Sunday, February 21, 2010

Speaking of figure skating...

Linda Mabry argues that "Rubrics incorrectly imply that good writing is the sum of the criteria on the rubric" (p. 678). When I read this, I thought of figure skating. When I was a kid, figure skating was judged differently; the scores were not point-based and judges had more discretion in awarding scores to skaters. Now, figure skaters are awarded points based on the difficulty of the elements of their program (jumps, spins, when in their program they perform their jumps, etc.). This was done to make the judging of skating fairer and less subjective. It strikes me that this new system of judging is a lot like a rubric. It breaks skating down into individual parts and then the final score is the sum of those individual parts of a program. There is also some room for artistry or performance points, and those are largely left to the judges' discretion.

The problem with the new system is that sometimes a skater can perform beautifully and still not get a score that reflects the artistry of her piece. Or, conversely, a skater can really flub up, but still get a good score because of his reputation or past performance. For example, I really thought that American Johnny Weir did a nice job on Thursday night during the men's free skate. He had no noticeable big mistakes and his program was interesting and evocative. I guess (according to Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming) his program was less difficult because it had fewer transitions. Still, Weir only ended up in sixth place. It felt unfair.

Overall, I do feel that this system has been a good change in skating. When I was a kid, it seemed like judging sometimes fell along the old Cold War lines. Eastern European countries gave higher scores to Russian skaters. American, Japanese, British and Australian judges gave higher scores to American skaters. I recall this happening with Nancy Kerrigan, an American, and Oksana Baiul, a Ukrainian skater, in the 1994 Olympics. But I do think that sometimes this system can, like a writing rubric, fail to account for the beauty in skating. I would much rather watch a clean, cohesive, beautiful program than a program with a bunch of triple jumps and very little artistry. To me, those programs feel like watching a bull in a china shop.

This isn't a perfect analogy--skating and writing are different. But, like in skating, a well-crafted piece of writing isn't always the sum of its individual parts. Good writing would probably score high in all of the different areas--strong voice, interesting word choice, cohesive organization, etc. But sometimes, as Wilson argues, there will be pieces that most would argue are wonderful, but that may not earn the highest point totals. What to do...what to do.... Go with your gut?

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