Comparing Texts: More Than Frenemies

by Maia Silber

When comparing two sources, it’s easy to fall into what I like to call the “friends, enemies, and frenemies” trap. If the two sources present similar perspectives, our first instinct might be to label them “friends”—Source X and Source Y both argue that standardized testing should be used to evaluate high school teachers. Alternatively, if the sources clearly contain opposing viewpoints, we cast them as “enemies”—Source X argues that standardized testing should be used to evaluate high school teachers, but Source Y argues that it should not.

It might seem like the way to add complexity to such theses would be to define the sources as “frenemies”– Source X and Source Y both argue that standardized tests should be used to evaluate high school teachers, but only Source X argues that student reports should also be used to evaluate high school teachers. The problem with the “frenemies” approach is not that it’s inaccurate—any two writers, like any two people, will agree on some points and disagree on others—but that it does not account for why or how the authors agree and disagree.

A good comparison, someone once told me, finds the like in the unlike and the unlike in the like. To present a more complex account of how two sources relate to one another, it’s helpful to remember that writers can be more than frenemies—they might, for instance, relate to each other in the following ways:

THE SPRINTER AND THE JOGGER: The sprinter and the jogger each have the same goal—the finish line—but they’re going to get there in different ways. Source X and Source Y might be making the same argument—each claims that standardized testing should not be used to evaluate high school teachers—but for different reasons. Source X might argue that standardized testing should not be used to evaluate high school teachers because standardized tests don’t reliably predict students’ academic success. Source Y might claim that standardized tests do a great job of predicting students’ academic success, but still argue that standardized tests should not be used to evaluate teachers because students with high IQs will score well regardless of time spent in class.

TWO COOKS IN THE KITCHEN: Have you ever watched one of those TV cooking challenges, where both chefs get the same ingredients to create their dishes? They each start out with similar combinations of milk, eggs, and flour, but one bakes a pound cake and the other a puff pastry. Source X and Source Y might both be using the same tool—the value of meritocracy, say—and come to entirely different conclusions. Source X argues that standardized test scores provide the most objective way to measure teachers’ performance, but Source Y argues that in-class evaluations provide a larger picture of teachers’ merit.

THE THEORETICIAN AND THE PRACTITIONER: When comparing a secondary source to a primary source, you can imagine discovering a cure in the lab and then testing it on real patients. Does the cure work? What real-life variables not present in the lab might affect it? Did the lab report anticipate its success rate, and if not, why? If Secondary Source X argues that standardized testing should be used to evaluate high school teachers, and Primary Source Y charts students’ standardized test scores against teachers’ in-class evaluations at public and private high schools, what might looking at Source X and Source Y together tell us about the real-life situations where standardized test scores accurately do or don’t accurately measure teachers’ performance?

THE DOCTOR AND THE PATIENT: A medical analogy might also be fitting to describe another way that primary and secondary sources interact. Say that a patient comes to a doctor’s office complaining of a problem—he’s been exercising every day and can’t lose weight. The doctor asks him about his eating habits, and finds that he’s been consuming a high-calorie diet. Primary Source X (the patient) finds that standardized test scores don’t reflect teachers’ performance ratings at low-income schools. If Secondary Source Y (the doctor) suggests that standardized test scores are affected by school resources and funding, how might this account for the data in Primary Source X?

What am I supposed to do with all these sources?

by Sophia Angelis

It’s research paper season again. We see a lot of students at the Writing Center at this time of year who have questions about how to make sources work in their research papers. The scenario often looks like this:

You’ve picked your topic for your research paper and you’ve collected all your sources. Maybe you have a novel or two, a scholarly article, a book of history, a biography of an author. Now you have to put your paper together, and you’re wondering what you’re supposed to do with all of those sources.

My Expos preceptor gave me some excellent advice that I still remember whenever I write a research paper. She said that writing a research paper is like joining a conversation. Think of your sources as everyone else who is already engaged in the conversation (i.e., Critic X, Historian Y, Statistician Z). Your job, as the person who is now joining this conversation, is to say something that hasn’t been said. Your job is to add to the conversation.

So how do you do that?

