Help for Definitions

The concept of a Definition/Category essay is not obvious or readily grasped, so I’m going to make specific suggestions based on your actual research topics.

StudentWriter. Your hypothesis is still formless but the themes you’re exploring are starting to come into focus. You’d like to illuminate America’s failure to fully deliver on its promise of religious freedom. Your evolving thesis appears to depend on the conflict between Christian values—or the values of white Christian males—and the traditions or beliefs of other religious groups. What you appear to be taking for granted is that your readers all agree on what is meant by “Christian values.” If your argument is to make any sense at all, you’ll have to inform us precisely Christians value before you can demonstrate that their hegemony in the culture in any way represses the behavior of others.

RealMoana. You’ve narrowed your focus now from “dangers of the internet” to the very specific topic of children making themselves targets of sexual predators by posting too freely on Facebook. Your most obvious definition/classification challenge now will be to identify what you mean by “too much information.” There must be research to help you determine what makes children most vulnerable to predators. I don’t think we’re talking about home addresses here, since as you suggest the predator’s best tactic is to get the child to agree to meet somewhere. So what’s most dangerous to share? Are they personality traits more than identifying details? Is the child who appears most trusting and gullible most likely to run into trouble?

By the way, here’s a dandy source for you: “Do Sex Offenders Have a Free-Speech Right to Facebook?”

GreenEggs. Your current topic is WAY too broad. You want to work the angle that the “land of the free” is more of a slogan than a fact of life for millions of Americans, and that’s fine. But in just 3000 words, you’re going to need to narrow that down considerably to do the question any justice. The closest thing to a narrow topic I see in your White Paper is the NYTimes article titled “Why Can’t We End Poverty?” This opens two possibilities, one of which you hint at yourself. First, what exactly do we mean by poverty? It can’t be simply measured by annual income, can it? Shouldn’t it be a more complex measure of a standard of living? And doesn’t that mean that some can get by on very little money while others with the same or larger incomes nevertheless live in poverty? Second, if the “land of the free” includes the freedom to achieve a higher standard of living, does American culture unfairly deny that freedom to those who start out life in poverty? If you follow that track, you’ll need to define upward mobility before you can argue whether it’s achievable or not.

RealJohnSanchez. You’re missing the obvious here, RJS. The “bystander effect” is such a familiar concept that we think we know what it is. But try to describe it and I think you’ll see it needs and deserves a thorough definition. The same behavior (not intervening in a dangerous situation) can be explained a variety of ways. 1) I am not certain that what I’m witnessing is a crime. 2) I am not certain my intervention would be at all successful. 3) I am not the person with the best opportunity to help. 4) I do not care enough about strangers to put myself at risk. 5) I’m pretty sure my intervention would make the situation worse. 6) I think others have already done what I could do to help. 7) I fear for my own personal safety. 8) I fear retaliation. 9) I feel compromised just being a witness. 10) I want no involvement with law enforcement. Challenge a couple of good friends to add to this list. When you have a couple dozen explanations for “bystander” behavior, you’ll see the value of defining it narrowly for your own purposes.

DunkinDonuts. In its collection of material, your White Paper about inhumane animal testing is among the most thorough I’ve seen this week, but it doesn’t offer any suggestions for shorter arguments. I have a candidate for a Definition essay. You refer to animal test subjects as “resources,” and as “little humans.” You use quotation marks to indicate you resist both of these classifications. Clearly, objectifying pigs, rats, and rabbits as resources makes it much easier to process them, even to discount their pain and distress as data rather than the suffering of sentient beings. On the opposite pole, anthropomorphizing them as “little humans” legitimizes their pain as beneficial, educational, progressive, “worth the sacrifice” since their suffering will benefit the “big humans.” Scour your sources for evidence of both types of language: terms and phrases that objectify, and language that exaggerates the similarity of the animals to the humans they’re “serving.”

