Disconnected from Difficulty

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I recently recorded a pedagogy podcast concerning supplemental instruction (SI) in the most difficult first and second-year courses at my university, sharing the Zoom platform with a colleague from psychology and another from math.  Our conversation began with a discussion of difficulty.  What leads us to perceive something as difficult?  The ratio of time and effort required?  The subject matter itself?  Comments on Rate My Professor? 

 

We talked about the benefits of working our way through difficulties, as well as strategies for motivating ourselves to stick with challenges—from growth mindset to research-based study strategies such as spacing (spreading smaller amounts of study over days or weeks rather than cramming at the last minute).  Cramming and spacing can both yield immediate benefits on a test, but the knowledge gained through cramming is less likely to persist, while learning acquired over time tends to last longer.  

 

But what motivates students to exert energy to space their studies strategically or to connect with SI and other campus resources?  Sharing our own struggles, bringing former students and peers to show how their learning extends beyond the classroom—all of this can help students see potential in difficulty and address the “when will I ever use this” question that seems to arise in so many of our class conversations.  

 

Such conversations, however, address the students who recognize and respond to the difficulty inherent in our assignments.  But what about students who do not seem to be aware of that difficulty? 

 

I recall using a variation of Mariolina Salvatori’s difficulty assignment in one of my FYC courses at a community college a few years ago.   I drew on Salvatori and Donohue’s book, The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, and this insightful piece from Meghan Sweeney and Maureen McBride in creating the assignment:  students were invited to explore their difficulties in reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s “No Name Woman.”  I was surprised by a handful of students who wrote that they encountered no difficulties at all in the reading.  It was clear from subsequent work that they had not actually grasped basic details of the reading, much less nuances of key themes. 

 

This semester, I have not used the difficult paper per se, although I have incorporated elements of its structure into the reflective pieces students have written over the semester.  And I am once again befuddled by a disconnect between what I perceive as the difficulties embedded in the course and the students’ assessment of their own writing practices. 

  

After reviewing the grading specifications for the final portfolio—an end-of-the year project to which I devote the final three weeks of class—I asked students to estimate the amount of time they would need to complete final revisions, edits, and annotations (reflective notes) for the curated portfolio.  Several suggested that at least an hour— “maybe even two”—might be needed.   Many of these students do not yet have full first drafts; they need to complete substantive revisions and extensive editing for at least 4 pieces (2500+ words). 

 

In short, it appears that most students have underestimated the time and effort required for accomplishing the portfolio. I am used to complaints that the portfolio requirements are too difficult; I am not so accustomed to assertions that “it’s no big deal.”

 

Now I am wondering how best to communicate realistic assessments of what is required to my students, and yet also invite them to enter this process that—despite difficulty—can bring energy, magic, and incredible satisfaction.  My consternation echoes a concern articulated (and explored in depth in this post) by one of my heroes in FYC/developmental/corequisite work, Cheryl Hogue Smith:

During this post-COVID sea change, however, I feel like students are in an academic version of The Matrix, not knowing a world of learning exists outside of their passive realities, not even knowing there’s a red or blue pill to choose from. And it’s this fight I don’t know how to win.

 

Photo by marco fileccia on UnsplashPhoto by marco fileccia on UnsplashI don’t have answers, but this is just one of the difficult questions I will consider this summer.  I hope to look more into recent publications in the scholarship of teaching and learning, such as this open access collection published by the Association for the Teaching of Psychology.  I am also working through a collaborative investigation of the ways students use language to position themselves in relation to difficult materials in advanced courses.  I will review student work and my own feedback from this current semester.   Then I will tweak (yet again) my syllabi in preparation for fall courses.  

 

 

How are you helping your students recognize, value, and persevere through difficulty?  How do you help those who are overwhelmed by difficulty—and also those who don’t even perceive that difficulty?  As always, I would love to hear from you.

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.