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Engagement and Difficulty

posted: 5.13.13 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the emotional tenor of the work that we do—not just the emotions and affective dispositions we bring to the classroom, to committees, to working with graduate students, and to administrative tasks; I mean the emotional dynamics of the classroom, particularly the emotional terrain that students encounter when they are learning to write.  Colleagues such as Laura Micciche have written about this dimension of composition work far better than I can (or will), but I offer a thought here in relation to our publication of Understanding Rhetoric.

To wit, I found myself recently worried that Understand Rhetoric is the kind of text that students might find pandering, that it seems a cheap pedagogical shot—you know, a way to appeal to students by making writing and rhetoric seem “fun.”  Certainly, on one hand, writing, rhetoric, and comics are all “fun” things—at times.  But often they are not.  Sometimes writing just plain sucks.  I increasingly want to be more attentive to those moments when writing sucks and to craft my teaching around addressing those moments—not to encourage students to overcome these moments, but to sit with them, examine their own resistances, and think about what it means to find a task, assignment, or writing challenge difficult.

We’ve all been there.  Stumped, stymied, in the throes of our own writing challenges, when just getting out that next word seems far too difficult a task, so we go for a walk, leaving the laptop behind.  Liz and I certainly encountered many such instances during the composition of Understanding Rhetoric, both in drafting and revising the manuscript over several years.  And yet we persisted.  Reasons for persisting obviously vary (wanting a publication, wanting a good grade!), but the how of persistence is intriguing.

Do we teach this?  The how of persistence?

If I could revise Understanding Rhetoric, I might want to include more consideration of how one persists in writing.  Interestingly enough, “persistence” is one of the “habits of mind” promoted in the WPA Frameworks for Success in Postsecondary Writing, which defines it as “the ability to sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects.”  Such attention, we all know, is difficult to sustain, even with projects with which you feel very much engaged.  And yet, successful writers find ways to work with the difficulty of sustaining attention (even if it’s just learning when to go for a walk!), if only because persistently looking at something, examining an object of study, or considering an idea allows the mind to expand in its look, examination, and consideration—to put together new thoughts, to encounter new perspectives, and to thicken our understanding of what we’re studying, what we’re thinking about, what we know.  That’s the payoff writers get attached to—the working over of an idea over time.  It’s hard work.  It’s difficult.  But it’s also the difficult work that leads us to our more engaging ideas.

Being engaged and encountering difficulty need not be mutually exclusive.  If anything, I’m arguing for more attention to teaching difficulty, to helping all of us understand better how not just to engage difficult stuff, but to understand encounters with difficulty as–in and of themselves–potentially very engaging.

Categories: Jonathan Alexander
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