A Difficulty Assignment for Faculty: “They Can’t Even Write a Sentence”

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Maureen McBride and Meghan Sweeney recently wrote a blog post presenting strategies to help basic writers read complex texts (see A Place for Reading Instruction in our Writing Classrooms).  They described, for example, the difficulty paper, which they have adapted from the work of Mariolina Salvatori.  McBride and Sweeney note, “Using the difficulty paper allows us to help students avoid getting ‘stuck’ on difficulties and failing to engage with texts.”  In their book The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, Salvatori and Donohue make this claim: “If [student readers] move away from those difficulties, or opt for someone else solving them for them, chances are they will never know the causes of the difficulties, and the means to control them” (3).

I have included difficulty paper assignments in my first semester composition course since the fall of 2015, and my summer students are working through a difficulty paper now. As I presented the concept to my students this term, I realized that difficulty forms the heart of academic work; willingness to grapple with difficulty—those thorny and intractable questions that keep us awake at night—is required for an academic vocation, and most certainly in the scholarship of teaching and learning. Sadly, with heavy teaching loads and service responsibilities, many of my fellow two-year college English instructors neglect scholarship after their own graduate studies, despite the fact (and also because) we encounter pedagogical and practical difficulties regularly, difficulties that invite—perhaps even demand—exploration and scholarly inquiry.  

Inspired by the work of Joanne Giordano and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin Colleges, I see a path forward for two-year college English faculty who wish to engage in scholarship and counter distorted narratives and policies imposed upon us: we need to give ourselves difficulty assignments.  In the context of our departments and classrooms, we must identify difficulty, engage with it, discover its causes, and to the extent that it is possible, refuse to pass responsibility for dealing with it to those who do not have a background in composition, reading, linguistics, second language writing, or basic writing.

An exploration of difficulty could occur within a single class, across multiple sections of a course, or across a program.  One instructor could initiate the process, or like-minded faculty could pool resources, research, and insights to collaborate on an investigation.  All it really takes is a perceived difficulty and the tenacity to engage with it.

One difficulty that has presented itself to me recently is a comment, repeated often by faculty within my department and outside of it:  “I don’t see how _____ got into this class.  They can’t even write a sentence.”  As part of a state-level system, my college has no local control over placement.  This reality presents us with multiple difficulties and frustrations, not to mention a sense of helplessness.  Sensing what “we can’t” do, we groan at what “they can’t do.”  Across my office threshold, I hear it again and again:  “I don’t know what to do.  They really can’t even write a sentence.”  

What does it mean to say that they can’t write a sentence?  Are we describing a reality, or are we expressing the same resignation as students who mutter “I don’t get it” when facing a daunting text—students who then cross their arms and mentally check out of the conversation?     

This, then, is my difficulty assignment.  When I am tempted to say those words, or when I hear them, I will ask questions to probe this difficulty.  What is it, really, that we are saying when we claim “they can’t even write a sentence”?

Multilingual writers, for example, may be writing sentences that appear to be “word salad” – content words without (or with inconsistent use of) function words and grammatical suffixes.  Grammatical function words guide experienced readers to construct coherent interpretations; working through a sentence which lacks these markers can be disorienting. But does this mean that multilingual writers aren’t composing sentences

Let’s not shut our thinking down by asserting they can’t write sentences. What else could be going on?  Did I or a colleague pass a student who really wasn’t ready to move to the next level? Let’s look at that possibility.  Are the students actually wrestling with content-based difficulties, with a subsequent lapse in attention to some linguistic features?   They might very well be able to control the latter once they have gained some experience in the discipline in question.  Or perhaps the writers are homesick, heartsick, homeless, afraid, or ashamed. We need to do some digging.

Other students may compose “sentences” lacking all marks of what we might call standard academic prose: clear boundaries, attention to agreement, and logical connections. With native speaking students, absence of these markers could stem from lack of experience, both in writing and reading. Contorted prose may well be a student’s attempt to grapple with reading material for which they are unprepared, and as such, that prose may actually be evidence of learning in process.  But let’s not dismiss the issue as an inability to write sentences.

Or perhaps students are assuming voices they believe we want to hear, without much success.  These “non-sentences” could also reflect apathy or doing just enough to get by, a hope that putting enough words on paper will suffice to jump through a hoop.  Maybe these students have never had their words and ideas considered seriously before; as a result, they have no experience writing for engaged readers who can give thoughtful feedback. We can dismiss their difficulties with a peremptory declaration about their abilities, but that will not help them move forward.

The combination of 5-5 teaching loads, lack of local control over placement, and changes in student characteristics stretches and challenges faculty at two-year colleges.  As we advocate for change, we must include scholarly inquiry about the difficult realities we face in our classrooms.  If we choose not to engage, we will cede control of our difficulties to political forces beyond our institution and the profession as a whole, leaving us stuck with challenges that we lack the means—or the will—to address.

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About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.