Recently, I began a new semester with two new classes of brand-new freshmen, and I did what I am wont to do, and assigned them a difficulty paper.
When I don’t assign a very rigidly formatted five-paragraph essay on the five-paragraph essay (plus cover letter) as the opening gambit in a freshman writing class, I like to assign a difficulty paper; either way, I’m shaking things up for students who have only ever written essays in response to literature in English classes.
Since it’s a composition class, not a literature class, I like to introduce students to the discipline by assigning a “difficult” text from within the field for our difficulty paper. In the past, I’ve used Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University,” which works well, or Chapter two of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Both are difficult enough to provide substantive reading challenges for students, but relatable enough in terms of content to engage the class, important requirements in any text I choose for a difficulty paper.
This time, I used a text that I’d never used before, and was less familiar with — Rick Evans’ 1993 article in Discourse Processes, titled “Learning ‘Schooled Literacy’: the Literate Life Histories of Mainstream Student Readers and Writers.”
Because the text was relatively new to me, I decided to do something I haven’t done in a while: I decided to do the assignment right along with my students.
As teachers, we all know this is the right thing to do, right? We should do our own assignments to get a sense of how well-designed they are, to work through any wrinkles or snags our students will no doubt face, and to get a sense of how long, realistically, it’s going to take to do them. But to be honest, I don’t do this as often as I should. Other than the occasional model for a new assignment, I haven’t done much responding to my own writing prompts in a while because I’ve been drawing from my bank of favorite assignments, assignments with the kinks more or less ironed out.
By the way, if you’re wondering — yes, I did at one point write a five-paragraph essay on the five-paragraph essay, just like my students. Here’s how it turned out:
When you have a nuanced stance, as I did, the FPE format, strictly followed, does not help you ride to Valhalla all shiny and chrome.
As I started doing the difficulty paper on the Evans text, though, I found myself really enjoying it. In Part 1, I had to restrain myself from writing about everything, since I didn’t want to go over my own suggested page limit on the assignment. But I also found myself considering how the way I was reading the text was differing from the way my students were reading it. As a teacher, I was approaching Evans’ findings from a very different perspective, and was bringing a lot of prior knowledge to bear. My students, in contrast, were relating more directly to the students in the study. We both were reaching a lot of the same places, but from oblique directions.
In Part 2, I came up with a fairly ambitious research-based strategy, in part because it served my question well, but also partly because I wanted to show students what a research-based strategy making use of library databases might look like — and then, when I went to put that strategy in motion, I quickly realized that even I wouldn’t be able to execute the entire plan I’d come up with. Or, rather, I could have theoretically done everything I said I would, but I’d find so much stuff that there was no way my Part 3 would clock in at anywhere close to the recommended page count/ I’d have been way over. By a lot. I had to jettison some parts of my strategy, and I ended up significantly revising my Part 2 — which is great, because now I have a model what I mean when I talk about revision as opposed to proofreading.
As I was doing the research I’d planned for myself, I was also reminded how complicated seemingly simple tasks can turn out to be, due to factors entirely outside one’s control. For example, do you have any idea how hard it is to track someone down when their name is Rick Evans, and the only pieces of information you have are the name of an article they wrote in an academic journal in 1993, and the name of the university they were affiliated with at the time? (If anyone out there knows what became of this particular Rick Evans, as opposed to the many other Rick Evanses floating around, please let me know. I hope he’s ok.) I consider my Google-fu fairly strong, and even I was stumped.
Still, that’s part of the difficulty paper process — figuring out what strategies work for you as a reader, which don’t, and which are going to be situation-dependent.
Like my students, I had to make a conscious decision to carve out time to do the assignment. The same weekend I was trying to write my Part 3, I was responding to their drafts of Parts 1 and 2, and providing written feedback takes time. I also had a movie night with my husband, a trip to Oakland to visit a friend and take the kids to the Oakland Museum of California. I visited the gym three times. My toddler is potty-training (which theoretically shouldn’t take up much time, but trust me, cajoling a reluctant toddler is a full-time-job on its own.) I took on a volunteer task at my son’s school. I had a fair amount going on in the four days between class meetings.
I’m not complaining, mind you, but I haven’t had to consciously carve out time for a writing assignment like that in a while. I try to keep up a regular post schedule for this blog, but I do that in part by banking content when I’m less busy so that I’ll have it ready when I’m more busy, which obviously wasn’t an option for my difficulty paper.
As I plugged away, I found myself reflecting on all the difficulty papers I’ve read at over the years, and I really am in awe of how intellectually vibrant they have been. Honestly, I think my own questions and strategies were rather pedestrian (which I guess is fitting), at least compared to the creativity of some of my students. I once had a student decide to investigate Victorian-era transportation methods to better understand how transportation choices in Dracula connected to some of the novel’s underlying themes. I would never have thought to assign a paper on that subject, and even if I had thought of it, I wouldn’t have done it — most of the class would have probably found it dreadfully boring and esoteric. But for the student who was interested in the subject, who developed the question himself, it was an engaging exploration, and he did a great job making it interesting for me too.
Since I usually use nonfiction academic articles relating to writing and school, my students frequently draw upon and share their personal experiences in their difficulty papers in ways that essays probably wouldn’t permit; I’m honored when they share these experiences of their own volition, and as their teacher, it helps me better understand them as individual writers.
Ultimately, I found myself reinvigorated by this process of doing the assignment along with my students. I was reminded that difficulty papers aren’t easy to write; there really aren’t any shortcuts, it’s very difficult to skate by on BS, and you definitely can’t sit down and write the whole thing in one go. But I was also reminded that while difficulty papers aren’t easy, they’re the good kind of hard. The challenge comes with rewards: I explored, I gained insight, and I appreciated the extent and limits of my abilities within the scope of the task.
I also came to a greater appreciation of the text itself. Initially I found Evans’ text a little off-putting due to the fact that virtually all of his interviewees were white and well-off; he referred to these students as “mainstream,” a word which seems designed to conceal a multitude of sins in education. But when I looked at the larger context, I realized that this potential weakness was in fact a strength. Evans cited Mike Rose, echoing Rose’s concerns about students and their attitudes toward school, and vice versa. In Lives on the Boundary Rose shares the stories of many students working at the margins of education — veterans, children of immigrants, students struggling to raise children of their own while attending to college.
By focusing his research on the other end of the spectrum — the relatively privileged white college students media attention tends to fixate on — Evans ensured that his own findings would lend Rose’s narrative additional weight and credibility. Administrators and policymakers expect school to be difficult for the poor, for young single mothers, for the immigrants and children of immigrants for whom English may be a second language, for veterans trying to find their way back into the civilian world through the halls of academia. They don’t expect it to be difficult for the people to whom everything in life has come easily.
Rose told a narrative. A compelling narrative, a narrative told with the authority that comes from years of experience in the trenches, but a narrative nonetheless. Evans backed it up with research. That Evans’ students — the children of doctors and lawyers, the platonic ideal of the midwestern American college student — would come through k-12 education having soured on reading and writing, having gone from having an intrinsic drive to learn to being motivated primarily by grades — that should give administrators and policymakers pause.
Or at least, it should have. Evans’ article was published in 1993, and my own brand new freshmen in my own new classes in the brave new world of 2016…they’ve got the same litany of complaints. I’m unsettled by this, especially since I’ve got kids of my own coming up through the same public school system. But naming and understanding these problems is a good first step, and now I and my students are all armed with a little more evidence than we were yesterday; together, maybe we can nudge the world in a better direction.