Defining rubrics


By Fr. Bud Grant

My students love rubrics, a word derived from the Latin “rubrica” meaning “red soil” (hence the old fashioned slur “rube” which, logically, then became “red neck”). Red soil was used in the medieval church to make red ink which is still used in the Roman Missal to signal to the priest what he is to DO, as opposed to the black ink, which tells him what he is to SAY. You can understand why that is useful.

Fr. Bud Grant

Anyway, rubric has come to mean an instruction. It must be exact; otherwise it will lead to confusion. Once, in a training exercise for teachers, we were instructed to create a rubric for putting on a T-shirt. When we were done, the trainer demonstrated on herself using the instructions we’d given her. It was pretty funny: inside out, upside down, backwards, twisted … all because we took certain things for granted. (Surely we don’t need to say: “Hold the T shirt upside down and backwards before putting your arms in the holes — oops — the ARM holes, not the NECK hole!”)

Rubrics offer the student the comfort of knowing exactly what she is to do in order to get the grade. But this sometimes backfires, to the teacher’s frustration. One of my students, upon learning that he was to be graded for participation, made certain that he made one comment a day, every day, for the whole semester. His comments ran along the lines of: “I agree with her” or “This was a very difficult text to understand” or “Could you tell us what will be on the test?” In short, he was not making contributions to the discussion but merely checking the box for “participation.” Of course, it was my fault that it didn’t work … I’d not made the rubric clear enough!


Soon I am going to Wisconsin to give a series of environmental talks. The organizers want specific rubrics for what they can do in their churches, schools and towns to save the environment. I want to help, I really do, but I’m also a little distressed. If I give them too vague a rubric they’ll be unhappy with me, but if I offer a very specific rubric it may be the wrong thing for them to do. Let me explain.

No, first let me defend my reticence. You may notice that Jesus gives us very few rubrics for how to be a Christian. That isn’t an accident: he doesn’t want us to think that our faith is a matter of “checking the box” and then insisting to St. Peter — on that day of glory — that we must be admitted because we did exactly what were told to do. Christianity is not a paint-by-number religion. It is more like improvisational Jazz. It has worked for lo these many centuries precisely because it did NOT get specific. It also explains why the Gospel is so fresh: how do we react to women’s rights (Gal. 3:28), undocumented immigrants (Isaiah 58: 7-10) or gays (Jn 13:34)?

Now, to explain: rubrics only work when one person is involved or when everyone is required to do the exact same thing, which, other than evacuating a flaming plane, is almost never. We are each called upon to care for ALL God’s Creation, not just the semi-arid Palestine of Jesus’ birth. To care for God’s creation in Iowa may well require that we chop down trees (in order to stimulate native prairies). In Wisconsin, it might mean that we plant trees!

So, then, here’s the most specific rubrics I can offer: 1.) Consume less — of everything. 2.) Get politically active, now. 3.) Know thy ecosystem (which may be as small as your city block and/or as big as a mountain range). 4.) Respond to your “place” with the care you would lavish on that plant you took home from your mother’s funeral.

(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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