A classification essay will break a large subject into categories for the purpose of analysis. Often the most useful classification essay will take disparate elements, things don't seem to go together, and show patterns of connectedness that the reader would not have guessed were there. Many scientific treatises are classifications; it often seems that all of biology is a huge endeavor to make sure all living things fit into some neat category. Writing a successful classification essay will challenge your ingenuity in seeing connections between things.

The number of categories we work with and how elaborately we describe each category will determine the pace of our essay. Breaking things down too fine will clog the machinery of our essay. Describing or defining one particular category for too long will unbalance the load, and our readers will lose track of our strategy and intent.

The order of our categories is perhaps most important. Do we work toward the most important, the most telling category, the one that will make our major point for us, or do we start with that one and fill in the rest of the picture? The answer to that question will vary from essay to essay. One of the huge advantages of using a word processor is that you can experiment with the placement of categories and see which works best for you. Once you have written your classification essay, you can try a different paragraph order and try both orders on friends. Without telling them which one you prefer, elicit their opinion. (And while they're at it, they can look for other loose ends in your writing! See Editing.)

And, of course, as always, what is the point of this classification? What insight into the whole do we get by analyzing the parts in this way?

The following essay is really a combination of a Personal Essay and a Classification Essay. It was written by Ima Ersatz, a former community college student who went on to become a community college instructor. She kindly gives us permission to reprint this essay.

The Geography of English 102
Ima Ersatz

You can tell a lot about students in a classroom before they open their mouths or put pen to paper. You can tell a lot about what kind of student they are according to where they have chosen to sit in a classroom (assuming they're allowed to sit where they want). I know this from personal experience. When I was in college, my favorite perch was always well to the back of the classroom — not necessarily in the Back Row, because I thought that was reserved for true, inveterate slackers, but just in front of the Back Row. It was part of my scheme to get through four years of college without ever being called on in class. I had other devices -- pretending to be scribbling notes furiously in my notebook or looking up something in my book (Profs won't bother you if they think you're taking notes on their precious words), pretending to be suffering from a nasty cold -- but none more effective over the long haul of a semester than simply choosing my seat carefully.

How I loathed the students in Front Row, especially Bob Engstrom! He always raised his hand to ask and answer questions. That was bad enough, but all class long he bobbed his head up and down in agreement with everything the professor said. I wanted to throw spitballs at the back of that bobbing head. I would have whacked that head with my copy of Bleak House if it weren't so far in front of me. I continue to associate everyone in Front Row with the back of Bob Engstrom's head.

Later on — irony of ironies — I became a college instructor who depended greatly on students' willingness to participate in class discussion. I can confirm that what I learned earlier from the back of the classroom is true. Front Rows are students who want to appear more interested in what's going on in the class; they interact more often and more expertly with the instructor, and they get better grades. Back Seats are either too shy or unwilling to engage in the life of the class; they get lower grades. I have no statistical analysis to back this up, but I'd bet a new eraser on it.

The geography of the classroom is divided into additional segments. Actually, I've found that Back Seats are not necessarily the best seats for avoiding the eye of the questioning professor. A professor who stands in front of his class might well look over Front Seats and look Back Seats right in the eye. This is bad for Back Seats because the professor knows why they're sitting there and will overlook the waving arms of Front Seats to get at the squirming, coughing victims of Back Seatdom. For this very reason, SIDE SEATS are often the safest. Not only are they more comfortable — year after year students have been leaning their sleepy heads against the walls until there is a nice groove worn in the plaster — but the instructor needs stereoscopic vision to catch them. Thus, if they do fall asleep, Side Seats are far less apt to fall onto the floor because they enjoy the support of the wall, but they are also never in the direct gaze of the instructor. Surprising point of fact: the very best seat for avoiding the instructor's questions might very well be the FIRST ROW, SIDE SEAT (either side, perhaps depending on whether the instructor is left- or right-handed or blind in one eye).

The largest segment of classroom geography, of course, is the area of CENTER SEATS, that circle of seats in the middle of the classroom, not front or back or off to the sides. Here you find the good friendly citizens of academia. They haven't really made a commitment to being an academic star, nor are they willing, quite yet, to write you off and fall asleep on you. The students of Center Seats deserve the benefit of the doubt, always; they will get B's and C's, and frequently there will be a pleasant surprise sitting among them — perhaps they came to class late and couldn't find a seat in the front or they just wanted to be disguised for some reason.

Of course you will find deviations from this geography. Every once in a while, an academic superstar will sit in Back Row. Be assured she will be treated as an alien by her nearby classmates, and rightfully so. And, as a young teacher, in my very first literature class at the University of Connecticut, I was dumbfounded by a student who insisted on sitting in the very Front Row Center and yet fell profoundly asleep every class. It couldn't have been my fault; the others in Front Row were predictably alert. But fifteen minutes into the class this student's head would begin the old bob-and-weave and snap-to-attention and soon he would all but snore and drool. I was hypnotized by his drooping eyes and the class began to pay more attention to his weaving head than to my scintillating lecture. I should have taken up a collection to buy him a cup of coffee. It couldn't have been my fault, after all. He just didn't understand where he belonged in the geography of the classroom.


Points to Ponder:

  • Why does the writer present the categories in this order?
  • Can you think of other categories based on the classroom's "geography" that the writer didn't list?
  • Does this essay seem aimed toward a specific audience? If so, what kind?
  • What structural elements holds this essay together? Try printing the essay and connecting structural elements with circles and lines.
  • Do or did you fit into any of these categories in the classroom? Does the essay inspire you to try sitting elsewhere in the classroom the next time you begin a class?
  • Can you sum up the writer's point (if there is one)? Can you point to a thesis statement or place where the point of the essay seems to "happen"?
  • There is no scientific evidence to back up what the writer says about where certain kinds of students sit. Would the analysis be improved by such evidence?

Additional Reading:

WebCT FeedbackFeedback Form for WebCT Students: Click the WebCT icon for a form on which you can record your understanding of this material. (Password protected.)
  • Read a fun article that analyzes the transportation options between Hartford and Boston. Click HERE. Think of collaborative writing projects that would involve a similar team approach to the classification and analysis of choices. If, in the final analysis, there is a clearly preferred choice, how do you let the reader know that?
  • Read this analysis of "The New Power Elite," on the experiences of six groups — women, Jews, blacks, Asians, Latinos, and gay men and lesbians — as they move into the ranks of America's power elite — from Mother Jones Magazine.