Schreiner University, ENGL 1301: Rhetoric & Composition—Comparison/Contrast Essay

Below appears an authoritative set of guidelines for the Comparison/Contrast Essay (C/C), superseding any previously published information about the C/C.


One of the things that first-year composition courses are supposed to do is begin to bring students into the patterns of discourse that prevail in academia. In general, those patterns are argumentative in nature, asserting an idea and supporting that idea through the systematic application of informed reasoning to present evidence. In itself, “argument” is a broad rubric, too broad to be treated meaningfully as a monolithic construct; as such, argument tends to be broken down into a number of types, of which names differ across institutions, programs, and disciplinary identities.

Whatever the organization, however, arguments made as part of it will often take the form of making some kind of evaluative assessment. That is, people will be asked in their professional and personal lives to decide which course of action or item to select. The C/C works to the same end, applying a (hopefully pre-determined) definition to multiple examples of things meeting it to determine which the optimal choice among them is.

Completing the C/C will require students to do a number of things:

Information about each follows, along with a copy of the relevant grading rubric and notes.

Refine an Old Definition, or Develop a New One

Making an evaluative assessment requires that there be some standard of comparison in place. That is, to say that a given item is better than another requires that there be some guideline for what “good” is. Fortunately, earlier work in the class was directed to that end; the earlier IllDef paper served to develop a set of criteria for inclusion in a particular group. That is, in offering a (supported) definition, the IllDef asserts a set of standards that may then be applied to other examples than those used to generate the IllDef. If, for instance, the IllDef argues that a good office has to have particular qualities, that set of qualities can be used to assess other offices, thereby determining which is better. Writing always needs to be improved, so the definition advanced in the IllDef will need some refinement, but that definition can certainly serve as a beginning for a contrastive argument. (See Note 1, below.)

Alternately, an entirely new definition—and perhaps even a new group—can be selected. Doing so will require a fair amount of preliminary work, as developing a definition requires careful attention to multiple examples (as noted in the IllDef), but it can be done. A definition thus generated will need to be as detailed and as clearly phrased as one carried over from earlier work, as it will have to do the same things and support the same level of argument.

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Find Two New Examples to Treat

Whatever set of standards are applied, they have to be applied, and that means there must be other items to which to apply them. A contrastive argument such as the C/C requires at least two (and two will be enough for the current project). Avoidance of logical fallacy—in this case, circular reasoning—means that the examples to which the set of standards are to be applied cannot be among those used to generate the standards. That is, if Ð and Þ are being compared in how well they fulfill the definition of Æ, neither Ð or Þ can have contributed to determining the definition of Æ.

Keep in mind that the selected examples must clearly belong to the group against which they are assessed; there should be no doubt that both Ð and Þ are part of Æ. For the comparison to be a fair and relevant one, the items being compared should actually be comparable. It would not be appropriate to assert that the Lone Star Swing Orchestra is a better big band than the Pentatonix, for example, as the latter is not a big band at all. To assess it as such falls into another fallacy of argument, something akin to a strawman, and fallacious reasoning is to be avoided.

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Examine Each Example against the Definition

Having a set of standards in place and items to consider invites applying that set of standards to the items. Each item should be reviewed for the ways in and extent to which it fulfills each component of the definition. That is, if the definition of Æ is that it does A, B, C, D, and E, how Ð does A, B, C, D, and E must be examined, as must how Þ does A, B, C, D, and E. It is in such fulfillment that the comparison between the items as members of their group—the focus of the C/C—inheres. Features other than those deemed to be definitional need not be treated; they are extraneous to the degree of belonging upon which the paper relies.

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Compare the Examinations’ Results

Once the selected items have been assessed for the ways in and extent to which they enact the definition, the assessments can be compared. They will not necessarily do all parts of the definition equally well, just as two members of the same sports team will not necessarily perform equally well in any given position on the team—although both may well excel. Feature to feature comparison will likely be preferable, as the individual analysis allows for more exact determination of performance, and more detail is desirable than less.

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Decide upon a Contrastive Thesis

Comparing the results of applying the earlier-determined definition to the two examples should indicate which of them fulfills the definition more fully or, if both enact it fully, which of the examples exhibits the definition’s qualities to a greater extent. Whichever is should be identified as such, and the statement of that identification should be presented as the thesis of the C/C. It will do well to take such a form as “[Item Ð] is a better example of [Defined Group Æ] than [Item Þ].” Other forms are available and may be used as long as they express a clear contrastive relationship between the two selected items.

It is worth noting that the Ð in the format above need not be better at fulfilling every component of the definition of Æ to be better overall. It can, in fact, be equal or inferior to Þ in one or more respects. It need only be superior (per the definition of Æ) in the aggregate; that is, the ways in which Ð surpasses Þ must be greater in number and/or extent than the ways in which the two are equal or in which Þ surpasses Ð.

