Reconnecting with Difficulty

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Earlier this year, I wrote about a disconnect between my expectations and those of my students for their final FYC portfolio.  My students seemed to think the culminating project of the course was “no big deal” and might require “an hour or two” to put together, while I anticipated 8 to 10 hours of work, at a minimum.  My students were not unwilling to engage with difficulty; rather, they did not seem to recognize the difficulty I had embedded into the final project.

In my piece, I quoted a blog post from Cheryl Hogue Smith, who described the challenges of the post-pandemic classrooms as the “academic version of the Matrix.”

This fall, in conversations with colleagues teaching corequisite sections of FYC, I hear a similar and deep-rooted frustration:

  • “I don’t know how to reach them;”
  • “I really don’t know how to motivate them;”
  • “I don’t know what I’m doing anymore;”
  • “I’m at a loss.  I don’t think assignment tweaks will make a difference;”
  • “I have never seen anything like this before.”

Photo by Yustinus Tjiuwanda via UnsplashPhoto by Yustinus Tjiuwanda via UnsplashMy students come in, sit down, and open laptops, but they seem fundamentally disconnected.  One of my colleagues said that her students seem to want to “fly under the radar” and just get out of the course without being noticed.   I know what she means:  at the start of this term, I noticed that my students appeared to minimize the amount of physical space they occupied in our classrooms, a narrow box including the chair and the table with the laptop.  They stayed rigidly oriented towards the front of the room, with their heads down.

There is no simple answer to these realities.  (If someone says to me, “If you just…,” I typically tune them out.)

Still, I spent the latter part of my summer reviewing, imagining, and re-imagining my FYC course.  Among other adjustments, I decided to re-introduce Mariolina Salvatori’s paper on difficulty this fall—something I have not assigned in over five years.   For this semester’s iteration, I have asked students to explore their challenges in reading an extended excerpt from James Gee’s older article, “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction,” with the ultimate aim of applying that article as a framework for analysis later in the term.  

In our first session with the text—and the difficulty paper concept—I invited students to consider not only difficulties intrinsic to the text or those arising from within themselves and their lack of experience.  We also considered material realities—our windowless basement classroom, fatigue, ADHD, distraction, light, sound, temperature, anxiety, boredom, smells from the coffee shop upstairs—even the 8:00 am start time for the course.   We talked about the appearance of the article on screen, the stark red of the reading notes I had added to the PDF, and the layout of the printed copy I had provided for note-taking in class. 

I assured them that any honest response to the reading experience could be explored—and any response could be connected back to the literacy narrative they had just completed.   Granted, the students must ground the difficulty draft in the text itself, but they could step away from the text and return as needed, mirroring their own reading experience as they developed the difficulty paper draft. 

I will receive the first drafts of this paper next week.  But since having assigned it—and having worked through initial group and pair discussions—I have noticed a subtle shift in the classroom, specifically in the way students create and occupy space for their writing.  As before, most of my students are using laptops or tablets, but instead of orienting themselves directly towards the front of the room (and their devices), their screens are angled, and their bodies oriented slightly away from the screens—towards the hard copy of the Gee article, their handwritten three-column notes, and even each other.  Phones are visible, still, but they are on the tables with other resources, not always in hand.

Drafting has been more active; students move frequently between screen and paper, typing and hand-writing, silence and chatter.   Iced coffees, water bottles, granola bars, and pastries are also spread across the small seminar tables in our room, and the chairs have shifted multiple times.

As I said, this is a subtle shift.  But I suspect it signals a deeper sense of belonging in our classroom space, a level of comfort in being in the space.  Did our discussions of difficulty perhaps contribute to this shift?  I cannot say.  Does this shift imply that challenges in motivation or engagement are resolved?  Hardly.   Should I expect flashes of brilliance from previously reluctant students when I read the difficulty paper drafts this week?  Maybe, but probably not.

Still, the discussions of difficulty and the material realities that contribute to those difficulties seem to have opened up new space—physically and perhaps intellectually—in my FYC corequisite.  I’ll take that—and I’ll keep you posted on our progress. 

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.