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Difficult Texts

posted: 9.13.10 by archived

Welcome to our new blog on teaching with Ways of Reading by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Bartholomae and Petrosky teach at the University of Pittsburgh, where I direct the Composition Program, and for many years, a number of us who teach first-year composition at Pitt have used Ways of Reading as our anthology for the course. This blog will include posts by Pitt faculty and graduate students who’ve had experience with Ways of Reading—a book that contains difficult readings and provocative writing assignments that take students beyond familiar, thesis-driven essays.

Our premise is that teaching this book doesn’t come naturally; you have to take certain risks that sometimes pay off, and sometimes lead you and your class into tricky territory. For instance, we often begin a new semester by assigning students an essay they’re likely to find particularly challenging, perhaps even alienating, on a first reading. This is the opposite of pedagogical advice that says you should start a course with user-friendly material that will help students relax and grow comfortable with the subject matter as soon as possible. Rather than seeking to reassure students at the beginning of the term, we prefer to disrupt their habitual expectations and lead them onto unfamiliar ground.

This year, for example, the sequence of assignments taught by new teaching assistants (and their faculty and graduate student mentors) began with “Renoir’s Great Bathers” by Linda Nochlin. While those of us teaching the course could see how Nochlin models so much of what we find important for writers to learn—especially her ability to position her perspective among others—many of our students weren’t so readily impressed. Nochlin’s essay addresses a subject (how to interpret a particular painting by Renoir) that students found less than compelling, and her extensive discussion of nineteenth-century French culture left a number of them bored.

The question thus becomes: What might a teacher do to engage students in a lengthy, challenging essay they initially find off-putting?

My approach is to connect the essay to the primary goal our course sets for students themselves—namely, that they learn how to conduct critical inquiry through their writing. Rather than begin by asking questions about Nochlin’s essay, I begin by asking questions about what students think critical inquiry is and how we recognize it. This is in fact what we will spend the next fifteen weeks working on as we move through a sequence of texts in Ways of Reading, for there’s no clear-cut definition of critical inquiry I can provide them with. The point is for students to build, over the course of the semester, their own sense of how they might use writing to inquire rather than defend—how writing itself can be an act of thinking, not merely a report on the already-thought.

It’s only after students have spent a good part of class identifying features of critical inquiry that I turn to Nochlin’s essay and ask whether it strikes them as an example of what we’ve just discussed. Some say yes, some say no—which leads us into a deeper discussion of what constitutes inquiry in the first place, and the ways in which Nochlin does or doesn’t partake in it. In other words, my desire isn’t to convince students to appreciate Nochlin’s essay but to spark their interrogation of writing and its potential merits and problems, all of which soon connect with their own writing when I ask them the following week to compose an essay—in response to a painting of their choice—that exemplifies critical inquiry. By this point Nochlin has come to matter in a way that students hadn’t expected. It’s not that they necessarily like her text any more than they did at the beginning of the term, but they do see that the position they take on her work has implications for their own approach to writing-as-inquiry.

Am I saying that everyone ends up happy? Definitely not! But if comfort isn’t the immediate objective, then a teacher can learn to be patient with students’ resistance to a difficult text. Such patience is crucial to working with an anthology like Ways of Reading. The reward, to my mind, comes from the depth of discussion—and the non-formulaic writing—that students engage in when confronted with texts of real substance.


seitz_2007wsJames Seitz directs the Composition Program at the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches courses that explore the relationship between literature, literacy, and education. An avid reader of memoir, he follows a broad array of contemporary music, film, television, and athletics, all of which find frequent place in his courses.  His publications include Motives for Metaphor: Literacy, Curriculum Reform, and the Teaching of English and essays in College English, College Composition and Communication, ADE Bulletin, and many other publications. He’s currently at work on a memoir that explores his unusual childhood education in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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Categories: Pitt Instructors, Teaching Advice
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One Response to “Difficult Texts”

  1. Cherise Pollard, West Chester U Says:

    Hi Prof. Seitz,
    I was just looking around on the Bedford site and ran into this blog. I just wanted to let you know that I think this is a great idea. It’s a good opportunity for grad students and faculty to share their ideas about teaching Ways of Reading in first year composition courses.

    I’ll keep an eye on the blog to see how it progresses. Good luck with it.
    Best wishes for a successful school year,