Throughout your academic career, you'll be asked to write papers in which you compare and contrast two things: two texts, two theories, two historical figures, two scientific processes, and so on. "Classic" compare-and-contrast papers, in which you weight A and B equally, may be about two similar things that have crucial differences (two pesticides with different effects on the environment) or two similar things that have crucial differences, yet turn out to have surprising commonalities (two politicians with vastly different world views who voice unexpectedly similar perspectives on sexual harassment).
In the "lens" (or "keyhole") comparison, in which you weight A less heavily than B, you use A as a lens through which to view B. Just as looking through a pair of glasses changes the way you see an object, using A as a framework for understanding B changes the way you see B. Lens comparisons are useful for illuminating, critiquing, or challenging the stability of a thing that, before the analysis, seemed perfectly understood. Often, lens comparisons take time into account: earlier texts, events, or historical figures may illuminate later ones, and vice versa.
Faced with a daunting list of seemingly unrelated similarities and differences, you may feel confused about how to construct a paper that isn't just a mechanical exercise in which you first state all the features that A and B have in common, and then state all the ways in which A and B are different. Predictably, the thesis of such a paper is usually an assertion that A and B are very similar yet not so similar after all. To write a good compare-and-contrast paper, you must take your raw data—the similarities and differences you've observed—and make them cohere into a meaningful argument. Here are the five elements required.
Frame of Reference. This is the context within which you place the two things you plan to compare and contrast; it is the umbrella under which you have grouped them. The frame of reference may consist of an idea, theme, question, problem, or theory; a group of similar things from which you extract two for special attention; biographical or historical information. The best frames of reference are constructed from specific sources rather than your own thoughts or observations. Thus, in a paper comparing how two writers redefine social norms of masculinity, you would be better off quoting a sociologist on the topic of masculinity than spinning out potentially banal-sounding theories of your own. Most assignments tell you exactly what the frame of reference should be, and most courses supply sources for constructing it. If you encounter an assignment that fails to provide a frame of reference, you must come up with one on your own. A paper without such a context would have no angle on the material, no focus or frame for the writer to propose a meaningful argument.
Grounds for Comparison. Let's say you're writing a paper on global food distribution, and you've chosen to compare apples and oranges. Why these particular fruits? Why not pears and bananas? The rationale behind your choice, the grounds for comparison, lets your reader know why your choice is deliberate and meaningful, not random. For instance, in a paper asking how the "discourse of domesticity" has been used in the abortion debate, the grounds for comparison are obvious; the issue has two conflicting sides, pro-choice and pro-life. In a paper comparing the effects of acid rain on two forest sites, your choice of sites is less obvious. A paper focusing on similarly aged forest stands in Maine and the Catskills will be set up differently from one comparing a new forest stand in the White Mountains with an old forest in the same region. You need to indicate the reasoning behind your choice.
Thesis. The grounds for comparison anticipates the comparative nature of your thesis. As in any argumentative paper, your thesis statement will convey the gist of your argument, which necessarily follows from your frame of reference. But in a compare-and-contrast, the thesis depends on how the two things you've chosen to compare actually relate to one another. Do they extend, corroborate, complicate, contradict, correct, or debate one another? In the most common compare-and-contrast paper—one focusing on differences—you can indicate the precise relationship between A and B by using the word "whereas" in your thesis:
Whereas Camus perceives ideology as secondary to the need to address a specific historical moment of colonialism, Fanon perceives a revolutionary ideology as the impetus to reshape Algeria's history in a direction toward independence.
Whether your paper focuses primarily on difference or similarity, you need to make the relationship between A and B clear in your thesis. This relationship is at the heart of any compare-and-contrast paper.
Organizational Scheme. Your introduction will include your frame of reference, grounds for comparison, and thesis. There are two basic ways to organize the body of your paper.
- In text-by-text, you discuss all of A, then all of B.
- In point-by-point, you alternate points about A with comparable points about B.
If you think that B extends A, you'll probably use a text-by-text scheme; if you see A and B engaged in debate, a point-by-point scheme will draw attention to the conflict. Be aware, however, that the point-by- point scheme can come off as a ping-pong game. You can avoid this effect by grouping more than one point together, thereby cutting down on the number of times you alternate from A to B. But no matter which organizational scheme you choose, you need not give equal time to similarities and differences. In fact, your paper will be more interesting if you get to the heart of your argument as quickly as possible. Thus, a paper on two evolutionary theorists' different interpretations of specific archaeological findings might have as few as two or three sentences in the introduction on similarities and at most a paragraph or two to set up the contrast between the theorists' positions. The rest of the paper, whether organized text- by-text or point-by-point, will treat the two theorists' differences.
You can organize a classic compare-and-contrast paper either text-by-text or point-by-point. But in a "lens" comparison, in which you spend significantly less time on A (the lens) than on B (the focal text), you almost always organize text-by-text. That's because A and B are not strictly comparable: A is merely a tool for helping you discover whether or not B's nature is actually what expectations have led you to believe it is.
