lot of factors. To some people public speaking can be impossible and they’re taking a speech class to overcome not being able to give one but you can’t really focus on becoming a better speaker when you’re focusing on getting good grades . A lot of people are really shy and aren’t great at speaking in front of an audience, that can cause you to fail this whole course.

  11. I feel that most students hate rubrics. I agree that it’s useful to understand what exactly the professor wants for an assignment, and students want that, but rubrics often don’t do that. They give you vague goals that are up to interpretation rather than a clear list of things that need to be done, so students are left wondering if they’re actually meeting the rubric requirement or not.

    1. I like that in a way you’ve let your students be free with what they want to talk about, it a way for us to be creative and speak on what we would like.

  12. “Specificity is oppressive”
    When you try to diminish or minimize quality into quantity it really begs the question on to whose and what ideas should be told, and for who. Institutions are built on this very foundation, specifically in education and it rarely gets challenged. To see this sparks generations of joy, specifically from those who in education are consistently trivialized for their stories.

  13. Less restrictions gives your students more room to do as they please. Gives more room for you to teach them slowly what is needed. It is all about progress and you surely give them the room and time for this. I think this shows a more caring approach towards your students. It shows that you want them to do good and pass, but they have to do their part too.

  14. Rather than imposing the criteria for specificity in the execution of communicating through writing or speaking you are expecting us to create our own criteria based on authenticity and present it to you and our peers. Not only do I find that liberating, I find it much more useful than enforcing a criteria that may not connect to students. You are investing trust in us to build our own set of specifities on which we assess our growth and mentor us along the way!

  15. I think rubrics only work if they are extremely clear in what they want. If they aren’t they often just confuse the student and you end up going in a different direction than what the professor wanted. I also think that certain courses such as speech do not benefit from having rubrics. i also think that in college rubrics are a bit childish, having no rubrics kinda shows that you trust that your student is smart and capable of doing what the assignment requires. i think it also encourages creativity since students can approach the assignment in different ways.

  16. YES! being specific on assignments is a pain in the butt. I prefer to talk on a general aspect on whatever topic.

  17. How exactly would we students give ourselves grade for the amount of creativity? I know we get to pick the type of assignments we do in between the two main assignments but what exactly do we do grade. How do you grade out meanings and creativity without a rubric?

    1. I don’t really grade creativity or meaning. You get credit for completing the assignment at a moderate level. I just try to encourage creativity and meaningful assignments.

  18. “But you know what? CUNY does that part just fine. I’m here to teach.” Honestly, that’s my favorite thing you said. It is very true. College is already very strict. Your job is to really just teach us. You don’t have to be a tyrant, that’s not your job. I feel like being more flexible really made me enjoy the class more. I became more comfortable with public speaking due to it.

  19. I feel very neutral when it comes to this. I actually like specificity, but not when it crosses into the territory as a means of worry to the student. I’ve noticed a couple of professors do this (become more vague with assignments to allow for more creativity/flexibility). Some students acclimate to this and others lose their footing with it (mostly at the beginning until they get the hang of it.)

  20. I agree with not grading based on specificity. It can harm the student’s grade tremendously. When there is less focus on the precision of an assignment, it leaves more room for creativity on the student’s part. They are able to freely create without tedious and also seemingly useless constraints that they are forced to deal with.

  21. I agree that that we have much better conversations when we’re all talking about what the student wants to talk about instead of following the rubrics and judging them based off of what’s written on that. I think sometimes rubrics ask for more than what a student can give. That challenges students in a different way and maybe if there are less restrictions on things, students will be more comfortable with what they do.

  22. I really like this style of teaching because it gives the students freedom to show creativity, and they will not just try to fill some boxes of a rubric, leading to a better way of learning

  23. Professor your ability to observe and understand how each student says alot about you and makes you 100 times more different than other professors. I’m glad that at least you try to make a difference and I’m sure your students love you.

  24. I definitely agree not everyone is going to completely follow directions as to how the assignment should be formatted and sometimes not everyone understands how to follow directions.

  25. I love the title of this blog post. It really pulled my attention. Rubrics are truly exactly how you described them. Happy to be rid of them at least for this class! I love how you made a reference about the outline. There are so many “memes” in which people make mocking the educational teaching system and how they fail to teach us successfully about important things we will need in life. When you said that we have to follow directions or else we don’t get our taxes back, it made me think of those memes haha.

  26. Love this, “I am going for MEANING, not details”. I feel like many professors fail to see the hard work that students actually put in and just think about what letter grade they’ll give them. Professor Glaser, you are 100% correct students learn more this way. Specificity just makes us more nervous and tends to discourage us tremendously. More educational freedom should be applied to all schools. Us as students have a lot to say towards specific topics and it’s nice for us to be heard how we are in your class. Thank you, Professor Glaser!

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