This article examines the applicability of controversial course themes in the first-year writing classroom. It narrates examples of student resistance to readings and discussions that led to intellectual and personal discomfort, and then assesses the benefits (improved critical thinking skills, opportunities for lessons in rhetoric and audience awareness) and drawbacks (self-imposed silence, fear of writing beyond clichéd responses to difficult questions) that controversial material can bring to the writing seminar. After comparing the results of student writing in two course themes built on varied degrees of explicitly ideological content, Sponenberg concludes that a less politicized theme allows students more room to explore controversial subjects on their own terms because they feel less anxiety about “saying the wrong thing” than they experienced when responding to overt political arguments.

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