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Compose the C/C PV

Taken together, the items noted above constitute a sequence of prewriting that should guide student thinking about the topic and the desired approach to it. That is, the aforementioned do not produce deliverable writing in themselves, but they lead towards the first deliverable for the project: the C/C PV.

The C/C PV should be a reasonably complete argument, one that conveys an idea about how items compare to one another and support for it to a primary reader belonging to the general public of the United States in the early twenty-first century. That is, readers should be able to read the C/C PV and get a clear idea of the argument being made without having to ask the writer additional questions (although wanting to ask the writer additional questions is often a sign of engaging writing). Readers have to be able to follow along easily and well as they are presented with evidence supporting the central idea of the paper and explanations of how the evidence serves to offer that support. They also need to be brought into the paper smoothly and well, and they need to be given some indication of what they can do with the thesis once it is validated. The paper will do well to offer an introduction that leads to a statement of thesis, followed a series of paragraphs that each explicates how the selected items enact a given feature and how the superior item is superior (in most cases), and a culminating paragraph that returns to the thesis briefly before motioning forward to future utility of that thesis.

The C/C PV should be approximately 1,625 words in length (± 25), exclusive of heading (student name, instructor name, course/section, and date of composition), title, and any necessary end-citations (see Note 1, below). It should be typed in black, double-spaced, 12-point Garamond, Georgia, or Times New Roman font on letter-sized pages; the heading should be flush left, the title centered horizontally, and the body flush left with the first lines of paragraphs indented one-half inch from the left margin. Page numbers should be in the margin at the top of the page on the right margin, preceded by the writer’s surname, and in the same typeface as the rest of the paper.

Each writer should bring a C/C PV that represents the writer’s best work to class as a typed, physical copy on 16 November 2016. Class that day will be taken up with peer review, during which other writers will read and comment upon the content and organization (not the mechanics) of the paper, making suggestions for improvement and indicating places where the paper works well—and explaining the comments so that the underlying principles can be used in future writing.

As peer review progresses, the instructor will call for individual papers, checking to see if they are present as requested and whether or not, in general terms, they do what they need to do. Time constraints in class will prevent detailed reading by the instructor during peer review, so specific comments will be few, but the setting does allow for a holistic sense of each paper’s direction to be developed. That sense will be noted as the score for a minor assignment grade; the score will conform to the grading scale in Table 2 of the course syllabus. (Obviously, those students who do not arrive in class with their C/C PVs in hand will not be able to receive any helpful score for the assignment. Note the “Late Work” section of the course syllabus.)

Although a reasonably complete paper is expected, it is understood that the C/C PV is a work in progress. Changes to it are therefore also expected; they should not be viewed as failures, but seized upon as opportunities to improve writing techniques and to enhance the connections between writer and topic and writer and readers. Also, see Note 2, below.

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Revise the C/C PV into the C/C RV

After peer review, writers should take their papers, review the comments made by their readers, and incorporate those found useful into their ongoing work. That is, they should work to improve their theses’ phrasing, the quality and extent of evidentiary support for the same, the rigor and detail of explanations of the evidence, motion among the various parts of the papers, and entries into and exits from the argument. The result will become the C/C RV.

The C/C RV should (still) be a reasonably complete argument, one that conveys an idea about how items compare to one another and support for it to a primary reader belonging to the general public of the United States in the early twenty-first century. That is, readers should (still) be able to read the C/C RV and get a clear idea of the argument being made without having to ask the writer additional questions (although wanting to ask the writer additional questions is often a sign of engaging writing). Readers still have to be able to follow along easily and well as they are presented with evidence supporting the central idea of the paper and explanations of how the evidence serves to offer that support. They still also need to be brought into the paper smoothly and well, and they need to be given some indication of what they can do with the thesis once it is validated. The paper will continue to do well to offer an introduction that leads to a statement of thesis, followed a series of paragraphs that each explicates how the selected items enact a given feature and how the superior item is superior (in most cases), and a culminating paragraph that returns to the thesis briefly before motioning forward to future utility of that thesis.

The C/C RV should be approximately 1,625 words in length (± 25), exclusive of heading (student name, instructor name, course/section, and date of composition), title, and any necessary end-citations (see Note 1, below). It should be typed in black, double-spaced, 12-point Garamond, Georgia, or Times New Roman font on letter-sized pages; the heading should be flush left, the title centered horizontally, and the body flush left with the first lines of paragraphs indented one-half inch from the left margin. Page numbers should be in the margin at the top of the page on the right margin, preceded by the writer’s surname, and in the same typeface as the rest of the paper.