Starbucks. Your hypothesis is too new for you (or me) to have thought much about what terms you need to define in context. My first thought is that you need to learn as much about intelligence as you can. Certainly you could start by reading about Howard Gardner’s 7 Types of Intelligence (but be careful; it’s become a staple of pop psychology, so there’s lots of junk “science” out there that sounds convincing but is based on no evidence). You might also need to read about the subtle differences between human and artificial intelligence (AI). In fact you’ll have to if you want to make any meaningful comparisons between the genius of Copernicus (for example) and the complex number-crunching data analysis modern computers bring to astronomical research. Imagine what Copernicus could have done with a supercomputer and the Hubble telescope.

Chippy. Your hypothesis that Sea World fails to fulfill its own mission of teaching the public (you say kids) about whales in the wild would be easier to prove as a positive than a negative. Claim that they spread misinformation rather than fail to do something. But your instinct to accomplish on paper what Sea World fails to do with their big tanks is a strong one. By all means begin by educating your readers about the natural behaviors of orca so readers can recognize for themselves the disparity between free and captive whales. The more detailed you can be about their hunting, mating, and social behaviors, the stronger the contrast will be. Use Sea World’s own marketing materials to demonstrate what they claim to be doing. I went to google looking for SeaWorld signage to guide you, but all I found in two minutes was this. Funny:


Nickalodeansallthat. I think you know where you need to go with this, Nick, but I will caution you to stay as academic as you can and resist the temptation to base your arguments on the rants of bloggers. You’re working several themes that are supportive of one another, but you can’t do any of them justice if you try to cover 1) limitations on our ability to express our religious beliefs, 2) privileged status awarded to some groups at the expense of others, 3) overextensions of the First Amendment to include hate speech, 4) hate crimes that either are or that result from hate speech (I can’t tell which one you’re considering). It’s all a bit of a stew in your White Paper, something your Definition Argument can clarify. To my eye, the best place to start is with a very clear explanation of what you will mean by the term “hate crime” when you use it in your paper. This evolving legal term means very different things to different people. Nail that down.

NoBinaryNeeded. I’ll be very proud if I can help you convince your readers to fight off the stigma of mental illness, NBN. I think to do that you’ll have to find the language that normalizes and de-mystifies the term. Fortunately, that is the job of a Definition Argument, to re-craft a notion for readers so that they see the world as you want them to. When you say, “Over 40% of adult Americans are plagued with a mental illness,” my reaction is “Well then, I must not know what a mental illness is because that seems extremely high.” Your job will be to turn around that resistance. Analogy might be your best tool. You quote the pastor who compares diabetes (no shame) and mental illness (shame-producing). That seems ineffective. I’m thinking Near-Sightedness (no shame). The percentage is probably about right. It can’t be blamed on our personality, upbringing, or bad behavior. Your mother’s not to blame. We don’t stigmatize people who need glasses, and we would never think of denying them treatment. They’re much less likely to hit pedestrians in the crosswalk if we let them correct their naturally-occurring deficiency.

TheWentzWagon. I agree the WAR (Wins Against Replacement) statistic is an intriguing topic for baseball fans and well worth researching. I for one would appreciate a detailed explanation of how the number is derived, but I was able to get that in one minute with a very simple Google search. Result: “What is WAR?” Passing along that information would be very easy. YOUR JOB, in a Definition Argument, is to challenge the accepted meaning of a term or to refine your reader’s understanding of a term to shape the argument as you wish to approach it. For example, I found this:

WAR estimates a player’s total value and allows us to make comparisons among players with vastly different skill sets. Who is better, a slugging first baseman or a superlative defensive shortstop? WAR gives you a method for answering that question.

I think you would agree, the answer to the question about which position player is better IS NOT “whichever one has the better WAR number,” but instead, “whichever one my team needs.” In other words, if you want to maintain that eyeball scouting is still important, define WAR by its limitations, not by its value.

