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English: 76-108 - Writing about Public Problems: Asking the Right Questions:

This guide is designed for Carnegie Mellon University's Writing in Academic Context courses, specifically Writing about Public Problems. It introduces steps to completing your class assignment.

Components of Writing about Public Problems

When writing about public problems, there are a few encompassing questions that you should ask:

  • What are the facts?
  • What are the effects (what values do these facts disturb)?

As you can see from the graph below, each of these questions includes other components that help define the problem.  The answer to these will, in turn, guide the necessary responses.

Most importantly:

  • How much time do I have (what are my deadlines)?

Many public problem documents take a long time to locate or procure.  Some might require original research (surveys, observations).  Knowing this will help you set your expectations.

Here's an example of a realistic timeline for your assignment:

Short Term Expectations

(can be finished in half a semester)

Mid-Term Expectations

(requires a full-semester)

Long Term Expectations

(requires more than one semester of research)

- If you only need to write a topic proposal

- If you are exploring a topic or a problem and not sure what your focus will be

- If your topic is unique and you don't have much to go on other than secondary information (in other words, you need to do original research)

- If you need have a topic but need to flush out your gap

- If you have a primary source but need secondary sources to support your proposal

- If you expect to identify future questions that are not considered under the current scope

- If your topic requires original research (unique or new)

- If you aim to be comprehensive due to grant requirements or funding

The Good, the bad, the Ugly - examples of public problem assignments:

An Ugly Prospect Problematic "Problem" A Good "Problem" to have

A proposal to create a 24/7 dedicated study space for students on campus.

Potential issues: there are too many competing services and preferences that will make funding a project like this very difficult without identifying a unique purpose.  More importantly, this project's impact might be very difficult to measure.

A proposal to update the meal program on campus.

Potential issues: While this problem might be more manageable, it may be difficult to find existing data on the impact of current food programs (might require original opinion surveys)

A proposal to offer training programs to enhance diversity, equity, or inclusion.

Potential issues: This has a great potential but be sure to investigate existing offerings and propose a unique "added-service" that capitalizes on existing funding or programming.

DISCLAIMER: All of the above scenarios have the potential to shift from Good to Ugly and vice versa, depending on available information.  The key here is to recognize how to turn an ugly or bad problem into a good one.  This might mean, asking for time, conducting some original research, focusing your proposal, or changing it all together.

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Ashley Werlinich
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The Structure of Writing about Public Problems

The Structure of Writing about Public Problems

(image courtesy of club troppo - accessed  09/03.2019)