Linking of A and B. All argumentative papers require you to link each point in the argument back to the thesis. Without such links, your reader will be unable to see how new sections logically and systematically advance your argument. In a compare-and contrast, you also need to make links between A and B in the body of your essay if you want your paper to hold together. To make these links, use transitional expressions of comparison and contrast (similarly, moreover, likewise, on the contrary, conversely, on the other hand) and contrastive vocabulary (in the example below, Southerner/Northerner).
As a girl raised in the faded glory of the Old South, amid mystical tales of magnolias and moonlight, the mother remains part of a dying generation. Surrounded by hard times, racial conflict, and limited opportunities, Julian, on the other hand, feels repelled by the provincial nature of home, and represents a new Southerner, one who sees his native land through a condescending Northerner's eyes.
Copyright 1998, Kerry Walk, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
Tonight, at 9 p.m., nestled in between dinner time and bedtime, ABC Family will air the first gay TV wedding since the demise of the Defense of Marriage Act.
The Fosters, where the wedding will occur, is your typical family drama. Produced by Jennifer Lopez (yes, that Jennifer Lopez), this new series follows a couple raising one biological child (David Lambert) and a pair of adopted twins (Jake T. Austin and Cierra Ramirez). Another sibling duo (Maia Mitchell and Hayden Byerly) join the multicultural household in the first episode, after they're abandoned by their foster parents. The usual shenanigans ensue. The kids experiment with sex, experience heartbreak, and deal with identity crises. So what sets this series apart from everything else on primetime? This couple is made up of two moms, Stef and Lena (played by Teri Polo and Sherri Shaum, respectively). And they're finally getting married tonight.
Save for One Million Moms, no one's really talking about The Fosters, at least not on the level TV viewers and critics debate Modern Family or Girls. Why is that? Perhaps it's because, at the end of the day, it's just a solid TV show. And to kids like me, it's a comforting sign that being gay isn't shocking anymore.
The summer’s top new cable TV show in viewers 12-34 (1.3 million) and females 12-34 (1.1 million), The Fosters is about a family headed by a pair of matriarchs, and it airs on a family network run by the godfather of family programming, Disney. Yet, save for One Million Moms, no one's really talking about the show, at least not on the level TV viewers and critics debate Modern Family or Girls. Why is that? Perhaps it's because, at the end of the day, it's just a solid TV show. And to kids like me, it's a comforting sign that being gay isn't shocking anymore.
As a relatively sheltered teenage girl, movies and TV provided the outline for my life. I looked to them to alert me to any significant life experiences headed my way. They taught me to anticipate certain people—the boy I'd known since kindergarten who I'd eventually fall in love with; the rebellious new transfer student who'd make me feel cool; the jock who'd somehow give a wallflower like me the time of day. I checked these off one by one as I met them, but nothing stuck.
I remember being 14 and seeing the sweeps week ad for The O.C.'s big lesbian episode, entitled "The Accomplice." That sneak peek put a stop to my homework. It was the one that had a slo-mo teaser of Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton) intertwining her fingers with recurring character Alex Kelly (Olivia Wilde). Thursday couldn't come fast enough.
I latched onto the storyline. Hell, I latched onto anything that would justify how I felt, which, at 14, was too taboo to even speak about. By then, the only experience I'd had with lesbian couples on screen was the short-lived Jessie/Katie (Evan Rachel Wood and Mischa Barton) romance on Once and Again—canceled not long after—and the episodes of The L Word I could sneak in. Though that show depicted two lesbian moms, the problem with The L Word was that gay and bisexual women still seemed to live in their own world, exclusive from heterosexuals. It was a world that, being a suburban teen raised in a conservative Catholic family, I couldn't fathom.POST CONTINUES BELOW
Like most homosexual romances on screen, Alex and Marissa split, and in the episode following their breakup, Marissa referred to Alex only in passing and as her "friend." It was back to waiting for the next lesbian romance a primetime teen show would use for a sexy ratings boost. Degrassi: The Next Generation and the 90210 reboot did just that.
Nowadays, we've got shows like The New Normal, Glee, and Modern Family depicting gay families on network television. But no family network had explored the idea of two lesbian moms. At least none that I'd encountered until The Fosters.
What makes The Fosters so worthy of discussion is that it doesn't make a big deal of homosexuality. It doesn't turn it into a gimmick and the butt of all jokes the way The New Normal does. It's such a part of the The Fosters' identity that the fact that the family is headed by two lesbian moms doesn't cross your mind until episodes like "Quinceañera," in which their adopted daughter asks to dance with an uncle rather than one of the moms during her 15th birthday celebration, brings struggles specific to their relationship to the forefront. As for the reason Stef and Lena have put off marriage for so long? Lena's been reluctant to let a piece of paper represent their commitment.
One look at the show's opening credits—actors' names sprawled across the images of a typical family home, complete with pancakes, a growth chart, dirty dishes, framed photos—and the message is clear: There is no difference between the struggles of a heterosexual family and homosexual family.
I can only imagine a 14-year-old like me encountering this show today, and taking a sigh of relief. Finally, she'd have something to acknowledge that her feelings didn't come with an expiration date, that the typical American dream, with the minivan and the dog and the loving marriage, was a possibility for someone like her.
Written by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
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