Each writer should submit a typed, electronic copy of the C/C RV to the instructor through Schreiner One before the beginning of class time on 21 November 2016. The copy needs to be in .doc, .docx, or .rtf format so that it can be opened and read by the instructor; other file formats potentially present difficulties in that regard, and a paper that cannot be read cannot receive a useful score or commentary. It will be assessed according to the grading rubric below for a minor assignment grade, and comments will be offered on a copy thereof that are meant to guide further improvements to the work. (Obviously, those students who do not submit the C/C RV in timely fashion should not expect to receive any helpful score or commentary for the assignment. Note the “Late Work” section of the course syllabus.)

Although a reasonably complete paper is expected, it is understood that the C/C RV is still a work in progress. Some changes to it are therefore also expected; they should not be viewed as failures, but seized upon as more opportunities to improve writing techniques further and to enhance the connections between writer and topic and writer and readers yet more. Also, again, see Note 2, below.

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Revise the C/C RV into the C/C FV

After receiving instructor feedback, writers should take their papers, review the comments made by their reader, and incorporate those found useful into their ongoing work. That is, they should work to improve their theses’ phrasing, the quality and extent of evidentiary support for the same, the rigor and detail of explanations of the evidence, motion among the various parts of the papers, and entries into and exits from the argument. The result will become the C/C FV.

The C/C FV should (still) be a reasonably complete argument, one that conveys an idea about how items compare to one another and support for it to a primary reader belonging to the general public of the United States in the early twenty-first century. That is, readers should (still) be able to read the C/C FV and get a clear idea of the point of the argument being made without having to ask the writer additional questions (although wanting to ask the writer additional questions is often a sign of engaging writing). Again, readers have to be able to follow along easily and well as they are presented with evidence supporting the central idea of the paper and explanations of how the evidence serves to offer that support. They continue also need to be brought into the paper smoothly and well, and they need to be given some indication of what they can do with the thesis once it is validated. The paper will still do well to offer an introduction that leads to a statement of thesis, followed a series of paragraphs that each explicates how the selected items enact a given feature and how the superior item is superior (in most cases), and a culminating paragraph that returns to the thesis briefly before motioning forward to future utility of that thesis.

The C/C FV should be approximately 1,625 words in length (± 25), exclusive of heading (student name, instructor name, course/section, and date of composition), title, and any necessary end-citations (see Note 1, below). It should be typed in black, double-spaced, 12-point Garamond, Georgia, or Times New Roman font on letter-sized pages; the heading should be flush left, the title centered horizontally, and the body flush left with the first lines of paragraphs indented one-half inch from the left margin. Page numbers should be in the margin at the top of the page on the right margin, preceded by the writer’s surname, and in the same typeface as the rest of the paper.

Each writer should submit a typed, electronic copy of the C/C FV to the instructor through Schreiner One before the beginning of class time on 7 December 2016. The copy needs to be in .doc, .docx, or .rtf format so that it can be opened and read by the instructor; other file formats potentially present difficulties in that regard, and a paper that cannot be read cannot receive a useful score or commentary. It will be assessed according to the grading rubric below as a major assignment worth 20% of the total course grade, and comments will be offered on a copy thereof that are meant to guide further improvements to the writer’s technique. (Please note the “Late Work” and “Revisions” sections of the course syllabus.)

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Grading Rubric

The grading rubric that will be used to assess the C/C RV and FV appears here: ENGL 1301 C/C Grading Rubric.

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Notes

1.

Because the C/C is to be written using multiple examples, recourse to outside materials is not unexpected, although it is not obligatory. If any outside materials are used in the essay, they must be attested in accordance with the guidelines expressed by the Modern Language Association of America. Failure to do so may be regarded as an academic integrity violation, with potentially adverse effects.

The earlier IllDef, which may provide the definition applied in the paper, will serve as an outside source and will therefore oblige formal citation if materials from it are used.

2.

Consulting with the instructor and/or with the Writing Center throughout the process of composition is likely to be of benefit. No specific grade item will attach itself to doing so, but past practice suggests that those writers who do seek such input and attention generate far better writing than those who do not (which, for the grade-conscious, translates to higher scores).

3.

Samples of arguments in the same vein as the C/C are available. A number of them can be found in materials prepared for earlier teaching, here: https://goo.gl/QkWMlM. Another, more narrowly targeted at the course, can be found as “Sample Comparison/Contrast Essay: Officially Better.” The formatting and length on display in the earlier examples will necessarily differ from those required of students in the course. Even so, they offer useful models to follow during the process of composition and should be consulted to that end.

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Geoffrey B. Elliott
10 November 2016

Updated to include a targeted example.

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