Synthesizing

to synthesize: v. to combine parts to form a new whole; arranging and combining elements or pieces to make a pattern or structure not there before.

The most sophisticated way to report or explain is to synthesize. All academic disciplines teach synthesis. To perform this operation, you put ideas or elements or parts together—sometimes things that don't seem to belong together—to form a new whole. Synthesizing may involve different operations, depending on the discipline, but in all it means putting elements together to form new wholes. In chemistry, when you combine chemicals, you produce a chemical synthesis—a new synthetic material may result. In history, a synthesis may involve combining one historian's theory of historical development with that of another, and so on.

The ability to synthesize is prized in both the academic and the nonacademic world, because it implies that you know not only how to take things apart but also how to put them back together, which is the work of builders, engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, artists, literary critics, and teachers, among others. It might be argued, however, that the ability to synthesize is a survival skill necessary to all of us in an increasingly complex world.

An example from my discipline would be the following question, commonly asked in essay examinations: "You have read three different American writers—Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. Identify and explain one theme common to all three." You may need to begin by analyzing each work, making notes or an outline of the major points in Emerson's essays, Thoreau's Walden, and Whitman's Leaves of Grass. You find that Emerson looked to the natural world for ethical lessons, that Thoreau made a spiritual symbol of Walden Pond, and that Whitman revered the smallest as well as the greatest creature in the universe. You've now got evidence for the theme of respect for nature that connects all three.

In the following student example, notice how the writers of the waste-treatment essay referred to in this chapter arrive at a synthesis at the end of their paper by making recommendations based on their research discoveries:

The first and most important thing to do is reduce the amount of your buying. If you don't absolutely need the product then don't buy it. You don't need a chemistry degree from U.V.M. to reduce hazardous chemicals in your home. You can do the following:

1) When you're buying a product make sure that if it's hazardous there are directions on how to dispose of it. If you buy something you're responsible for disposing of it.

2) Don't buy it unless you really need it.

3) Don't buy more than you need. Getting rid of the extra can be annoying.

4) Use the safest and simplest substances that you can find.

5) Recycle whatever you can: Used motor oil, paint thinners, battery acid (and batteries), automatic transmission fluid, diesel fluid, fuel oil, gasoline, kerosene, motor oil, and even dry cleaning solvents can be refined and used again just like aluminum cans. (See Appendix C.) If you're not sure what to do see the "Household Hazardous Waste Chart." It was adapted from the Water Pollution Control Federation pamphlet, 1987.

In this case the synthesis becomes, in the end, an argument for water conservation. Finally, the writers also attempt to persuade their readers to act as a result of reading this essay.

As you have probably figured out by now, people don't set out to write pieces called synthesis essays. Most often they have been explaining or analyzing something and find the need to make suggestions or draw inferences based on that work.

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