Students avoid it. We all do, even as teachers. What is difficult is not attractive. And yet, if we admit it, difficulty is often there in our favorite memories, in the challenges, the surmounted tasks, the laughter after tragedies. I remember being a student (who am I kidding, I do this now, did this earlier today), when I would “skim” through difficult passages in the readings my teachers assigned. I would dodge such moments even though these difficult places were often the exact locations where I could perform the most learning. They were gaps. So why not try filling them in?

This is why I am interested in the Difficulty Paper. The concept of the assignment comes from Salvatori and Donahue’s “The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty” and, as I understand it, is built in a series of core steps:

  1. What is most difficult about this text/problem? Why is this difficult?
  2. How will you attempt to resolve this difficulty? Why will this plan work?
  3. Attempt to resolve your difficulty.
  4. What did you learn?

Obviously, any teacher should add and subtract from these steps in whatever way is appropriate, but really, I’m curious to know how this particular assignment would translate into other disciplines outside of the Literature classroom in which is was invented. For me it is without a doubt my favorite student work to read. I enjoy it so much I almost can’t even grade the prose. So if you start doing it in your math classes, your biology classes, your physics classes, please send along some your students’ work. I’d love to see it.

In my own class a student reflected on his Difficulty Paper, writing,

As class goes further, the prompts become more self-guided and open-ended, which poses a challenge by itself. This prompt was specifically hard since it flows unnaturally and against intuition: usually we try to avoid difficulties, but in this case it was necessary to face it directly. Being out of the “comfort zone” of traditional writing is challenging, but rewarding in the sense that it stimulates creative thinking and broadens one’s point of view.

So, I’ll put this to both teachers and students: What have you avoided learning? Why not learn it?

culture-statue-190One day Kierkegaard was sitting in his garden, smoking a cigarette, troubled by the crisis of his own boredom. He was wondering what he could possibly contribute to a world of such rapid innovation. There were all these brilliant people making things easier, faster, simpler – the printing press, the steam engine, the whale oil lamps – and it was in this despair he was struck by an idea so compelling he didn’t even realize his cigarette had burned to the quick, singeing his fingers. Naturally, he lit another, his eyes wild with intrigue: “I, Kierkegaard, will do something that no one has ever yet done. I will not make things easier; I will make them more difficult.”


3 thoughts on “Difficulty

  1. Call me guilty. I have avoided using this assignment since it is so difficult. In fact, when I have used it, I was only able to get the students to keep a log as they were reading the truly complicated article I had assigned. The students could comment on the difficulty they were having, but they and I came to a dead end when we tried to continue. How to resolve this difficulty? What fascinates me is that there are times when we are confronted with difficult/complex/overwhelming situations (and readings) which are pathways to something we desire. It is only when we can overcome our fears that we might find a breakthrough. However, it is easier said than done.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Once again I remember learning all about the Difficulty Paper when our SFSU Staff Development guest-star introduced it to us (about ten years back or more)? Once again I said to myself “gotta try that”; once again I never did. Guess I need to write a difficulty paper about the difficulty of assigning the difficulty paper.


  3. Scott Lankford says:

    Happy to report that you inspired me to include a “difficulty discussion” in my ENGL1A classes today. We’re reading the full-length text (required by the COR) and many students struggle with the length and difficulty of the reading schedule. A full-scale paper would be preferable, but the discussion was fruitful (and enlightening for me). My favorite difficulty: “too many words.” Suggested solutions work-arounds from the students included using an audiobook version and creating your own illustrations.

    Liked by 1 person

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