Aeks. I disagree that a survey of various grading techniques is the best approach to your Definition Argument. I don’t know how many you had in mind to examine, but most if not all of them will be irrelevant once you decide which system will motivate students, or measure their performance, or compare them to a norm, or inform educators and employers, OR . . . Do you see what I’m getting at? You said yourself in your White Paper that before choosing a grading method, educators need to agree on THE PURPOSE of grades. I’d start there, defining grades in terms of their supposed functionality. Definition Argument: What Grades are Supposed to Accomplish. Causal Argument: The Grading Technique that Delivers that Desired Outcome. Rebuttal Argument: Don’t Even Start to Bring Me Objections that are Irrelevant to the Outcome. Is that a plan you could endorse?

TheCommonBlackHawk. We’ve talked meaningfully about your hypothesis, BlackHawk, so you know I endorse your overall plan to demonstrate the very opposite of your original thesis. Instead of championing positive reinforcement, you’ll now be defending the “boot camp method” of training through, as you call it, “repetitive belittlement and defeat.” Your plan is to promote “self-efficacy,” in which “people set challenging goals and maintain strong commitment to them.” That almost works. But if your model for the argument is military basic recruit training, it’s not the recruits who set the challenging goals. We agree, I think, that the recruit is procedurally conditioned to depend on himself and no one else (self-efficacy), but that the goals are set by the trainers (further relinquishing personal motivation in service of the chain of command). The result is a very rich blend of personal empowerment through self-effacement. WELL WORTH the effort you’re putting into this project.

KingOfLizards. You’ve already learned a lot, King. And I think I can help you take the next step. You started with an enviable enthusiasm to clean up the world’s trash, beginning with the plastic that ends up in the ocean. Pretty quickly you discovered the job is more complicated than scooping up intact soda bottles. Your readers need a clear description of the lifespan of a plastic bottle. What is it? What are its primary components and where do they come from? How does the manufacturing process change the components in ways that create problems later? How does the bottle decompose? Into what? The Vimeo video says “It’s all still plastic.” Have we truly created something we can never be rid of? If it can’t be destroyed and it kills sea life, readers will be much more devastated to learn about the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Save that terrible news until we already know how terrible a single bottle can be.

27 Responses to Help for Definitions

  1. kingoflizards says:

    I will definitely look into the lifespan of a bottle. I think that that would be valuable information for the reader, as well as the dangers of plastic in the ocean. I can talk about the dangerous effects, and why it’s a good idea to prevent things like the Garbage Patches. If I layer the information, such as starting with the life of a bottle, then leading to the dangers of plastic, then to the colossal size of the garbage patch, I think the paper would be far more chilling and far more persuasive.

    • davidbdale says:

      That’s an excellent overall strategy, King, building toward the enormity of the problem once we’ve been educated on the persistent perniciousness of just one bottle. To start to process, the bottle itself is a good topic for a Definition Argument. We think we know what it is, but we don’t actually know where it comes from, what it’s made of, how long it lasts, how it breaks down, what dangers it poses. Every aspect of the bottle could (who knows?) have negative consequences.

  2. nobinaryneeded says:

    This response was very helpful, and while I agree with some of it, I’m going to argue against some of it as well. I do agree I could define what mental illness is more clearly than just the broad term “mental illness.” I could define depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder instead of just mental illness, thought saying mental illness just broadens the horizon and uses a shorter term. I will stand by comparing someone with diabetes to someone with mental illness and how the stigma will treat the mentally ill person less severely than an individual with diabetes, though both are very serious illnesses. Other than that, I appreciate the feedback and will definitely use it to my advantage.

    • davidbdale says:

      Nothing makes me happier than to hear that you’re going to resist and argue back, NoBinary. Bring it.

    • davidbdale says:

      You do recognize that, except for childhood-onset diabetes, many people consider diabetes to be a behavioral, lifestyle disease resulting from bad diet, lack of exercise, obesity? They may be right or wrong, but the stigma is there. Your Pastor Rick is misinformed. Back to you. 🙂
      Reply, please.

