Writing about Problems that Matter

Jennifer Campbell

The first goal listed on RWU’s “Our Vision” page is to provide students the opportunity to “work with local and global communities to address problems that matter most to society.” Most academic disciplines and professional groups coalesce very directly around significant problems—Engineering seeks to improve the built environment with hands-on design/build experiences; Natural Sciences monitor and sustain vital ecosystems threatened by human activity; Cybersecurity confronts the shifting balance between privacy and security; Business responds constantly to all the factors that influence the bottom-line.  The Social Sciences and the Humanities often focus directly on the toll social and cultural inequalities take on the human spirit and voice.

If part of the RWU mission is to encourage all students and faculty to be experiential learners dedicated to making a better world, then we each have to learn to approach, study, and engage all sorts of problems.  A quick online search for “taxonomy of problems” reveals that people from many fields (such as education, psychology, and business, just to name a few) have organized types of problems.  There are immediate problems that require “trouble-shooting,” close-ended problems that indicate a “gap from standard,” and open-ended problems that call for new and innovative strategies. But perhaps most importantly (and interestingly), there are “wicked problems”:

A wicked problem has innumerable causes, is tough to describe, and doesn’t have a right answer… They’re the opposite of hard but ordinary problems, which people can solve in a finite time period by applying standard techniques. Wicked problems often crop up when organizations have to face constant change or unprecedented challenges. They occur in a social context; the greater the disagreement among stakeholders, the more wicked the problem. In fact, it’s the social complexity of wicked problems as much as their technical difficulties that make them tough to manage…. [C]onfusion, discord, and lack of progress are telltale signs that an issue might be wicked” (Camillus 100).

Understanding that the most vital “problems that matter” are often “wicked” ones, emerging from “disagreement” and “social complexity,” and marked by “confusion, discord, and lack of progress,” alerts us all to (at least) two realities.  First, problems exist embedded in material networks of struggle; and second, speaking them into existence through layers of confusion and discord (and self-interest) is as necessary as it is difficult. No matter what the internet says, nothing about engaging with significant problems is easy or given or once-and-done.

Introduction to Professional and Public Writing is dedicated to introducing students to a lifelong commitment of engaging with these problems that matter. As an academic discipline, Writing Studies’ contribution to engaging with problems can be applied to all areas of study and to all types of problems because we focus on the way language itself—discourse—is created and exchanged in the service of engaging problems. Writing Studies deepens students’ rhetorical awareness of how the ongoing conversations between groups of people shape and express the problems that matter.  According to Aristotle, being rhetorically aware means understanding “the best means of persuasion in any given situation.” It means understanding the deep logic that explains why an author has selected a particular genre to deliver a particular message to an audience.  We all know writing is hard, but we commit to writing well because of the vital work it does in the world in helping humans preserve and extend our ability to come together.  As theorist Anne Beaufort writes, “[w]hat writing expertise is ultimately concerned with is becoming engaged in a particular community of writers who dialogue across texts, argue, and build on each other’s work” (18).

Engaging a problem through writing—through multimodal exchanges of graphical symbols of all sorts—can be a longer and more difficult task than simply “solving” a problem.   Real-world “problems that matter” first must be articulated into existence, by inquiry into a topic. Notice that one of the first qualities of a “wicked problem” is simply that it is “tough to describe,” alerting us to the importance of a writer’s sense of observation, accuracy, and fairness even in simply noting “what is this problem?” The act of inquiring—of asking questions, of exploring multiple perspectives, of gathering information and locating gaps in what is known—is a necessarily messy precursor to developing the formal “research questions” that we often expect to guide us to “solutions.”  Curious researchers know that it takes many questions to make one question, and that one question inevitably generates more questions. While using writing to engage problems sounds like—and is!—a demanding task, it is also a path to empowerment for the writer.  Writers who are determined to contribute knowledge toward the greater good by engaging in problems that matter have not only the responsibility but the freedom to decide which gap or which perspective or which data-set deserves another round of questions.  This is the freedom that allows the priorities of the individual writer to shape and direct those of the larger community.

The task of articulating a problem from simply a topic involves adopting a perspective that can calculate harm.  In other words, problems are problems because there is some sort of (measurable) harm to someone or something, somewhere in the community.  Articulating the “harm” emerges in a combination of carefully chosen words and strong evidence presented by effective writing.  Simply stating the fact “There are 300 car accidents a day within the city limits” is not stating a problem—certainly not for the owner of the body shop sure of her revenue stream.  To say instead “There are 300 car accidents a day within the city limits in which people’s injuries require trips to the emergency room” emphasizes “injury,” and “emergency,” which we all know, by definition, indicate problems. The writer chooses the words that allow those who may not have direct experience of the harm to understand the perspectives of those who have been directly affected. Writers extend the circle of “stakeholders” from those directly affected to those whose interest is more tangential and indirect.  Perhaps as a pedestrian on the other side of town, I feel protected from the direct injury of so many car accidents.  In order to garner my support, someone—some rhetorically effective researcher and writer—would need to describe and explain the other, less obvious, ways I might be affected by so many accidents.   My tax burden, or the absence of ambulances on my side of town, or the lingering communal effects of so much grief and anxiety.  Writers’ words and their ability to evince multiple perspectives create and extend the community of stakeholders so that they may become aware of their shared human interests.

Because it is the work of writing and writers to create and sustain intentional discourse communities, this course offers practice in studying and framing problems for a range of audiences.  Framing “is the process whereby communicators act… to construct a particular point of view that encourages the facts of a given situation to be viewed in a particular manner, with some facts made more or less noticeable (even ignored) than others…. Frames are central organizing ideas within a narrative account of an issue or event; they provide the interpretive cues for otherwise neutral facts” (Kuypers 182).  Writers make decisions not only about which facts (and other types of evidence) to present, but about how to present them—how to “provide the interpretive cues”—by knowing the salient characteristics of the audience being asked to interpret those cues.  What does the audience know?  How can they be made to know something else, to want something else? What values do they hold?  What sorts of words and images and evidence might encourage them to reevaluate their priorities?  Being able to reach many different kinds of audiences is central to the work of the writing classroom because sustaining and changing human relationships (between writers and readers, between readers and the world, between different cohorts of readers) is the reason writing—especially writing about problems that matter—exists at all.

Writing courses for first-year students are designed to strengthen and refine the academic moves of writers long accustomed to “the essay”: enter a conversation, create a strong thesis, design a logical structure, incorporate reliable sources, document scrupulously.  This course builds on but moves beyond classroom writing, offering students opportunities to practice with a wider array of ideas, genres, and audiences. As its name suggests, “Professional and Public Writing,” the Department’s minor, promises even deeper experiences with writing effectively on behalf of professional audiences (clients, investors, supervisors, colleagues) and public ones (citizens, taxpayers, policy makers, non-profits). While honoring all the many types of disciplinary, technical and professional expertise that contribute to engaging with problems that matter, writers know that without thoughtfully researched, well-designed texts and writing that can speak to the hearts and minds of many different people, many of those problems will remain intractably wicked. We hope you enter this course with a spirit of exploration, use the course to develop an ability to connect with other people, and leave it feeling confident in your ability to contribute to the communities that need you.


Works Cited

Beaufort, Anne. College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction. Utah State University Press, 2007.

Camillus, John C. “Strategy as a Wicked Problem,” Harvard Business Review, vol. 86, iss. 5, pp. 98-106. Ebscohost, Accessed on 3 May 2020.

Kuypers, Jim A. “Framing Analysis.” Rhetorical Criticism: Perspectives in Action, Lexington Books, 2009,  pp. 181-203.