Here are five ways you can join the conversation:

Agree: You can agree with what one of your sources has already said. Agreeing, though, is a little boring. Agreeing with all your sources is the equivalent of standing next to someone, nodding while they talk, and interjecting a periodic, “Yeah,” or, “That’s so exactly what I think.” You’ve met people like that. They’re boring. So try to engage with your source in a more interesting way.

Extend: Your second option is to extend an argument that someone has already made.  Perhaps you’re standing next to someone who says, “Jane Austen’s novel, Emma, reveals that Victorian society does not punish men for failing to behave according to its moral standards.” You can jump in and say something like, “You’re right! In fact, I can add to your argument by revealing that while women are judged according to whether they are moral, men are judged according to whether they are charming.”

Complicate: Your third option is to complicate someone else’s argument. That usually involves agreeing with someone’s argument to a point, and then amending it. For instance, the guy on your right says, “The American Revolution drew heavily on French Enlightenment thinking.” You say, “Though the American Revolution did draw on French Enlightenment thinking, my examination of Thomas Jefferson’s letters shows that he amplified Enlightenment philosophies of state, while eliminating Enlightenment philosophies of religion.”

Disagree: This one’s pretty straightforward. Some nice woman says, “I think that George Eliot creates sympathetic Jewish characters in her novel, Daniel Deronda, in order to express her support for the Zionist movement,” and you jump in and say, “I disagree. I believe that though Eliot attempted to support Zionism, her portrayal of Jewish characters in Daniel Deronda is ultimately patronizing and exoticizing.”

Context: The fifth way to use sources is likely the way with which you are most familiar: providing context. This means using other sources in order to situate your primary sources against some larger background. For instance, you might introduce your argument by saying, “In 2001, President Bush introduced an education reform bill that he called, ‘No Child Left Behind.’ Among other things, the legislation required that all public schools take standardized tests in order to chart student achievement and progress. According to these tests, student performance in math has been declining steadily over the past decade. However, as my case study of the Boston area public high schools will show, this decline has been distributed unequally among races.”

In Defense of Close Reading

by Peter Bernard

Most of us have been there before: it’s midterm season, problem sets and take-homes lurk on the horizon, and you’ve got a paper due in a few days. What’s worse, you haven’t even touched the readings yet.

 You might think, I can’t do this. Given that the time frame is a couple of days and not a couple of hours, chances are you can. Or you might think, I don’t have time to do the readings—I’ll just skim them and start writing as soon as possible.

 What I want to emphasize here is this: Don’t do it!

You will be much better off if you devote your time to a slow, close reading of what you can get through and then save a little bit of time at the end for a very quick skim of whatever’s left. A lukewarm skim of everything will not get you far in generating original ideas that you can massage into a thesis.

And this advice doesn’t just apply to when you have a time crunch on your hands. As a general rule, I urge you to devote your time for readings, as much as possible, to a close reading, and avoid skimming whenever you can—even if it means that you aren’t able to get through as much of the material.

Of course, this depends to an extent on the discipline: skimming will probably prove more fruitful for secondary theoretical texts or historical documents, and for evaluating potential sources for a research paper it can be downright helpful (For good advice in this regard, see our  post about evaluating sources: “Should I Go All the Way? The Ten-Minute Drill”). Some students also feel like they have no choice but to skim, given that many courses assign far more reading than is possible to engage with thoroughly. Don’t worry about that—it is a problem all the students in the class are struggling with. Use our Ten-Minute Drill to determine what you want to focus in on, and then sit down to do some heavy-duty close reading. Above all, if what you’re working on is a “primary source”—that is, a source where it’s important to pay attention to form (prosody, style, word choice, imagery, argumentative steps) as well as content—then skimming will get you next to nowhere, whereas close reading will take you far indeed.

Well then, what exactly do I mean by a “close reading”? What are good approaches for reading closely? Here are a few pointers:

1.      Close reading, above all, means that you engage with the text on a personal level. Forget that the text is “assigned,” and try, as much as possible, to trick yourself into the mindset that you are reading it for fun or leisure. I know this can be hard. We’ve all been assigned texts that we don’t want to read or that we find boring. But that’s all right, too—channel your rage and ask yourself, Why is this text boring? Can I find specific reasons why I can’t engage with it as I would with other texts? Can I point to some specific faults that this text might have? Keeping focused and probing why you connect–or don’t connect–with a text is the first step toward coming up with paper-worthy points.

