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?

Building Bridges Between Your Paragraphs

by Kenneth Mai

Your essay doesn’t flow. Add some transitions.

Those words – along with comments such as “Needs better transitions,” “Where’s the transition?,” or simply “TRANSITION!!!” – plague many a paper that may perhaps otherwise be brilliant.

See, it’s like this. Pretend that the many ideas you’re churning out within a paper are islands in the ocean. (That’s a metaphor! Sometimes metaphors work nicely in papers! ) Some islands are bigger than others. Some are closer to each other, whilst some may seem to be drifting off far away from all the others. Similarly, some ideas are smaller bits a cohesive whole, while others require a bit more effort to reel in. Your task is to  gather these islands into a sort of kingdom that you rule. But in order  to make sure that you have full control over everything, you need to connect the islands to each other. Now, it’s fine that each island isn’t directly connected to every other island, especially when they’re far enough away from each other to not really be related at all. But ultimately you want all the islands connected to make up a unified whole. So what do you do?

You build bridges!

In the context of writing a paper, these bridges are your transitions. You have two ideas that are related— islands that are close enough that you can build a bridge between them—but ultimately distinct. In order to help your readers across that gulf, then, you need to put in a transition.

But what exactly is a transition? Is it one of the sequential words – “first,” “second,” “finally,” etc. – that were the gold standard of midde school writing? Well…perhaps. But you have many more options now.    The kind of transition you use depends on the relationship that you’re trying to build between two ideas, and those relationships can be quite complex.  Transitions can be as short as a word or a couple of words to something as long as a sentence or even an entire paragraph. What’s important isn’t so much the shape of the transition as the underlying connection that is being made.

Here are a few useful types of transitions to keep in mind.

  1. Sequential Transitions: Here, we’re not talking so much about “first, second, third.” Rather, this kind of transition points more towards the ideas that logically follow each other. Words such as “therefore” or “then,”  or phrases like “This indicates that…”, show a relationship between the ideas.  These transitions are used when one idea is the premise on which the next idea depends or when the second idea comes as a deduction from the first.
    Examples: Thus, Therefore, Then; It follows that, This indicates that, This implies that; From this we can see that, What this means is that…
  2. Comparative Transitions: Sometimes, it’s not so much that one idea is derivative of another, but rather that they share some sort of property. This is especially useful when the relationship between the two ideas isn’t obvious. This type of transition is useful in comparative essays (for obvious reasons) but also instrumental when you are using analogies to make a point about some sort of topic (such as talking about islands to make a point about transitions!)
    Examples: Like, Also, Similarly; Just as, In the same vein; This idea can also be seen in…, A similar phenomenon is found in …
  3. Contrastive Transitions: There are times when you’re neither describing premise-conclusion relationships nor looking at similarities, but instead focusing on contrasts: “This author says this, but that author says that.” “This appears to be the case, but in reality, it’s something else.” These transitions are useful not only in compare-and-contrast essays, but also whenever you’re trying to debunk a claim or to show another side of an issue. These words can also help you to move on to an entirely different issue.
    Examples: But, Though, However, Nevertheless/Nonetheless; Then again, On the other hand, At the same time; This ignores, It’s not…but rather, The difference between…and…is that…
  4. Summing Up Transitions: You’ve established an idea and thrown lots of brilliant evidence our way. Now what? In order to make sure your readers won’t miss important information, it’s a good idea provide the quick and dirty version of the ideas you just laid out before introducing your big, final insight.
    Examples: Essentially, Basically, Ultimately; In short, In other words, That is to say; This boils down to, The main point is…

Ultimately, the goal of these tools is to bring a sense of cohesion to your paper by showing the logical progression of your thoughts; they’re signposts telling your reader which bridge to cross and what the two islands linked by that bridge have to do with each other. These signposts ought to be everywhere within your paper, moving your reader between phrases and sentences in addition to paragraphs or larger chunks. Sometimes multiple signposts are needed to guide a reader across the bridge, because of the complex relationship of those two ideas. The primary goal to keep in mind, though, is to make sure your reader has a smooth trip. That’s how you make your paper flow.

In my next post, I’ll offer some examples of transitional sentences and paragraphs.

Is Your Introduction Any Good?

by Christina Twicken

In this blog post, I pan for some nuggets of gold in the introductory paragraph of an influential essay written by famed scholar and philosopher Cornel West entitled “The Paradox of the Afro-American Rebellion.”  Here is the paragraph:

The distinctive feature of Afro-American life in the 60s was the rise on the historical stage of a small yet determined petite bourgeoisie promoting liberal reforms, and the revolt of the masses, whose aspirations exceeded those of liberalism but whose containment was secured by political appeasement, cultural control and state repression. Afro-America encountered the modern American capitalist order (in its expansionist phase)—as urban dwellers, industrial workers and franchised citizens—on a broad scale for the first time. This essay will highlight the emergence of the black parvenu petite bourgeoisie—the  new, relatively privileged, middle class—and its complex relations to the black working poor and underclass.  I will try to show how the political strategies, ideological struggles and cultural anxieties of this predominantly white-collar stratum of the black working class both propelled the freedom movement in an unprecedented manner and circumscribed its vision, analysis and praxis within liberal capitalist perimeters.[1]

I share this introduction with you because it teems with lessons by which to live.  Here’s a breakdown of why this introduction is so intellectually and academically “on-point.”

  • Begins with a hook which directly introduces the tension that the paper will explore (the black middle class’s complicated location within the ideologies and structures of liberalism)
  • Moves to explicitly state [in the underlined region] the observations (evidence) that the essay will mobilize
  • Employs the first person to directly indicate originality and contestability
  • Offers a succinct thesis statement [in bold] which contains:
  1. A clear reason why this thesis is worth arguing (to identify and examine a paradox)
  2. An argumentative atmosphere (I could ostensibly come back at West and suggest an alternative vision of the paradox or perhaps a resolution to the paradox)
  3. An explicit allusion to the subject matter around which the analysis will be framed (political strategies, ideological structures, cultural anxieties…)

The best way to improve writing is to read good writing.  Don’t go and copy West’s thesis (!), but mobilize him as a model for judging the writing you do.  Does your introduction hit all of the bases? Does it have a topic? Does it outline the kind of evidence that the essay will use to prove its point? Does it explicitly state why such a presentation of evidence is important/revealing/inspiring/groundbreaking/original/unobvious/interesting?

[1] Cornel West, “The Paradox of the Afro-American Rebellion,” Social Text no. 9/10 (1 April 1984): 44.