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Pedagogy 6.1 (2006) 159-164

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Into the Difficulties, Out of the Gaps

[Works Cited for Roundtable]
The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty. By Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori and Patricia Donahue. New York: Pearson Education–Longman, 2005.

What should one do with The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty? Part of Pearson-Longman's Elements of Composition series (William A. Covino, series editor), Salvatori and Donahue's book doesn't quite walk, talk, or even look like a usual composition textbook. First, it's a little book—5 3 7, 182 pages including the index, closer to Strunk and White's Elements of Style, which its size and title echo, than to the usually megasized textbooks that cross my desk. The book doesn't include stages of writing or traditional forms of college essays; it doesn't even mention Standard English or grammar; and it explicitly "focuses on reading," even though claiming that it's "also about writing" (viii). Yet I think this well-organized book is an important one for teachers as much as for students. It provides excellent guidance for teaching and learning by asking students to read and write themselves into and out of the difficulties they find in a text. The answer, then, is to enjoy the book, to glean the valuable insights and strategies it provides, and to carry these into our classes, not only composition and literature but any classes that rely on texts. More than a required student text, I think this book should be on every teacher's reading list, on every teacher's shelf, ready for those moments when "difficulties" arise.

The book brings into focus the intimate relationship between reading and writing and assumes the importance of teaching both—"a combination that is often avoided because one process, and the approach to teaching it, seems to interfere with the other" (viii). In "The Reception of Reader-Response Theory," Patricia Harkin (2005: 420–21) comes to a similar conclusion; professionalizing composition involved "emphasizing writing as opposed to reading." Wanting to establish an identity separated from literature, composition [End Page 159] studies eschewed the populist perspectives and important pedagogic insights of reading theorists such as Wolfgang Iser and Louise Rosenblatt. Iser's "gaps," which made such eminent sense to me but had slipped from mind since, sound amazingly similar to the "difficulties" that Salvatori and Donahue take as their starting point. Rather than obstacles that stop student learning, difficulties, somewhat like Iser's aesthetic gaps, are seen as moments of opportunity for learning, moments that can be uncovered, explored, and articulated through writing, a recursive, self-reflective process. Learning as well as reading and writing are, as the authors point out, intertextual (47).

Difficulties—recognizing them, exploring them, resolving them—are key to Salvatori and Donahue's approach. The book begins with a too-familiar scenario: students stating that an assigned reading was "boring," "dumb," or "stupid," that they "didn't get anything from it." To minimize such responses, I, like many other teachers raised on writing-to-learn strategies, often assign reading response journals. While these help, I also remember too many dull summations, pro forma pieces that didn't really question the text and that often closed rather than opened discussions. Salvatori and Donahue avoid this pitfall. They focus less on what students know (or think they know) and more on what they don't—on the difficulties, the stumbling points. If students don't initially find a difficulty (e.g., "but it was easy"), the authors ask them to go back, almost to "create" a difficulty as a way to garner a deeper understanding of the text. How to find these? Teachers can help by finding places in student writing "marked by vehement expressions, unwavering conclusions, or a tendency toward premature closure" (xiii). The next step is to question: "Why do you think so?" "What assumptions are at work in your views?"

The guidance is well organized, the lessons nicely scaffolded. The seven chapters are divided into two sections of three chapters each, with an "Intermezzo" between. The book also has...


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