Text: Problems as Process

Let’s focus further on how you might use problems to begin a writing assignment. Despite the fact that writing assignments vary from class to class, discipline to discipline, and university to university, looking for trouble can be an effective approach regardless of the assignment. In fact, sometimes writing prompts or essay questions direct you toward trouble. Here is an example of one such prompt:

Although Hegel differs from Rousseau in his hostility toward the notion of the noble savage and his rejection of origin stories, both Hegel and Rousseau are keen to understand contemporary civilization in light of historical processes. What is it, then, that allows them to come to such different conclusions about the present, with Hegel suggesting that freedom is on the march and Rousseau arguing that freedom is in retreat?[1]

This essay question does the work of problem finding for the students. Photo of a man staring at the camera, with one palm covering half of his face. An eye is superimposed on his palm, roughly where it would be behind his hand in real life.The instructor highlights the problem in the question by juxtaposing Rousseau’s and Hegel’s ideas and theoretical approaches. Most of you are probably familiar with the compare and contrast paper; this assignment essentially asks students to compare and contrast Rousseau and Hegel. By identifying a specific problem and posing a question, this instructor helps students avoid a common pitfall of the unsuccessful compare and contrast essay. Unsuccessful compare and contrast essays simply catalogue similarities and differences without developing an argument. While it is possible that your high school teacher did not expect you to develop an argument in a compare and contrast essay, your college professor expects you to do so, whether or not the assignment explicitly says so.

Sometimes it will be your responsibility to locate a problem. Here is an example of an assignment that specifically asks students to find a problem:

Identify and examine a human rights topic about which you would like to know more. You are welcome to consult with your instructor for ideas. You should use Internet, library, and other sources to gather information on this topic; this is not a full-scale research paper, so you need to find a small number of adequately comprehensive sources. Your essay should

  1. Black and white photo of several children clustered around a poster of the Declaration of Human Rights on a milk crate in a backyard play areaidentify the issue
  2. describe its scope and frequency in geographic, regime-type, temporal, socio-demographic, or other terms, as appropriate
  3. identify the sense in which it is a human rights violation (of what article of what covenant)
  4. tell us what you have been able to learn about its causes
  5. identify political, social, cultural, economic or other factors that appear to contribute to its increase or decrease. You should critically assess biases or shortcomings in the information sources you used to research your topic.

While the prompt does not specifically use the term “problem,” it is clear that students are meant to focus on human rights “issues” or “violations” rather than successes in the area of human rights. In other words, these students have been sent out to look for trouble related to human rights.

Other writing assignments will not even hint at problems. For example:

Food plays a significant role in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. For this paper you should construct a persuasive argument in which you consider how the depictions of food and the rituals surrounding it reflect and promote the larger themes of the novel. Consider the following questions: Who is depicted eating and why? What do they eat and how? What is Wharton doing with acts of eating in her text? How does she use depictions of food to create narrative effects? What are these effects? What narrative effects does she use depictions of food to create?

While there is no direct or indirect mention of a problem in this particular assignment, your process and your product will benefit from a focus on a specific problem.

Coffee mug with a stretched-out smiling face on itAt this point, you may be wondering “What’s all this about problems? What about thesis or argument?” Problems motivate good papers, and good problems will lead you to your thesis or argument. Theses do not fall from the sky. Finding a rich problem can be a big step in the direction of developing a compelling thesis. 

  1. Prominent European philosophers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712– 1778) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) are credited with laying the groundwork for Marxism.