Difficult Texts & Problem-Posing Prompts

When we teachers enter classrooms with particular poems or stories in hand, we also enter with expectations about the kind of student responses that would be most fruitful, and these expectations have been shaped, for the most part in literature departments in American universities. We value some readings more than others […]. One inevitable result of this situation is that there will be moments of mismatch between what a teacher expects and what students do. What interests us about this mismatch is the possibility that our particular orientations and readings might blind us to the logic of a student’s interpretation and the ways that interpretations might be sensibly influenced by the student’s history.
–Hull and Rose, 1990, 287.

Because literacy involves the mutually constitutive practices of reading and writing, we strive to design our writing courses to encourage interplay among the assignments. We select difficult readings to engage our students in considerations of complex academic/public issues, and we try to design “problem-posing’ prompts, which require students to consider these readings from various angles.

Some instructors assume that, for a text to be “difficult,’ it must be linguistically challenging, stylistically dense, and/or thematically complex. Others “assume’ that such texts must be “literary.’ Think William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature,’ or Toni Morrison’s Beloved. We believe that the definition of “difficult’ texts should be expanded, because we have found that they come in various forms–they may even be multimodal!–and fall into different generic categories.

Definition: A TEXT can be a book, an article, a television commercial, a poster, a radio program, etc. Sometimes it is useful to consider everyday objects as texts. Texts tell viewers things about themselves and the rhetorical situation which contributed to the text’s distribution, production, reception, and circulation.

Each text embodies certain ideas and biases concerning how the world works or how it ought to work. Some are explicit; others are implicit. Texts and consumers of text both carry assumptions. By contrasting and exploring the self and texts through language in varying situations and contexts, we recalibrate how the world works or ought to work.

Texts that might seem simple at first glance often contain these complicated ideas and biases, which require careful analytical attention. Examples might include: the Civil War-era parlor song “Jeff in Petticoats’; Charles Brower’s personal narrative Fifty Years Below Zero; or Frederic Remington’s painting “Coming to the Call.” Albeit in different ways, all of these “texts’ demand that readers confront difficult questions about history, politics, and/or identity. They ask readers to adopt different perspectives and think about the world in unconventional ways.

Definition: DIFFICULT TEXTS are ones that unsettle readers because they refuse to allow them to rely on easy answers. Sometimes, they require readers to think about controversial issues and/or confront unpleasant aspects of history and culture. Always, they are texts that open up interpretive possibilities rather than foreclose them.

Oftentimes, we will pair difficult texts with “problem-posing prompts,” prompts that require students to consider texts from many different angles. A problem-posing prompt, like a difficult text, does not come with a simple or singular “right” response.  For example, a problem-posing prompt might not ask students to analyze the theme of dissent in Emerson’s Walden; rather, a problem posing prompt might ask students to use Walden as a lens for analyzing a contemporary text – an Occupy Wall Street statement, for example.

Definition:  PROBLEM-POSING PROMPTSprompts challenge students to think deeply about the text, context, themselves, and how to negotiate and synthesize their unique response through writing. These prompts allow students to explore different paths and investigate different choices.

Because problem-posing prompts inspire very individual responses, prescribing exactly how an essay should perform and function, aside from effectively working within and against a rhetorical situation, will not necessarily lead to success for a student nor will it lead to a student transferring knowledge about language and meaning-making to other contexts. The (in)famous five-paragraph essay, for example, may cripple a student’s response or allow the student to respond in a form that is easy rather than thoughtful. Descriptive practices, as opposed to the prescriptive, allow students to develop internalized prescription. These are practices that are adopted or created by writers when they become aware of the choices they are making.

Responding to “difficult texts’ and “problem-posing prompts’ challenges students to develop their ideas and share them with their instructors and classmates. In our experience, students often improve their papers immensely through a process of collaborative discussion and revision. Many times, first drafts contain the seeds of generative thoughts, but those seeds only germinate when students are allowed to talk about their ideas in class, take those ideas home, meditate further, and expound upon them in subsequent revisions. For more ideas on how to inspire class discussion and successful peer-review, check out the lesson plans available for 111x and 211/213x.