A Case Study in Lack of Clarity

A Case Study in Lack of Clarity

The College of New Jersey

Mary Goldschmidt, Ph.D.



This issue of the Bulletin is grounded in a “case study” which I hope is especially useful at this time of the semester. I recently received an email from a faculty member who needed help in responding to a student paper in which the ideas were “obscured by the writing style.”  Here are some practical tips on “diagnosing” what might be amiss, and how to help your students gain clarity.

Have you ever read a paper, known that something was “off,” but not been able to identify the problem?  It’s these papers, more so than the obviously error-ridden or poorly-researched ones, which take up so much of our time. It’s difficult to know how to respond to (let alone grade) such a paper when we can’t quite put our finger on what’s not working.

Sometimes, the underlying problem is that students are trying to write in what they perceive to be "academic speak," and the resulting prose abounds in multiple noun phrases rather than active verbs, and uses convoluted sentence structures in which the main idea gets lost.  Recently I had an opportunity to offer some advice to a faculty member who ran across exactly this kind of prose. 

The example comes from a first seminar’s follow-up assignment to the summer reading of Sr. Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking in which students were asked to argue for or against the abolition of the death penalty.[1] 

The overall organization of this student’s paper seemed to be fine, insofar as each paragraph did have a separate topic, and there were few grammatical errors (although this student did excel in the use of dangling modifiers). 

No, the problem here had to do with basic meaning making and coherence. 

First, the student would frequently repeat one concept with different phrases in the same sentence: 

"The recognition of the immorality of the death penalty is made evident in the consideration of those accused as well as those supported through the intentions of the death penalty."  

In saying that the “recognition . . . is . . . made evident” the student has supplanted any meaningful verb in this sentence.  Who is acting here and how is the action being performed?  The problem is exacerbated by the use of the passive voice.

A related problem is the over use of the verb to be, which too often results in wordiness:

"Introducing the incompetence of the death penalty as a means of punishment is the complete understanding of legalized murder." 

In this case, what the student is trying to say on either side of the “is” is not clear.  Is the writer trying to say something like:  “First we must understand that capital punishment is a form of legalized murder”? 

Another common feature of this student’s prose is the overuse of complex sentence structures.  [I could also have written: “The student also frequently overuses complex sentence structures.” But I wanted to place emphasis on “common features” of the writing!]  The first four sentences in the introduction all begin with subordinate clauses, but the main clause does not always match up with what precedes it (grammatically or thematically):  

"In an effort to become a society in which violence is found intolerable, the killing of a human being in order to discourage the murder of another continues to prove ineffective in all situations." 

Should it read something like “In an effort . . . we must . . .” or, perhaps: “Although capital punishment is not an effective deterrent, it. . . .”  The answer depends entirely on what this student was trying to say, and this is not clear from this sentence, even in the context of the paragraph where it appears.  The only way to understand what this student intended is to ask.

So, I recommended that the faculty member meet with the student directly, but before reviewing any of these sentences, I suggested that together they first discuss a bigger issue, namely, the student’s actual position on the death penalty.  It seemed to me that this student had not argued anything as much as described the arguments made by Sr. Helen Prejean.  At times, the logic was shaky, and, as we’ve seen, the prose was confusing.

By directly asking students to express their ideas out loud, we help them gain a sense of voice—the very thing that often gets fuzzy in a paper where they feel less authoritative, or where their anxiety about sounding “academic” overpowers their otherwise strongly held beliefs.

After you’ve talked through the main position and supporting points, you can then bring up the sentence-level problems.  In conferences with such students, it’s important to be supportive while still putting the burden on them to be more precise.  Identify a few tangled sentences to be read out loud.  Have them “hear” the problem. Point out that they’re using more words than are necessary, and have them speak what they were trying to communicate. Then have them write down what they just said.

Students can frequently identify their own errors or confusing prose—even if they can’t always put a label on it.  The important thing is for them to revise their own writing with the reader in mind.

[1] The student granted permission for sentences from the paper to be used anonymously.