      • nobinaryneeded says:

        I do agree with that. Though either way when someone does have it, they get treated for it without question. People suffering from mental illnesses can be told things such as “it’s all in your head” or “stop being so sad all the time” when it’s simply not that easy, considering mental illness is a serious medical condition that requires therapy and medication.

  3. starbucks732 says:

    The feedback that you gave me is very helpful. I feel that I could use all of those examples that you proposed and dig deep into them to explain my topic the best I can. I think with doing a lot more research and the feedback I have received that I will be able to compose a well thought out plan for my research paper.

  4. nickalodeansallthat says:

    Thank you for the feed back and I think your advice is a good place to start. Starting by defining and then expanding on the term of Hate crime and how it relates to all the different terms associated with it makes for good layers to build an essay upon and I will try to be as academic as possible.

  5. therealmoana says:

    This was very helpful thank you! I will make it clear that the dangers of attracting sexual offenders is putting too much information about your personality, which draws predators to a child because it reminds them of someone in their life that was or is important to them.

    • davidbdale says:

      That’s REALLY interesting and unexpected, Moana. What makes you connect sexual predation to reminiscence of—or resonance with—significant others?
      Reply, please.

  6. aeks123 says:

    I think that the plan you set up would work. My definition argument will definitely be better describing what grades are supposed to accomplish rather than describing the different grading systems. It will help me narrow my focus to just one grading system instead of wasting time with irrelevant information.

    • davidbdale says:

      I agree it will eliminate irrelevancies, Aeks; it will also focus your attention on results. How else should we decide among different approaches?
      Reply, please.

  7. therealjohnsanchez says:

    I think you’re right. I assumed that it was already defined but if I’m going to challenge the bystander effect I would need to define it first.

    • davidbdale says:

      You and I could disagree about whether the term has a specific meaning, Sanchez. It certainly has a popular meaning, but whether that meaning is clear enough to base arguments on has not been determined. Your job—your privilege—is to set the terms for your own argument by defining “bystander effect” once and for all as a set of behaviors, or motivations, or reluctances (It’s a plural if I say it’s a plural).

  8. chippy1313 says:

    This was very helpful I will definitely be writing about the differences between the free and captive orcas to show the contrast between them. I am also most likely to change my hypothesis towards the idea of your suggestion to prove that SeaWorld is spreading misinformation rather than to try to prove that they are failing to teach certain information. Also loved the photo

    • davidbdale says:

      It will be much easier to prove the lies they’re telling than to prove that they’re failing to tell truths, Chippy. You can catch them in lies. You can’t catch them saying nothing.

  9. studentwriter1212 says:

    The advice is useful and it will be used. There are lots of terms that will be used. I was intending on writing on a specific event. I have different events I am currently researching right now. I may have to change my thesis entirely in order to have a sound argument.

  10. greeneggsandham234 says:

    I need more resources and to define my topic in depth. The advice helps, and it also helps me decide what to define. I need to explain better what exactly I mean by my argument.

    • davidbdale says:

      You can choose to define poverty or upward mobility. You can define income inequality or class stagnation. Mostly you need to focus narrowly on a hypothesis that will eliminate entire classes of irrelevant information.

      Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it, GreenEggs. Leave Replies here, or on your White Paper, or post a very rough draft of your Definition in a day or two and ask for help well before the deadline.

  11. thecommonblackhawk says:

    There are a few things I would like to discuss a little more for clarification.
    1) Sole Self Reliance vs. Self motivation
    2)Motivation through chain of command vs self motivation.

    I will go into further depth after class on what I would like to clarify.

    • davidbdale says:

      Looking forward to it.
      I may invite a silent observer if you’re open to it.

    • davidbdale says:

      I got clarity from our conference, BlackHawk. Did you?
      Reply, please. Describe your understanding of our resolution.

      • thecommonblackhawk says:

        I did get clarity! The biggest clarification was probably the difference between motivation and goal. Wording matters and by using the two words interchangeable, I could mislead the reader. Recruits work towards the goal of becoming a soldier using their personal experiences as motivation.

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