2.      Take notes. Different people do this in different ways. Many people like to highlight the text or write notes in the margins; I like to write out notes in a separate notebook. That way, I can keep the text’s slate clean so that I won’t be influenced by old thoughts on rereadings, and I can organize my points in a notebook in such a way that they work off each other. For example, let’s say an ambiguity has piqued your interest and you make note of it. It’s likely that the next point in the text that stands out to you will be in dialogue with the previous point, maybe clarifying it or complicating it further, and you can log this linkage in your notes, too. This is something you wouldn’t be able to do as easily if you were annotating the texts themselves, because the points are likely pages apart. I find that by taking notes in a separate place this way, outlines for papers often build themselves—you’ll find that your points start to connect in surprising ways, and, if you stay focused, next thing you know you’ve come up with a thesis with plenty of text-specific evidence.

3.      And of course, as I just mentioned—stay focused. Some people can read in noisy, bustling environments; more power to them. I can’t, so I don’t even attempt to tackle my readings unless I know I have a chunk of time on my hands in which I won’t be interrupted and bothered. That way, I can enter into the world of the text and let my ideas flow in tandem with its movements, instead of having start-and-stop, staccato ideas that don’t connect with one another. I know it can be a difficult thing to do nowadays, but close the computer, turn the phone off, and give yourself to the text. Chances are, you’ll find things are much easier when it comes to write the next paper.



Peter Bernard ‘11 tutors at the Writing Center and concentrates in East Asian Studies.

The Quote Sandwich

by Charlotte Lieberman

I can still remember one of the most disappointing experiences of my life: I am sitting at a coffee shop ready to unfold the layers of greasy wax-paper enveloping my mozzarella and tomato sandwich.  According to the menu, this creation is adorned with a layer of pesto.  As I open each fold, my excitement grows. After about half a minute of unfolding, I finally reach the sandwich itself – and I take a bite.  And so here we are, at one of the most disappointing experiences of my life: first, the bread was thin and dry, failing to provide the mozzarella and tomato with any structure; second, there was hardly any mozzarella or tomato on the sandwich – it did not succeed in making any sort of statement to my palate; finally – and perhaps most disappointingly– the sandwich-maker forgot the pesto, such that the sandwich lacked any sort of binding agent to permit the flavors to marry and complement each other.  Overall, my sandwich was disjointed, boring, and left me with no feeling or thoughts other than an incessantly disappointing question: “Why?!”

The only thing more disappointing than a poorly constructed mozzarella and tomato sandwich is a poorly constructed quote sandwich.  “A quote sandwich?” you may be asking yourself – and thus I will reply, “Indeed! A quote sandwich!”  When embarking on the journey of making a quote sandwich, the first step is to determine the filling – that is, the quote itself.  Sure, the quote should be zesty like a pesto-drenched piece of mozzarella cheese, but more importantly, how does this quote serve as evidence for your thesis? In cases where quotes are necessary for your paper (it is important to note that they are not in certain fields – social sciences or psychology, for example), they should likewise not be injected or shoved into your paper as filler.  Quotes give you authority – so before selecting a quote, examine why you are choosing this quote —what is its significance to your argument?

In order to make sense of the various components in a quote sandwich, I will provide an example from an essay by Harvard College Writing Center tutor Madeline Magnuson (’13).  In her essay, which was published in this year’s Exposé, Madeline tackles the thematic thread of marriage in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and analyzes how the engagement of Jane and Rocheseter, the novel’s central figures, causes anxiety and tension amidst the societal demands within the narrative’s landscape. 

The top layer of a quote sandwich should not be analogous to the dry piece of bread that failed to provide structure for my coffee shop sandwich.  Instead, the top layer should be fresh and read well even without the quote.  Think of my disappointing sandwich as a counterfactual: in an idea world, the bread would have been fresh and fluffy enough to give structure to the sandwich, and the pesto adornment would have made the flavors more interesting. Together, the bread and pesto would have made the whole sandwich experience more cohesive and enjoyable. In the same way, the sentence before a quotation should create a fluid transition between the ideas preceding the quotation and the quotation itself.  Like the bread of a good sandwich, the sentence should provide the topic and context for the quotation.

