The Difficulty Paper

In my Composition course this semester, I’m going to assign something called a “Difficulty Paper” — a task in writing about the things students find difficult to understand when reading an essay, ranging from vocabulary to turns in an argument to theoretical references — in response to an essay they’ll be reading by Michel Foucault (on the “Panopticon”). My former colleague at SHU, Beth Matway, often mentioned using this approach in her writing classes whenever she assigned a complex reading, and I like the idea. Though I’ve always tried to use open discussions to help students wrestle with reading difficulties (and I have taught Foucault successfully before), I want to give students a guided experience in writing about their struggles, as well. Indeed, because I am talking about an “Honor’s” course, where students may not be comfortable revealing the chink in their academic armor, I think it might be all the more useful to do so.

The “Difficulty Paper” is an assignment espoused by composition theorists Mariolina Salvatori and Patricia Donahoe in their book, The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty. It comes out of the idea that by grappling with intimidating readings, students can master their anxieties about (and become more confident reading) academic texts, and that — through writing out their thoughts (e.g., taking a metacognitive approach) they can identify what they already know and what they still need to find out. This not only trains students in ways of reading in the future, but it also, in turn, can lead to more thoughtful and honest paper assignments. Peter Elbow calls this process “text-wrestling” — an approach to writing that struggles-yet-embraces difficult discourse, while avoiding the superficial and distant approaches to writing that a student may have picked up in school. It’s really a transcript of critical reading and I’m hoping it will not only help students to understand Foucault’s article, but also isolate their own ideas in relation to it, and construct arguments wisely.
As a form of teaching scholarship, Amy Haddad posted her use of this sort of assignment for an ethics course at Creighton University Medical Center, which even includes guidelines I might emulate. What I like about this approach is the emphasis on group discussion, which seems crucial to developing student reading and thinking skills.

I still need to hunt down the book, Opening Lines: Approaches to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, which includes Mariolina Salvatori’s article, “Difficulty: The Great Educational Divide.”

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Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.

One thought on “The Difficulty Paper”

  1. I think that’s a great idea. Actually, when I had to write reaction papers as an undergrad, I would start with the things I found difficult and would ask a lot of questions. I found this approach very helpful.

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