kitchen table math, the sequel: a difficult passage - & terrific advice

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

a difficult passage - & terrific advice

[Terri] LeClercq offers a very helpful technique to check for coherence in a multi-paragraph text: As you edit your rough draft, separate each topic sentence from your text and examine each one to make sure it is a strong introduction to the main idea of that paragraph. Then examine the coherence of the topic sentences as they relate to the overall thesis set-up by seeing whether the topic sentences form a coherent paragraph.
“Writing Good Paragraphs with Topic Sentences.” Legal Writing Tips 1.8 (2005). Print. Web. 14 March 2012.
My students had trouble with this passage today. They understood the first and second sentences (the 2 independent clauses linked by the colon), but they stumbled over the last one.

I'm not crazy about the last sentence myself: reading it, you have to keep too much information lit up in working memory until you finally get to the most important bit, which is at the very end. The end is where the most important bit usually should be, but still. There's an awful lot to hang on to until you get there.

I don't mean to sound harsh. That last sentence is perfectly serviceable, and impressive in its way. It's nicely linked to its partner sentence, the one that comes just before it, and it manages to pack a great deal of information into a small space, which is not easy. You'd have to be an experienced writer to write it.

Nevertheless, if it were my sentence, I would keep on writing it before I stopped. I would revise.

Teaching basic composition, I've come to realize how important it is for college students to be able to read prose I wouldn't advise any of them actually to write. A fair portion of academic and professional prose is not very good, and some of it is god-awful. But students have to read it.

Of course everyone knows this, but I hadn't thought about the implications until now. College students have to be able to read bad writing. Not just difficult writing, not just sophisticated writing, not just writing with a lot of big words. College students have to be able to read all those things, but they also have to be able to read difficult, sophisticated writing with a lot of big words that is bad.

So how do they acquire this skill?

Composition textbooks come stocked with dozens of heavily copy-edited essays written by journalists and originally published in popular books and magazines: these are works that have been professionally engineered to be maximally swift, cohesive, and clear. They make sense as models for writing, but they're useless for reading. They're so well written they practically read themselves.*

Where are the composition texts featuring 100s of pages of dense and mystifying academic prose, I ask?

And how does one teach students to read badly-written prose?

Is it different from teaching students to read well-written prose?

I'm thinking it might be.

Last but not least, speaking of bad and good prose, I think LeClercq's advice is brilliant. It's an amazing fit for William Kerrigan's X-1-2-3s.


* I don't remotely believe that well-written prose practically reads itself. Certain genres, however, are written to be effortlessly readable, and that's the writing that appears in college composition texts.


SATVerbalTutor. said...

If I had to wager a guess, I'd say that the phrase "thesis set-up" is what threw them. It uses unfamiliar, more complex wording rather than simply reusing the more mundane "thesis" and requires them the reader to draw a relationship between something concrete (thesis) and something a bit more abstract (the positioning and coherence of the thesis within the argument). A weaker reader won't make that jump automatically, and if you explain it to them, they'll probably ask, "Well, why didn't the author just say 'thesis' again?" The idea that writers sometimes restate words/concepts in vaguer terms in an effort to sound sophisticated is often difficult for them because they have so much trouble putting the two ideas together.

Catherine Johnson said...

"Thesis set-up" is a big problem, I think. I stubbed my toe on it myself.

Catherine Johnson said...

Do you have any sense whether teaching kids to understand bad writing may be harder (or just different) than teaching kids to understand good writing?

For some reason, the possibility strikes me as .... possible, I guess.

But I don't know why.

Catherine Johnson said...

There's also something about that last phrase (I call it a phrase): "by seeing whether the topic sentences form a coherent paragraph."

"by seeing" instead of "see"

I think that's harder for some reason.

Cynthia812 said...

I agree that "thesis set-up" is the problem, for two reasons. One, it is an example of "modifier noun overuse" (per; the word "set-up" is redundant here. Secondly, because it redundantly follows a noun, the brain first sees "set-up" as a verb (despite the hyphen), which cause the mental hiccough in reading the sentence. I think the real issue with teaching students to read bad writing is to get them to recognize it as such. Students assume text books are well written, and their struggles to understand them are the result of personal deficits. Bad writing is easier to comprehend if you know it's bad writing, not a topic that's over your head.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hi Cynthia --

Very interesting.

Can't remember if I mentioned tripping over 'set-up' myself ---- (& you're right: my expectation would be that I'm seeing a verb).

Very useful point about recognizing bad writing as bad writing --- I'm going to have to see if I do that.

I think I probably do, but it's not always obvious.

I spend hours of my life reading things that are 'over my head' (way over --- lots of stuff on the basal ganglia) AND that is often not well written.

Every once in a while I realize that the article I'm struggling with is badly written first and foremost.

The problem is: when you're reading material that really is at the very outer limit of your content knowledge (which is the issue for me), it's not always obvious what is badly written and what isn't.

Catherine Johnson said...

Agree, though, that it's a help.

Sometimes I'll realize this-is-badly-written, and I'll change my approach: I'll jump around trying to find a better-written passage that will help me understand the passage I couldn't understand.

Or I'll do a search and find every passage on the subject of the paragraph I'm struggling with & try to piece them all together.

OR I'll start looking at other articles on the same subject and see if I can get the definitions & concepts I need from one of those.

If all of those strategies fail me (which is rare), I'll occasionally just wrench myself away.

Catherine Johnson said...

Here's my rewrite of LeClercq for my students:

How to test your paper for coherence (by Terri LeClercq):

1. Before you begin your paper, writer your set of X-1-2-3 sentences!

2. Write your rough draft.

3. Pull out your thesis statement and write it on a separate piece of paper (or screen).

4. Pull out ALL of the topic sentences in ALL of your paragraphs, and list them below your thesis statement.

5. PARAGRAPH-LEVEL COHERENCE: Reach each topic sentence, and make sure it is a strong introduction to the subject of the paragraph it appears in.

6. PAPER-LEVEL COHERENCE: If asked, could you write a single coherent paragraph using your thesis statement and all of your topic sentences (rewording as necessary, of course)?

Allison said...

Every academic journal is filled with badly written prose. Almost every article in almost every journal in the sciences is badly written. Surely the same is true in philosophy or film studies. Some of those papers must be subject-wise accessible to your students.

The trick is to teach them to read it without teaching them to write it.

So maybe assign rewriting assignments from it somehow?