Madeline begins her first body paragraph by situating the reader within the narrative context of Jane Eyre, while also allowing the reader to track her train of thought in her paper’s own arc. Madeline writes, “On the eve of their engagement, Jane and Rochester regard each other as equals because their relationship is conducted in social isolation. Brontë draws clear parallels between the garden in the proposal scene and the Garden of Eden. She explicitly describes the garden as ‘Eden-like’ (286), but also includes more subtle imagery.” Here, we see a perfect top layer of a quote sandwich.  In her topic sentence, Madeline provides narrative context by telling the reader that she will be analyzing a scene from the novel “on the eve of their [Jane and Rochester’s] engagement.”  Further, she makes a clear argument by stating that Jane and Rochester “regard each other as equals because their relationship is conducted in social isolation.” Before introducing the quote, Madeline provides the reader with a clear, confident statement that adequately sets the stage for the material she is analyzing as she asserts the presence of her argumentative lens. 

With this well-baked slice of bread, Madeline has prepared us for the tasty filler of the quote sandwich.  Put most simply, after the introduction to the quote comes the quote itself. In Madeline’s essay, she immediately introduces her central quote, what she calls “subtle imagery,” after first referring to the snippet from the novel that describes the garden as “Eden-like.” She begins, “Rochester tells Jane: “[I]t is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame” (291).”  Madeline’s quote sandwich filling is indeed tasty, and successfully placed in the structure of her paper. 

As we saw in the “bread” or first layer of her quote sandwich, Madeline asserted her argument – telling the reader that she will analyze how equality functions between Jane and Rochester in relation to society – and then tells the reader how she will analyze a scene from the novel in which Brontë compares the garden in the narrative to the Garden of Eden.  Before we see analysis of the quote, it is clear why it is relevant to Madeline’s essay.  On a concrete level, she chose a quote that alluded to “left ribs,” an image that immediately calls to mind the Garden of Eden.  On a more subtle level, Madeline’s quote is strong because it is nuanced.  The text Madeline chose is uttered from the mouth of a character, giving the words a complex layer of subjectivity. Additionally, the character speaking uses the conditional tense (“It is as if…”), raising the question of the character’s inner desires and hopes.  In this way, Madeline’s quote is related to her thesis in a way that is clear and uncomplicated, but also invites the reader to continue reading the paper; with its Biblical imagery and grammatical nuances, this excerpt from the novel is undoubtedly a piece of text that requires sensitive analysis. 

With the filling successfully placed on the bread, we can now look at the next and final structural layer of the quote sandwich.  This layer is complicated to explore, as it is analogous both to the pesto layer and the final layer of bread in the real” sandwich I initially described.  This final layer of the sandwich should explain to the reader why you chose this quote. Explain how it relates to your thesis, and more specifically, what its function is in the scope of your paragraph’s main point.   In other words, the final layer of a quote sandwich should function similarly to the first layer of “bread” in the quote sandwich – it should concisely tell the reader why it is there in the paper such that the essay moves smoothly from one paragraph to another.  But in addition to explaining how the quote relates to the thesis, this final structural layer should also delicately explore the details at work in the quote that make it worth looking at more closely.  This is the pesto layer on the bread.

In order to see the pesto at work, let us look at Madeline’s quote sandwich’s final layer. Madeline writes,

This echoes the Biblical story in which Eve is created from Adam’s left rib, forming a bond of kinship and likeness. The allusions to Eden are significant not only because of the hidden temptation that occurs that night in the form of Rochester’s proposal, but also because of the nature of the Garden of Eden: it is pre-social. Only two humans exist, and they behave as equals. Only after Eve eats from the Apple does God decree that Adam shall rule over her as they leave the Garden and enter the world of men. Inside the garden, Jane and Rochester are alone.

