Experimental Course: Negotiating Difference

Negotiating Difference:

Incorporating and Responding to Multiple Perspectives in Composition

Meridith Reed


This experimental course focused on encouraging students to see and respect a variety of perspectives in their writing. I designed this course to encourage students to thoroughly examine multiple viewpoints on an issue and to ethically and fairly incorporate and respond to those perspectives in writing. The course also included a heavy collaborative focus to ensure that students had to talk through and negotiate their ideas with those who might not agree with them. Throughout the course, I used readings and reflective writing assignments to help students think about why it might be important to be respectful of divergent views in writing.

Reverse Opinion Editorial. During the first week and a half of the semester, students were required to write three one-page arguments on three different topics. They then had to choose one of these three arguments to reverse for the opinion editorial. Essentially, students had to write 3-5 pages arguing against whatever stance they took in the original one-page argument.

Rhetorical Analysis. Students split into groups and each group chose one of the six sections from the reader, Negotiating Difference, to read from during this unit. This gave students the opportunity to read authors who were responding in different ways to a variety of political issues throughout history. Many of the texts in the reader explicitly respond to each other, exposing students to authors who respond to other writers as part of a conversation. After reading several pieces from their section of the book, each student then chose one of the readings from their section on which to write an individual rhetorical analysis

Collaborative Issues Paper. Students wrote 10-12 page issues papers in groups of three or four on controversial topics. This unit focused heavily on how to appropriately cite sources and incorporate counterarguments in order to demonstrate to students exactly what it means to be fair to another perspective. Students were encouraged to deviate from the traditional format for research papers for this assignment by not revealing their stance on an issue until midway through the paper. Instead of beginning with a traditional thesis statement that firmly takes a side, students were required to use the first half of their paper to provide context and background for their issue and to introduce the broad conversation taking place on a particular issue. Students wrote regular individual and group reports on their progress in researching their topic, using sources, and working together as a group.

Textbooks and Assigned Readings. Along with The Little Penguin Handbook, Writing and Rhetoric, and the Writing and Rhetoric Supplemental Guide, this course used the reader, Negotiating Difference: Cultural Case Studies for Composition edited by Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzburg. Small assigned readings included “The Mormon Ethic of Civility” from the LDS Church Newsroom, “Weightier Matters” by Dallin H. Oaks, and “The Doctrine of Inclusion” by M. Russell Ballard.


The purpose of this course was to help students develop responsible ways of responding to differences and opposing views in academic discourse. Collaborative work and assignments were used to help achieve this purpose by ensuring that students needed to discuss their writing with others. The Opinion Editorial assignment encouraged students to be fair and compassionate in their treatment of opposing viewpoints because students were writing against their own views—being unfair to the opposing side, in this case, would simply mean being unfair to oneself. The collaborative Issues Paper introduced students to the idea of writing and academic discourse as a conversation and encouraged students to negotiate and work through their own ideas in their work with their own collaborative groups.

This course was in part built on the idea that knowledge can be socially constructed and that good writing comes about as part of a collaborative process, beginning with brainstorming and on through peer review and teacher comments. In “Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning,” John Trimbur argues that one of the goals of consensus should be to help students learn together and explore points of difference. Trimbur writes, “Through a collective investigation of differences, students can begin to imagine ways to change the relations of production and to base the conversation not on consensus but on reciprocity and the mutual recognition of the participants and their differences” (614). My course encouraged students to investigate difference maturely and respectfully and to recognize how a conversation focused on reciprocity results in greater understanding for both parties. My goal was to teach students how to find common ground with an audience and how to tolerate and respect different viewpoints so that students would be able to communicate more effectively and charitably.

Since the vast majority of BYU students ascribe to the LDS faith, this course also carried with it an important objective of helping students see how writing that respects and represents diverse perspectives supports the doctrines and practice of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints. Members of the Church should cultivate the ability to demonstrate charity, tolerance, and compassion towards those from different backgrounds or perspectives. The ability to accept differences and interact with others in this way is important in every sphere of life, whether it be in personal life or civil or academic discourse.


The course was successful in achieving many of its intended aims. In their reflections on the Opinion Editorial, students commented that exploring the other side of an issue made them more compassionate and understanding of other perspectives and, in some cases, even changed their opinion entirely. From this activity, students learned that understanding multiple perspectives actually helped them understand their own viewpoint better, either strengthening or changing it as necessary.

I informed my students on the first day of class that the course was an experimental section and that it would involve a substantial amount of collaborative work. Despite this, many of my students still had some struggles working collaboratively, mostly with balancing the work load and coordinating schedules. By the end of the course, however, and particularly on the last assignment, student groups were working smoothly. Despite the difficulties inherent in collaborative work, students generally responded positively to the opportunity to work together and responded well to the challenges. In reflective essays, several students commented that they felt the various strengths of each member of their group resulted in a stronger finished product. Students also commented that the focus on responsibly using sources strengthened their ability to incorporate sources effectively and to write more persuasively.

Future Directions

If I were to teach this course again, I would spend more time teaching students how to write together by implementing more role play and in-class group writing. The few student groups who struggled most with the collaborative issues paper assignment were the students who most often divided up portions of the project and worked separately. Students who were able to better communicate their ideas to their group and who combined various students’ ideas seemed to meet with more success. If I implemented more role play of group negotiation and in-class group writing, I feel all student groups would better develop the skills to collaborate and would meet with more success.

I would also assign students to write a brief audience analyses for both the Opinion Editorial and the Issues Paper to further help them in understanding and responding to alternate perspectives. Considering the variety of groups that might have a stake in an issue would help students to understand that many issues have many perspectives, not just two polarized sides.

I learned from this course that first-year writers can be taught open-mindedness and charity in their writing and that these students can effectively learn to produce quality collaborative writing. Other Writing 150 instructors hoping to apply some of the beneficial aspects of this course might consider assigning students small-stakes assignments asking them to argue against their own argument, analyze their audience, or participate in group work as a method of negotiating a variety of perspectives.

Works Cited

Trimbur, John. “Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning.” College English 51.6 (1989): 602-616. JSTOR. Web. 26 April 2011.


View the course syllabus here: Reed_Syllabus