Imagine, for a moment, that students acquire valuable human capital during their time at university. Imagine that the grades on a student's transcript reflect his or her level of human capital. Imagine that, every term, a professor uses examinations, term papers, and other assignments, to measure how much human capital each student has acquired over the course of a term.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the best way to go about that assessment is to have clear expectations. See, for example, these helpful suggestions from University of Waterloo's Centre for Teaching Excellence:
Transparent marking criteria. Students should know what is expected of them. They should be able to identify the characteristics of a satisfactory answer and understand the relative importance of those characteristics. This can be achieved in many ways; you can provide feedback on assignments, describe your expectations in class, or post model solutions on a course website.
This sounds eminently reasonable. If professors expects answers to true/false/uncertain questions to contain a diagram, they should say so. If they expect students be familiar with IS/LM analysis, they should say so. If they expect term papers to be a certain length, or use a certain referencing format, they should say so. Clear expectations mean that students are evaluated on what they actually know, rather than on how well they anticipate the whims and idiosyncrasies of their professors' marking schemes.
Moreover, when a professor tells students want she wants, she is more likely to get it. This term I'm teaching a course that involves students carrying out a research project. I marked the first draft of the students' papers using a rubric that looks like this, and handed back the rubric with the students' papers:
(Two asides. 1. I use rubrics because I find it hard to evaluate essays, and breaking up the marking into small chunks e.g. "literature review" makes it much more manageable. 2. Most students are not far into their regression analysis in the first draft of the paper, which is why the weighting for that component is so low).
I'm now marking the students' final papers, and I can see the difference that having clear expectations made. The students have produced essays that contain the essential elements of an applied microeconomics research paper, because I told the students what those essential elements are, and created an appropriate incentive structure. The essays are not perfect, but some of them are really not bad.
How could one ever object to setting out precise expectations, and developing rubrics?
One problem is that expectations anchor students. The minimum becomes the maximum, and limits what students achieve. "I've got three economics journal articles. That's enough, time to move on."
Also, overly explicit expectations are an inadequate preparation for the real world. In a work environment, no one will say "I expect your research report to be spell checked and have page numbers. And, by the way, it should not be plagiarized". Part of the human capital gained in a university education is knowledge of the unwritten rules, the social norms and conventions, of intellectual life.
A related point is that part of understanding the course material is understanding what's important and what's not. When students are told precisely what will be on the exam, their ability to identify key concepts - to figure out what matters - is not tested. Instead, what's tested is students' ability to read and follow instructions. The students who succeed are the ones who are able to successfully imitate the model answers posted on the website, not the ones who come up with creative and innovative ideas.
Another downside to setting out rubrics and statements of expectations is that they create a contractual atmosphere. I suspect one reason professors are sometimes reluctant to set out clear expectations is that they want to avoid arguments with students along the lines of, "you said I needed three journal articles in my literature review, I've got three journal articles, why haven't I got an A?"
It's also a lot of effort to draw up a rubric, and if you draw up the rubric before you start grading the papers, you may get it wrong - i.e. put a heavy weight on an element that almost all students have failed to complete satisfactorily, and end up with an unacceptably low average. So there are serious drawbacks to circulating a grading rubric before an assignment is submitted.
So I can see both the advantages and the disadvantages of setting out precise expectations for students. And yet...
Passive aggression is the besetting sin of academic life. "The indirect expression of hostility, such as through procrastination, stubbornness, sullen behavior, or deliberate or repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible." (Wikipedia) If you're an academic, this probably describes a good number of your colleagues, and possibly also - if you're being totally honest - yourself.
One manifestation of passive aggression is "avoiding direct or clear communication". If you are one of those professors who resists putting grading criteria in the course outline, or setting out explicit outcomes, take a look inward, and ask yourself, "Am I truly taking a principled, pedagogically sound stand here? Or am I resisting bureaucratic dictates in the only way I can?"