Friday, September 19, 2014

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More Than Just a Comparison
Over the years, I have observed students’ struggles with writing comparison papers in composition classes. Invariably, a student’s thesis will end up being that two things are alike or two things are not alike. Getting students to make the leap from this structural statement to a more focused point about what the similarities or differences reveal, suggest, or imply takes a round of repeated discussion.

Recognizing how a thesis develops the understanding of a topic beyond mere points of comparison is fundamental to realizing that discussion in a paper should extend the understanding of a topic in some way that is uniquely the writer’s. College writers are joining the academic dialogue, participating in what it means to become college educated.

Comparison papers are requisite in composition classes, but that requirement is a little like algebra. Most college graduates won’t be called upon to write comparison papers later in life anymore than they will be called upon to use algebra as such. Using comparisons to come to a larger understanding of an issue, however, is a skill they will need throughout life and certainly in most learning situations.

Creating comparisons has been a teaching and learning tool for millennia. One of the six systems of Indian philosophy, first taught by Gautama and known as Nyaya, outlines the sixteen principles for testing the gaining of knowledge. The first principle, Pramana, cites four means for determining valid knowledge: perception, inference, comparison, and verbal testimony. With comparison, one gains “knowledge of something by comparing it with another well-known object.”1 Here is metaphor; we “gain knowledge” of something by comparing it to something else. So students have been using this means of gaining knowledge from about 400 BCE and continue today. The struggle to compose a thesis presenting knowledge gained from comparisons remains a valid and necessary part of the learning process.

Go forth, compare, and extend your understanding.

Reference:

1. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Bhagavad-Gita: A New Translation and Commentary, Chapters 1-6. Fairfield, IA: MIU Press, 1967, p. 353. 

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