Reading Difficult Texts Is Worth Students’ Struggle

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One reason I started using writing-about-writing emerged in coordinating research instruction in my university’s library. Our assignments demanded that students locate and engage peer-reviewed journal articles as their main sources, but it wasn’t actually happening. Students would dutifully find the minimum number of scholarly sources and, as Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson’s Citation Project has demonstrated, paraphrase a sentence or two from the first couple pages. Then they would move on to the real sources on whatever Issue of Social Import they were writing on, Newsweek or Esquire or Billy Bob’s Emporium of Deeply Learned Opinions on Everything website.


Not only was it tough to get students to truly engage scholarly sources, students didn’t understand the nature of those sources. What is a scholarly article? Where does it come from? Why is it? And how come it’s not written in “normal” English?


The problem wasn’t even just that we and every other college composition program in the country was requiring students to do the kind of reading they least liked—pages after repetitive page of nothing but words. It was that we were failing at explaining the whole thing, the entire knowledge-making enterprise that leads to this mysterious thing called “scholarship.” Yet if you can’t understand this, you’ll have the wrong idea about what higher education is to begin with, and you certainly won’t attain the oft-stated FYC learning outcome of coming to understand academic argument as writers taking turns in ongoing conversation for the purpose of constructing new knowledge through cooperative argument.


I have only ever found one way of helping students grapple with this incredibly stubborn set of threshold concepts around the nature, origin, and function of scholarly texts: Hand them scholarly texts and explain the whole system. While learning the nature, origins, and function of scholarly texts in their comp courses, students discover

  • How the people who write such texts tend to read (Scholarly writers, for example, tend to read “around” articles rather than straight through them.)
  • Context is as important to meaning as the text itself. Professional readers know through experience, or to take specific steps to find out, where a piece appeared and thus who its intended readers/users are, what the writer’s motivations for creating the text were, and what gap (in the research) the piece fills, its exigence.
  • A scholarly text really is a turn in an ongoing conversation (which they are aware of).


Understanding reading this way is hard for students in part because they lack the experience on which these kinds of readings strategies are intuitively based. Few scholars can actually articulate Swales’s CARS model of research article introductions, but most know it instinctively. We want writing students to know it explicitly in order to help make up for their inexperience.


Recognizing this need, in the 3rd edition of Writing About Writing we’ve developed “assist tags” for some of the most difficult or essential readings. The tags help map for students moments in the texts those CARS and other moves in scholarly conversation are happening. Students see not only genre conventions being used at key moments in the piece, such as arguments being extended from previous conversation in the field, but also behaviors professionals might use such as looking ahead or returning to read later.


The more we can show students such genre and behavioral moves, the more success we’ll have with FYC’s mission of helping students engage with scholarly conversation.


Here’s a sneak peek at one of the genre assist tags, featured in Deborah Brandt’s “Sponsors of Literacy.”


About the Author
Doug Downs is an associate professor of rhetoric and composition in the Department of English at Montana State University. His research interests center on research-writing pedagogy and facilitating undergraduate research both in first-year composition and across the undergraduate curriculum. He continues to work extensively with Elizabeth Wardle on writing-about-writing pedagogies and is currently studying problems of researcher authority in undergraduate research in the humanities.