Comparative Paper (Unit 1): Details

Sources & Excerpts for Comparison:

On the one hand, the writing of the papers is intended to guide you in reading and reflecting more deeply on a few of the examples considered briefly in class. On the other hand, the assignements are also designed to develop and/or refine your ability to write for an academic audience. In the context of this class, think of "academic peers" as other students enrolled in a similar class, who share your interest in the subject of religious life, but who have not been exposed to the sources (films & readings) you discuss.

The sources you choose for comparison, and the particular details that you highlight in your summaries and comparisons of those sources, should be those that most help you understand key concepts covered in the overview lecture or NHLR chapter dealing with the tradition in question; and perhaps also help you clarify what you yourself mean by the terms "religion" and "religious" as it is applied across religious traditions. The examples you compare need not be overtly similar; but you need to be able to relate them to one another in some way that demonstrates understanding of underlying connections.

Note that, due to their complexity, you may not use pre-modern scriptural sources for the summary part of this assignment--e.g., the New Testament, Bhagavad Gita, Dao De Jing etc.--although you may use pre-modern personal narratives clearly attributable to human authors (i.e., those of Augustine, Al-Ghazali, & Hakuin). Also, you may treat all films and readings listed under Hindu and Chinese traditions as examples of the same general tradition, even though such examples are more diverse than those related to the other religious traditions studied in the course.

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0. Why No Introductory Paragraph?

Most students registered for this class have mastered at least the basic formula of writing an introductory paragraph: that is, providing some background info and/or ideas, presenting a thesis, and previewing the topics covered in subsequent paragraphs. Why then do I specifically instruct you not to include such paragraph in this assignment?

The introductory paragraph is the first thing most people write when they are starting an essay, and so tends to contain the first and least refined expression of a writer's ideas. Seasoned writers know that they must go back and thoroughly refine their introductory paragraphs once they have realized, after writing the heart of their essay, what are really the most important ideas and points. Revising the first paragraphs also means going back and revising the rest of the essay once the main focus has been more precisely articulated. The limited time alloted for class papers, however, prevents many students from doing such revision.

Asking you to omit the introductory paragraphy allows a bit more space to figure out what exactly is important in your comparison. This is what you must do in writing the third part of the paper, which will contain ideas that you normally put in an introductory paragraph is you wrote one. Once you have shown your ability to focus the paper on relevant excerpts from connected sources--that is, by scoring at least a 90 on the first or second paper--you will have the option to create an introductory paragraph on the subsequent paper(s). Even then, however, I recommend that the introductory paragraph be one of the last things you write.

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1. Film Summary

As illustrated in the accompanying sample, (a) your synopsis should describe key themes, main charcters, and at least some hint of the plot progression &/or character development. Also, (b) your description of one or two key scene(s) should emphasize visual details, sounds, and dialogue, and specify the details of what precedes and follows the scene(s). Finally, (c) make sure the closing statement is distinct from your summary of the film's final scenes; to do so you may revisit important themes or issues from your overview statement, and/or discuss the filmmaker's (i.e. screenwriter and/or director's) perspective as reflected in the specific details of the film.

Regarding the last of the above points, note that I use the neutral term "perspective" rather than critical term "bias." The latter implies that a particular filmmaker (i.e. director/screenwriter) or author's presentation is faulty; the former simply points out that it is one of many viewpoints available for gaining information on a particular subject. Generally perspective is effectively addressed by answering one or more of the following interrelated questions:

  • what is the underlying emotional tone (e.g., zeal, enthusiasm, passion, disgust, anger, etc; note that disinterest, detachment, etc. are also emotional tones) conveyed by the film or reading?
  • to what degree does the filmmaker or author emphasize particular viewpoints, experiences, aspects of religious life, etc. over others?
  • to what extent does (s)he seem to approve/disapprove (often not stated explicitly) of the viewpoints, experiences, aspects of religious life, etc. considered? and/or
  • what unstated assumptions does (s)he seem to make about those viewpoints, experiences, aspects of religious life, etc.?

In practice these four overlap; tackling the specifics of any one of them is an effective way to address perspective more generally.

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2. Reading Summary

As illustrated in the accompanying sample, the format for the reading summary closely parallels that of the film, with just a few difference. If your are summarizing an essay rather than a narrative, (a) your synopsis will not deal with characters or plot, and should in this case treat themes, issues and overall content with greater precision. Also, (b) your excerpt(s) should be directly quoted from the reading, with proper page citation, and surrounded by condensed paraphrase of the relevant details that precede and follow. Finally, if you choose to highlight perspective in (c) your closing statement, review the four questions listed above in relation to the film summary. Note that the perspective of an author is in some ways easier to specify than that of a filmmaker, since you can rely entirely on directly cited words and phrases rather than having to describe and interpret images and sounds.

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3. Comparison

In composing your comparison, make sure that you include BOTH similarities AND differences in a balanced way; the sample shows one possible way to do this. Also, make sure to consider some aspect of the sources in addition to simply comparing their main characters and/or authors. Specifically, you should compare also at least one of the following: genres/styles (e.g., story vs. essay, allegory vs. biographical narrative, etc.); the time & place in which each source was composed; and/or author/filmmaker perspectives (see four points under film summary), including specifically aspects of religious life highlighted by author/filmmaker (based on my description of dimensions of religious life).

You do not need to summarize the one additional written source refered to in this section; but make sure to integrate references to that source thoroughly into your comparison, noting the way it both differs from and resembles the film and reading you discuss in greater detail in parts 1 & 2. As illustrated in the sample, your comparison should be as clearly organized as the film and reading summaries, although with the comparison you have more freedom in choosing the sequence in which you discuss relevant details.

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Extra Credit

Your diagram or doodle should arrange symbols, images, and/or short words and phrases (rather than sentences) in spatial relation to one another on the page, in order to show visually the relationship of key details and concepts emphasized in comparing film and reading. IMPORTANT NOTE: if you use digital images &/or graphics, you must integrate them into an original layout that incorporates other symbols, words, and/or phrases of your choice. Images and graphics simply pasted into your reflection will receive minimal credit, if any.

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Point Values:

Just under two thirds of your score (60 out of 100 points) will be based on the representation of film & reading (#1 & 2 as described in the Unit 1 guidelines), so make sure to give your representations the attention and space they deserve. Your comparison (#3 above) will count for 40 points out of the total, with the diagram, should you choose to include one, enhancing this part of your score. Thus the comparison is numerically less significant than representation; though note that failing to address comparison will considerably lower your score, as well as causing you to miss out on the valuable insights that usually emerge during this step.

IMPORTANT NOTES: the score for a paper submitted late will be decreased by one-half grade (= 1 point) for each class day late, as outlined in FAQ #29-31; excessive mechanical errors will also reduce your score, as noted in FAQ #32-36.

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Dimensions of Religious Life

Reading Assessment Tests & Final Exam

Frequently Asked Questions

Comparative Papers: Overview & Sample