Monday, February 6, 2012

Sample Classification Paper, Option 1

Students, below appears an example of a classification paper, option 1, as discussed on the course website here.  Please note that the example, when formatted appropriately for submission as a paper (which it is not as it appears on the blog), is at the high end of acceptable length for a shorter paper in ENG 101.  Please note also that it is an example of how the argument should be made; I make no explicit claims about its truth value.

Good citizenship consists of participating in the structures of public order while being willing to work against them in the interest of a greater good, of being able to set aside the proverbial "letter of the law" in favor of supporting the "spirit of the law" or the underlying principles towards which the law is directed.  A number of people have asserted that Mr. Elliott is far removed from such a definition.  Those people are incorrect.

The assertions that Mr. Elliott is not a good citizen are grounded in several misperceptions.  Perhaps the most emphasized of them is that Mr. Elliott takes delight in the suffering of his students, and of other living creatures, for no end but sadism--the simple enjoyment of the sufferings of others.  And there is admittedly evidence that can be reasonably interpreted in such a way.  Mr. Elliott is prone to pointing out the failings in what he sees around him, which does tend to cause discomfort in those targeted by his criticism.  Also, his sense of humor runs to the morbid; he makes frequent reference to the eating of small animals, as in nature programs and the writings of Swift, and with evident jollity in his voice and manner.  Further, he makes specific mention of inflicting pain on people as a recreational activity--and he often comments that the recipients include the elderly.  In a view which takes his admittedly demonstrable appreciation for the discomfort of others as the dominant feature of his personality, there is no greater good to be served by his happiness at the misfortunes of others, and so he operates in a manner opposed to the underlying principles of most legal systems in the industrialized world, which assert the dignity of the individual as a core belief.

The problem with the interpretation is that it assumes that the demonstration of the enjoyment of pain is both the dominant feature of Mr. Elliott's personality and that it serves no end beyond itself.  The viewpoint relies on accepting Mr. Elliott at his word, and if it is the case that his word is to be trusted, it must also be remembered that he has on many occasions remarked that he takes his job as a teacher quite seriously.  As a teacher, and as a teacher of English, Mr. Elliott is engaged in the transmission of a specific set of cultural ideals that, while not shared among many of his students, are largely in line with the social structures in which he and they operate, both in the academic setting in which they interact specifically and in the broader social context of the United States of the early twenty-first century.  By his very vocation, then, Mr. Elliott is participating in a deep-seated and fundamental way in the structures of public order.

His specific method of teaching also evidences his dedication to social structure.  In each of his courses, Mr. Elliott distributes a detailed syllabus, a statement of the policies and procedures by which he seeks to conduct class.  Semester after semester, students find themselves adjudged by the policies to which they tacitly agree by remaining in the classes for which he produces the syllabi, with Mr. Elliott adhering strictly to the rules for himself and his students which he has set.  Additionally, he grades major assignments in his classes by stringent rubrics, even to the point of awarding good grades to students he finds personally objectionable and whose positions he finds execrable; they perform the tasks required of them by their assignments, and their performances are found satisfactory when compared to the rubric he creates, despite whatever personal feelings Mr. Elliott may or may not have.  That he allows his explicitly stated standards, rather than his gut feelings, to inform his assessment demonstrates alongside the fact of his profession Mr. Elliott's dedication to and participation in the structures of public order.

He is not, however, unthinkingly rigid in following those structures, using them to drive the education which he and others value as a fundamental social good rather than allowing the rules to stand in all cases as the sole and final arbiter of what happens in and around him.  The very standards come equipped with some room to negotiate.  His syllabi carry the comment that the policies outlined on them are subject to change.  This is primarily to account for the occasional change imposed upon him by the institutional hierarchy above him (his compliance with which is itself an indicator of his participation in structures of public order), but also allows him to adjust formal rules to suit evolving situations, should the need arise.  His course calendars carry a similar message, and with similar intent.  And his syllabi carry in many sections the explicit message that Mr.Elliott is willing to make case-by-case exceptions to his policies, so that those students who are putting forth effort but are running into difficulty have some time and cognitive space to use to get properly situated and adjusted to the demands being placed upon them.  He is therefore avowedly willing to set aside the formal rules in the interest of student learning, which is the higher ideal which his policies exist to facilitate.

Even the biting, morbid humor often cited as a case against Mr. Elliott serves to engage student learning, even if it is far removed from the usual practices of many other teachers.  Students remember the extent and specificity of criticism offered in no small part because of the wit in which it is couched, so that the unusual practice serves to drive student learning.  The supposed suffering he inflicts upon them is presented as a challenge to be overcome, which is itself another means of driving learning; while it is true that many students do complain about such things as the amount of work Mr. Elliott assigns or the specificity of his grading, those things do serve the greater educational purpose, as it is only through practice that proficiency is attained, and it is only through the receipt of correction that errors can be identified to be eliminated.

It becomes clear, then, that Mr. Elliott, insofar as he does engage with structures in the classroom even as he is willing to step aside from them to promote the learning of his students--the end goal of classroom structure--is a good citizen.  That he is one should prompt some reevaluation of what goes on in his classrooms, and in classrooms generally.

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