CCCC06: Teaching Difficulty

Mariolina Salvatori, Patricia Donahue, Sheridan Blau, and Dale Bauer managed that rare combination of insight, charm, sophistication, and grace that makes for the best conference presentations one might hope to attend. Like the Michigan State plagiarism panel (notes to follow soon), they packed the room, with people sitting on the floor and standing along the walls. And they didn’t disappoint.

Mariolina Salvatori began her presentation, “Difficult Theory,” by proposing a hermeneutical argument for framing the difficulty students encounter as possibility. Her interest in difficulty as a useful pedagogical concept, she said, came out of a moment in teaching King Lear, which was “unnecessarily difficult,” according to one student. In fact, the student’s indictment of textual difficulty identified two of the key components of the text, and the so-called difficulty was actually an indication of the richness of interpretive possibilities. This, to Mariolina, was the central “Janus-like” feature of difficulty, its dual status as resistance and possibility. She then moved to the central text for her presentation, albeit one with which she admits considerable differences: George Steiner’s “On Difficulty.” For Steiner, there are four (broad and porous) categories of difficulty:

  1. Contingent difficulty: the need to look up words and the like;
  2. Modal difficulty, which Steiner also characterizes as “parochial”; difficulty not necessarily removed by immediate recourse to reference;
  3. Tactical difficulty: linguistic, structural or conceptual concerns that need to be actively processed; and
  4. Ontological difficulty, which confronts the reader with “blank questions” about language and the world: one example that came up later was that of holocaust literature.

While this taxonomy has its problems, Mariolina suggested, the way in which it makes difficulty manageable by naming and categorizing it holds exciting possibilities for engaging student writing. The ways we name things affects how we understand them, so one necessary task is to foreground Steiner’s premises. First: what does naming something as “difficult” do? The assumption there seems to be that difficulties occur when the pact of communication breaks down: Steiner adjudicates power to certain readers who have some sort of special insight concerning the intent of any given text, but the nature of this power is occluded in Steiner’s writing. For Steiner, the difficulties readers encounter are inextricably linked to their historical, cultural, conceptual, and personal alienation, and the act of interpretation results in the effacement of difficulties: for those special certain readers, difficulties lead to understanding, whereas for students, difficulties are a bar to understanding. But if difficulties are a function of readers’ dim or clear understanding of textual intent, Mariolina asked, then how is it that readers develop an awareness of difficulty itself?

Frank Kermode’s assertion that “without fore-understanding of the whole, we cannot understand the part, and without a fore-understanding of the part, we cannot understand the whole” operates in the mode of discourses of “innate genius, and as such, seems problematic: we might understand, instead, that difficulties are ways of knowing, and as such, constitute what hermeneuticists call “fore-understanding.” (I was racing to keep up, and apologize for the chronological muddle in my notes here.) And insofar as difficulty is a form of fore-understanding, it behooves us to conceive of teaching as a site where students might identify and reflect upon moments of difficulty as highly compressed and dynamic seeds of interpretation.

I’m afraid I haven’t done Mariolina’s presentation justice. While my research focuses on political economy and technology, Mariolina’s work with reading and difficulty is what drew me into rhetoric and composition, and I hope to take the ways in which she negotiates between student writing and composition theory as a model for my own scholarship. If you haven’t read her work or heard her speak, you should: the stance she takes in relation to student writing is simultaneously the most generous and the most sophisticated I’ve ever seen in composition.

