Challenge Accepted: Difficulty Paper, Part 1

In my last post, I discussed students’ conceptions of “essays” and how, sadly, many students arrive in college having written things called essays, but which involved very little essaying.

To help students make the transition to college reading and writing, in which students are often called upon to synthesize and transform knowledge rather than merely regurgitate it, some colleagues of mine developed a great assignment called the “difficulty paper.” It’s not called that because it’s difficult. It’s called that because it helps you look a difficult text in the face and say:


Want to play along? Go find a text that you want to read and understand, but that you think poses some challenges for you. Any text. It can be an article, a book (or you can just focus on one chapter), a poem, a white paper, a proposition on your state ballot, anything. I’ll wait.

No, really, take your time.

Ok, ready? Now read through your text, noticing any spots that make you stop and think. What do you find interesting? What do you find confusing? For example, are you confused about the author’s message or tone? Are you interested in the importance of a particular detail the author includes?

Then, write a description of your experience: what, specifically, did you focus on as you read? What, specifically, did you find interesting or confusing about these sections? What might you want to know more about? Be specific about which sections you are focusing on and what your mind was doing as you read these sections.

That’s Part 1. When you’re done, please come back and tell us what you’re reading and share what you wrote for Part 1 in the comments.

Tomorrow, Part 2!

A note on the origins of this assignment: Inspired by Salvatori and Donahue’s The Elements and Pleasures of Difficulty, Jen Levinson developed this assignment, a version of which was published in Composing for Success, a now out-of-print guide for students in first-year composition courses at SFSU. (If you’re starting out as a teacher of FYC, do try to get your hands on a used copy. There are some great practical resources in this book!) I was familiar with that version of this assignment,  which was an informal writing assignment used to help students respond to and work through difficult readings, but it was Patty Baldwin, my then office-mate, who introduced me to the idea of widening the scope of the difficulty paper and turning it into an end-of-unit formal writing assignment that could substitute for an essay.


3 thoughts on “Challenge Accepted: Difficulty Paper, Part 1

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