Resources: The Difficulty Paper

I’ve put together this page to provide some resources for teachers interested in assigning the Difficulty Paper in their own classrooms. (If you missed it the first time around, you can read more about the difficulty paper, a four-part assignment, here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.)

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.

Below, I’ve included a template for a basic assignment sheet — both an editable .docx version, and a PDF. I can also suggest some variations on the assignment:

  • Scale the assignment down and turn it into an informal homework assignment; a paragraph or two per section, for example. Use it as a way of checking in and making sure that students are understanding challenging readings. This makes for a good lead-in to a productive discussion about a reading in the next class session, since students are primed to talk about things they found interesting and challenging, and their insights about the text.
  • Although I don’t teach very young students, I believe this assignment can be scaled way down and simplified for younger readers. I’ve taken the essence of this assignment and turned it into conversations with my son, now nine years old, when he has read difficult texts. Good elementary school teachers already encourage this kind of thinking about reading and writing; the difficulty paper format just condenses this kind of behavior into one assignment.
  • Use more than one text. If you’re assigning two complementary texts, this is a great alternative to a traditional “compare/contrast” essay. Students write one Part 1 on each text, come up with a central question about both texts, and figure out strategies for using the texts together to gain insight. This variation really puts the spotlight on synthesis as a reading and writing skill.
  • To support students’ developing research skills, require research as a Part 2 strategy. For beginners, basic online research can suffice — students can start to see for themselves how to use basic Google searches and sites like Wikipedia productively while also learning the limitations of these kinds of searches. For students ready to step into more serious academic research, this is a good opportunity to learn how to look up an author’s citations to examine the sources that influenced a text, and how to conduct effective searches of academic databases.
  • Another way to support students’ research skills is to assign the difficulty paper in the lead-up to a major research-based writing assignment. The idea here is to assign the difficulty paper on a text that the student plans to use as a source in the research-based assignment, ensuring that the student understands the text well enough to use it effectively. In a couple of cases, I’ve done this in conjunction with another class: my students were part of the Metro College Success Academy at SFSU, taking their classes as a cohort. The instructor of another course they were enrolled in had a major research-based assignment due late in the semester; to prepare, students in my class had to find a recently published academic journal article relating to their topic and do a difficulty paper on their chosen article. Both times I’ve done this, the other instructor reported that students in my class used better-quality sources, and used them more effectively, when it was time to do the assignment for her course.

Difficulty Paper Template (editable Word doc)

Difficulty Paper Template (PDF)

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