Patricia Donahue followed Mariolina by suggesting that her presentation offered an extension, a testing, an actualizing of moments of difficulty as moments of interpretation. Difficulty is that which is hard to understand, and that which slows or stops the process of reading — but we need to construct difficulty as a gateway rather than a barrier to understanding, argued Donahue. One way to do so, she suggested, is to use the triple-entry notebook from The Elements (And Pleasures) of Difficulty. (Which I cited heavily in my own presentation, which I’ll post here soon.) In the iteration of the triple-entry notebook (drawn from Mariolina’s work following Berthoff) Donahue describes, students delineate three columns of their reactions to a text: one as “full participant” in the conversation, one as “listener” to the conversation, and one as “outsider” to the conversation (see Elements 11-13). Donahue then described her student Tom Brennan’s work (see Amy Robillard’s recent College English piece for Donahue’s excellent and respectful reasons for using her student’s full name), and offered an excerpt from his paper. For Tom, the central difficulty in Montaigne’s Of Books was its inherently contradictory nature, a position Donahue suggested some may find difficult, given the richness of Montaigne’s prose. For Tom, fore-understanding served as a conduit to one particular type of writing, and Montaigne’s apparent contradictions led to an investigation of style and its concomitant motivations. While the student’s recognition of difficulty is central, there is also the importance of the recognition of ease, and the dialectic between the two: teaching is the pursuit of making that dialectic visible; to show how difficulty operates in order to make it available. For Donahue, difficulty grants access to conversations with her students about what, why, and how they know and don’t know. As with Mariolina’s pedagogy, moments of difficulty become moments of possibility.

Sheridan Blau began his presentation by offering a Goldilocks assignment. Find three poems, he asks his students: one too hard, one too easy, and one that’s just right. (According to Blau, the “too hard” is often most difficult to find, because students often figure out why it’s too hard when they characterize it as such.) Blau then handed out a passage from Milton (Paradise Lost Book V lines 519-543) and asked us, within scant minutes, to write and share our “commentaries” on the selection. (Mine was about the shift in person in the middle of that passage, but others were about perfectability and surety.) The combination of social interaction and the productivity of forestalled understanding, Blau argued, is central to the act of understanding: if we can’t experience difficulty, then we can’t really experience a text. Blau described his practice of having students write frequent commentaries (and here he called attention to the literate practice of commentaries in Talmudic studies) which he subsequently used to determine the topics for class discussion, as well as his requirement that students reply to one another’s commentaries, and his facilitation of this practice with Web technologies. (Class weblogs, anyone?) Writing about literature is, supposedly, writing to learn. And yet our pedagogy turns writing to learn into a set of genre exercises, and the notion that our work is to introduce students to the language of the university gets reified into obsessions with the formal characteristics of the five-paragraph essay, to the point (are you listening, Mark Bauerlein?) where the disciplinary model for some — the PMLA essay — as loose meditation in no way resembles the arguments we have come to expect from our students.

Dale Bauer was the panel’s respondent, and began by describing the acts of will that pedagogies focused on difficulty — those of Salvatori, Donahue, and Blau — require. Difficulty exists, subsists, persists in student resistance, in classrooms fraught with anxiety over difficulty — but, Bauer wondered, is it not impossible to teach without failing? (I don’t think so. I fail frequently and spectacularly. And I pick myself up and start over: Fail again. Fail better.) Bauer gave an account of her moment of teaching failure, of a moment when a student’s knowledge of the answer became for the student a moment of shame. Students often see our disciplinary intensity as both embarassing and as a disciplining factor that can contribute to alienation, Bauer contended — and offered as an example the genre of the teacher comment “shit sandwich.” Here’s how the shit sandwich works: the teacher offers a thin slice of vague praise, adds lots of ugly corrective comments, and tops it off with some mayonnaise and another half-heartedly pleasant slice of a conclusion.

And maybe a pickle.

Student resistance, Bauer argued, resides in the idea of academic work as public space. Students want to claim their own rhetorical space: they don’t want to be marked as engaged, vulnerable, serious members of a classroom community as much as they want to convert that community to their own purposes. (OK, I’m editorializing some, and getting away from Bauer’s points, for which I apologize.) The problem here is that the university has moved away from the model of a scholarly community and towards a bureaucratized space wherein the chief goal is leaving rather than learning, which turns student aspirations toward easy answers and away from rigorous thought. So one wonders: what remedy might we see for our present circumstance?

CCCC06: Teaching Difficulty

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