If It Doesn’t Matter to You, I Won’t Care Either

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Some time ago, Ken Lindblom, a professor of English Education at Stony Brook University, wrote a blog post, The Rubric Criterion that Changed Everything , about a simple move that helped him attack the never-ending pile of grading he (and all writing teachers) face. He added a single, simple criterion to his rubric for grading writing assignments: Is it interesting? Voila! The weight of grading suddenly lightened by a zillion pounds.

Naturally, I plan to steal Ken’s idea. But after a little thought, I’m going to tweak it a bit. Instead of asking, “is it interesting?,” I will ask students, does it, i.e., what they’re writing, matter? It’s a tougher question for sure, and it may incite some pressure on students. I suggest that is exactly where the teachable moment lies.

“Does it matter?” seems to indicate the teacher expects Great Things from the student, which usually brings on bluster and a whole bunch of BS. But taking time to explore the followup questions can shift the classroom from being a land certain failure to a new space, of student agency and confidence.

“Does it matter to me?” is one of the questions I want students to ask about what they’re writing. In a corollary to Robert Frost’s “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” “Does it matter to me?” puts the writer front and center in her relationship to her subject. If it doesn’t matter to the writer, it won’t matter to the reader. And if it doesn’t matter, why bother writing? For the grade? I don’t know about you, but grades never sparked any passion in me. 

A writer who can say a paper matters can also say why it does. She is automatically engaged in the puzzle of untangling thoughts, arguments, details. The question, “Is it interesting?” then becomes urgent. It can inspire the student (and me, when I’m writing) to think about style, organization, even sentence structure, all the elements that convey the student’s passion to me, her teacher, who is, I hope, just one of her readers.

If a piece of writing doesn’t matter to the student, it surely will not matter to a reader. Why? The writing will be flat, the subject will lie on the page like a beached whale, and the teacher will be stuck with a stack of pages that wastes her time and probably leaves her feeling annoyed.

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Of course, “does it matter?” opens some new demands on me. I have to give students the space to shape an assignment into something other than what I gave. I often have to teach students not only that they should do that, but I have to teach them how. I have to push students to take responsibility for learning, in my class and sometimes elsewhere. Because if it doesn’t matter, what are we doing here?

The question also has the potential to steer the student to examine why she is paying for a seat in my class. Why does learning matter to her? What is it about schooling that matters to her?

The question of mattering is not just for the passive student. I’ve seen it throw the most super-motivated student off her game, simply because she never bothered to ask if, or why, writing, learning, or schooling mattered.

But it does. It makes writing, and learning, come alive. And for me, that’s what teaching– and writing– is all about.

2 responses to “If It Doesn’t Matter to You, I Won’t Care Either”

  1. Kenneth J Lindblom says:

    This is a fantastic idea! Obligating the students to make their writing “matter” will motivate them and will also require them to think about what the word “matter” means and then explore the relationship between writing and the world. Terrific! I look forward to your posts about how this went once you implement it.

    • Karen says:

      Thanks for reading, Ken, and for the positive feedback. I’m just settling in to a new home in a new city, which means I’m looking for a new place to hang my professional hat. Once I do, I look forward to giving this a shot!

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