Sweeney, Meghan A., and Maureen McBride. “Difficulty Paper (Dis)Connections: Understanding the Threads Students Weave between Their Reading and Writing.” College Composition and Communication 66.4 (2015): 591-614. Print.
Meghan A. Sweeney and Maureen McBride, collaborating as teacher-researchers, explain the use of “difficulty papers” to investigate the problems students experience as they try to read complex materials. Designed by Carnegie Scholar Mariolina Salvatori, the difficulty-paper assignment asks students to explore in writing the components of the reading experience that interfered with their comprehension and engagement. Sweeney and McBride posit that the “mismatch” (595) between what students are told about effective writing in their writing courses and the practices of the writers of the “difficult” essays leads to struggles as the students try to navigate the complex texts.
Sweeney and McBride note a movement toward reconsidering reading as it affects writing in composition studies (391). In their book The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, Salvatori and co-author Patricia Donahue propose that uniting attention to reading and writing through students’ self-reflection on their own experiences will increase “metacognitive reading awareness” (593). Sweeney and McBride contend that such practices will give teachers insight into better methods for encouraging critical reading (593).
They used the assignment in a “new critical reading course at a midsize four-year public university,” where students also took a course in composition and one in “editing-for-style” (593). The authors share the reading-course outcomes, which centered around developing students’ abilities to interact productively with a range of texts; the course textbook, M. Neil Browne and Stuart Keeley’s Asking the Right Questions, addressed various aspects of critical thinking. The authors used “grounded-theory method” to assess 209 difficulty papers over two years. This methodology involved withholding the development of a theory until data had been collected, coded, and categorized. Reading and rereading the papers and discussing their process, Sweeney and McBride reduced the categories of student comments from fifteen to five to one: “mismatch between expectations of readers and writers” (595; emphasis original). They found that two of the readings, Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker essay “Offensive Play” and Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” yielded the “strongest examples and individually highlighted certain subcategories of difficulties” (595). The students’ difficulty papers addressed their experiences reading these texts (593-95).
In reading the Gladwell essay, which discussed brain trauma in football through analogous discussions of dogfighting, students reported that the characteristics of the essay that most impeded their understanding and engagement were Gladwell’s nonlinear organizational strategy, his failure to make his thesis explicit, and his inclusion of extensive detail. The students expected clear, visible transitions explaining the connections between paragraphs and topics ( 596-98); they expressed “anxiety” when they couldn’t immediately discern the purpose of the article (598-99); and in their words, found the supporting “statistics and facts” both “boring” and “off topic” (599-600).
Students responding to “A Modest Proposal” struggled with vocabulary, finding that having to look up words distracted them and that using context to define words was problematic (601-02). Swift’s use of satire also stymied students, who tried to draw on their own experiences to understand Swift’s purpose (602-03). The clash with the instruction they had previously received and were receiving in writing classes led to problems negotiating Swift’s organization: Students tended to read the essay as a model and tried to align it with schemas with which they were familiar, becoming frustrated as well because Swift’s punctuation practices did not match what they had come to see as correct (603-04). In analyzing their problems engaging with the text, the students revealed expectations that, in the words of one, “The story’s job is to captivate the reader, and make them interested as the story goes on” (605). Similarly, objections to the length of the piece led Sweeney and McBride to conclude that students’ classroom experiences had led them to believe that reading should be easy, and that making it easy is the writer’s task (606). Students came to the reading experience with the impression that writing and reading should function similarly, with reading not imposing any additional challenges (606, 607).
In their discussion, Sweeney and McBride highlight the difficulties students faced in trying to make “cultural connection[s]” with readings that did not immediately resonate with their worlds or selves. This difficulty persisted despite class discussion of the context and history reflected in the pieces. They emphasize again that students assess what they read in light of the instruction that they have received as writers, sometimes taking on a teacherly tone in advising the authors about their perceived weaknesses (607). An important recommendation that emerges from the study is the need for teachers to explain much more clearly why students are being asked to read a particular piece and how that reading experience will relate to their own writing (608). Teachers can also be more alert to the tensions set up by different reasons for reading: rhetorical analysis, critical analysis, or “reading-to-write,” and can clarify what to ask students to attend to (608). They contend that the insights provided by the “difficulty paper” assignment allow them to share with students more fully the complexities of the writer/reader relationship as students compose different kinds of writing (609-10); the exercise enabled them, as teachers, to recognize the need for more explicit guidance as they ask students to engage with unfamiliar, complex texts.