Here, we see the complexities of the final layer of an ideal quote sandwich.  First, Madeline reiterates how Brontë’s prose “echoes the Biblical story in which Eve is create from Adam’s left rib.”  Following this statement, Madeline first claims that the references to the Garden of Eden conjure notions of “hidden temptation” surrounding Rochester’s proposal to Jane. Second, she remarks that, in a more general way, the garden’s similarity to the Garden of Eden evokes a world that is “pre-social,” a poignant observation that is wholly connected to Madeline’s thesis.  Then, Madeline explains what she means by this term “pre-social” in order for the reader to better understand why she is using this quote as evidence for her paper.  She explains, “Only two humans exist” and thus “…they behave as equals.”  In order to fully hammer in the comparison between the Garden of Eden and the world of the novel, Madeline provides the reader with a clear parallelism between the Biblical narrative and the relationship between Eve and Adam, and the world of the novel, “Inside the garden,” specifically where “Jane and Rochester are alone.”

By exploring the quote on so many levels, Madeline offered the reader “pesto” – that is, she demonstrated her aesthetic flourish and enjoyment in the writing process by dissecting the quotes so profoundly and thoroughly.  Finally, by closing her thought, she provided the second slice of bread for her sandwich.

In the world of quote sandwiches, an open face sandwich is not possible, so do not forget to provide context for your quote. In the world of any kind of sandwiches, a bottomless sandwich is never possible – so do not forget your analysis, and make sure to include the pesto.


Charlotte Lieberman ‘13 tutors at the Writing Center.

Should I Go All the Way? The Ten-Minute Drill:

by Dillon Powers

No one likes commitment.  Efficient research leaves more time to write your paper.  Rather than entangle yourself in an abusive relationship with potential source material, try following this set of diagnostics.  At the end of your ten minutes, you will be able to decide whether or not to invest more time into poring over the textual nuances.  You can follow these steps to tackle printed volumes as well as journal articles and e-books.  No matter what you’re reading, try to answer these three questions:

1) What is the thesis of the text?
2) Does the text relate to my research?
3) Is it worth an hour to determine how the text relates to my topic?

Here we go:

Grab a pen and piece of paper.  As you run through the following steps, you’ll want to jot down any clues you uncover.  Stay organized – when you’re back at your desk and need a quote from a book whose title you’ve forgotten, you’ll thank yourself.

Get yourself pumped.  Skimming books requires loads of focus.  This will be more like boot camp, less like some gimmick pill that makes you lose-ten-pounds-without-diet-or-exercise.  The harder you work for the next nine minutes forty-five seconds, the better your understanding of the text.

Analyze the cover.  Take a few seconds to let the book or article title orient your reading.  If the title includes phrases that appear vague or metaphoric, make sure you understand those phrases by the time you finish.  Spend a few seconds on the cover art, if applicable.

Evaluate the author.  Who is s/he?  Is s/he a professor?  In what field?  Who funded the author’s research?  Is this a piece of bona-fide academia?  Who published the book?  Assess any potential sources of bias that might help you uncover what the text argues.  Also be sure to check the date of publication, so you have a sense of where your book fits into the relevant body of academic literature.

Find the table of contents.  This is your map to the book.  Note how the author organizes different parts of the text.  Do some rough math to compare the lengths of each chapter or section.  Which points or issues does the author spend the most time on? How does each point relate to the next? You should be well on your way to answering the first question.

Read the introduction and conclusion.  Now is your best chance to discern the main argument of the book.  Be sure to check for any headings or divisions (this applies especially for skimming journal articles).  Don’t try to digest every word: read the first and last sentences of paragraphs, and skim down the middle of the page in-between.

Examine textual points of interest.  This means investigating specific parts of chapters you find particularly pertinent to your topic.  If you’re looking for a specific term, date, or event, look it up in the index.  Don’t get too bogged down in details.  In your notes, jot down pages or passages worth a more deliberate go-through.

Flip through the back material. Glance through reviews if applicable.  If you’re reading online, see if you can manipulate the URL to find a site homepage, which might have other similar works posted.  Also check out any appendices, maps, and reproduced documents that may be useful.  Take a look at the bibliography (or footnotes in a journal article).  Here you can find other potential sources, as well as see what texts both the author and you have read.

Stop.  If the book isn’t worth reading, put it on a counter for re-shelving.  If it is worth reading, put it aside to check out and take home later.  Even if the book is for in-library use only, don’t read it immediately.  Before you do that, look at the titles of books in the same call-number area.  You may find something that did not appear in your initial HOLLIS searches.  Go ahead and repeat the drill for those texts.  Good luck!


Dillon Powers ‘11 tutors at the Writing Center and concentrates in History.