Monday, April 11, 2011

The Classification Essay: what happened

This is one instance that makes me wish I had a larger class, just to have a greater range of students. On the first day, when I gave the assignment out, one student stopped afterwards to say how excited he was, that he'd read some Aristotle in a previous class, and had all sorts of ideas about what he might do. Then he dropped, but my sense was that his excitement was genuine. When I posted the assignment on Facebook, it got an energetic response from academic colleagues, but more than that -- it seemed like wherever I went that week, other friends outside of the academy said that they'd been thinking about it. In church on Sunday, the homily referenced sorting things, and one of the other choir members turned around and said that she'd been thinking about it all week.

I think I explained in my previous post that this was an assignment that I gave with little accompanying prep, other than the detailed instructions and rubric. If I had paired it with readings, they'd have been from Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous, but I thought that if I gave the students a run-through of the various systems of classification, that it'd be enough to get them going. What I introduced were examples of binary classifications, materialist classifications, systems centered around a particular type of object (i.e., books -- so, Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress), and systems ranking a specific quality (biggest, best, scariest, etc.)

This assignment was intended to show me what they could do: I was not expecting perfect results. The students were aware of the fact that though I would fill out the rubric in determining what their formal grade might have been, that they would get full points for completing the homework. I wanted them to see how I approached grading.

I would call the results mixed. Rather than devise an original system of classification, the majority framed their essays around the question of what to take with them if their home was on fire. One student wrote about the system of organization dictated by a particular type of residence, and one classified only one particular set of objects -- the equivalent of baseball cards.
One thing I didn't ask them to address is functionality. If they were developing the system because the Singularity had occurred, or if constraints on space (because of flooding, population growth, etc.) had made it necessary for possessions to be uploaded to the web, could they devise a system that they could use to retrieve things? Would that have made the stakes of the classification system more clear? Maybe, but maybe not. No one in the class has much of a web presence, other than on Facebook, so sorting and tagging is pretty new to them.

Because I could respond with specific questions about the choices they'd made, and because there were motions and starts of useful insights and questions, I think the assignment was at least partially successful. One of my primary goals in assigning it was to learn something about the students' personalities and writing styles, and I also think it was effective in that regard.

However, I'm not sure that the assignment itself was especially useful as the students responded to the question. Classifying possessions according to the "what would you take out of a burning building?" question is the equivalent of coasting; and I specifically asked students to devise a system, rather than write about the one that they'd always used. The point (as I intended it) was for them to create a system, rather than simply describe a conventional question or sorting mechanism -- the idea being that arranging things differently would make them consider their property in a new light; and also think about organization and classification as activities that are part of everyday life -- not just part of academic essay writing.

Preliminary findings:
I think I gave out this assignment too soon, and fumbled it in wanting it both to be a personal essay, and an analytical one. Without doing at least a little more reading in the genre of political theory, the significance of classification -- and its relationship to politics -- doesn't come through. It's too foreign a question for students to answer in the way that I hoped they would. I should have started by asking students to write about what mine did write about: their stuff, and how they organize it (or don't) right now -- and then, I should have asked them to think about how to develop an original system of classification. I probably should also have streamlined the assignment sheet. In trying to make things clear, what I achieved was clutter.

That doesn't mean that the assignment can't work. At least, I don't think it does. I remain committed to the idea of an assignment that can be both personal and analytical. Two articles in Inside Higher Ed, by Dan Berrett and Barbara Fister only make me more certain that it's worth experimenting with this further. To summarize, (though both are worth reading in their entirety), Berrett describes the findings of the Citation Project: that students copy chunks of texts and use them in their papers without a solid understanding of the quotes' relation to their originary texts, or the underlying arguments and contexts. Fister looks at various findings discussed at the 4Cs conference, and the energy that she sees students bringing to writing outside of academic contexts -- in "everyday research" -- and argues that the way forward is to "abandon the traditional research paper," at least for students who are inexperienced with academic work.

What I'm doing next:
I think there's got to be a useful way of building on this assignment. It didn't work perfectly -- but despite that, my sense is that the students liked writing about their stuff, and what's important to them.

The question is, how do I turn the classification paper into an assignment that also helps my students engage with Locke, and Marx in detailed ways; and with the specific subject of political theory?

I'm not going to try to do this immediately, especially because I'm planning to hand out the second essay sequence on Thursday of this week, and I have a prompt question that, while fairly traditional, is a question that any student in political science, and especially in political theory, needs to consider.

I would like to make a revision and expansion of the classification essay my third essay sequence for the quarter, and in that sequence, I'd like to ask students to develop a system of classification for their possessions according to Locke's principles in the Second Treatise of Government or Marx & Engels' in the Communist Manifesto, and to explain their rationale for categories; and to describe how their classification alters the meaning of their property. I'd like to do this partly because both Locke and M&E are writing materialist arguments. This isn't just my view; it's also the way that the lecturer is presenting them. It makes sense to me to develop a way into them through property. It also makes sense to me to attempt to find a more personal, and more concrete, way of asking students to engage with Marx. I've taught the Manifesto before, so I know, that could backfire -- I think it might if I didn't emphasize personal and concrete.

I anticipate that completing this assignment will involve thinking about 1) what defines ownership, and different types of ownership, 2) objects that facilitate their participation in the political sphere, or public life, as opposed to private life, 3) objects for which the use is governed by law, or which is regulated or dependent upon higher powers (Comcast, Amazon, Apple), 4) objects that can be said to increase power, (depending on how power is defined), 5) objects which are both concrete, and abstract. These are what occur to me today, as I consider this.

I'm certainly thinking about the texts when I name those five areas of thought, but more than that, I'm thinking that this assignment would prompt students to determine what ideas and principles their chosen author prioritizes and why (in order to determine what their classification style should be); and how those priorities advance an argument (i.e., what are the results of organizing life according to these priorities). I'm also planning to encourage them to think about what sort of scheme of organization the authors themselves use; and what they're trying to represent by adapting that scheme. Most of all, I'm hoping to find ways to build bridges between the abstract and the concrete, and back again.

If you have questions or comments, or critiques regarding this assignment (both the original form, and what I'm planning to do next), I would not only welcome them, but would be grateful for them. So, most likely, will my students.

* But is this an artificiality that is a good part of academic work? Or is it pernicious navelgazing?

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