Flawed Problem Statements

The theme for my writing classes this semester is “Giving and Taking Offense.” Students have written on a variety of interesting topics of their choosing, including the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake “nipplegate” scandal, Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments, the value of violence in video games, and the uproar over offensive Facebook groups. For the most part, I’ve convinced students to avoid claims that say “X is/is not offensive.” The go-to student impulse has been “X should/should not be banned,” a tangible claim that is pretty flawed but can be pushed toward a more productive place.

One of my favorite teaching strategies, simple though it may be, is to show students two examples of writing side by side and to pick the ones they think would yield a stronger paper. A goofus and gallant approach to writing pedagogy, I guess, but one that seems to yield good results. At the beginning of the semester, when our focus is on main claims, I distribute a list of claims and ask students to rank them in a classic exercise of the writing program at UVA. Students might not always be able to say what they like most about the claims they choose, but their intuitions about what works and what doesn’t are usually pretty dependable.

One of my favorite exercises of the semester, though, involves asking students to write better versions of flawed problem statements. A problem statement is just what it sounds like: a way to convincingly state a problem and a preliminary solution. In UVA’s writing program, we usually teach these in the context of paper introductions, but they show up all over good writing.

The basic parts of a conceptual problem statement are:

  • status quo that states some belief held by the reader, society, or some specific target;
  • destabilizing condition that addresses some aspect of the status quo that is incomplete, flawed, or incorrect;
  • Costs and consequences that state what we lose by not thinking about the destabilizing condition—further questions that addressing the problem can answer, things that doing so can help us understand, and eventually, perhaps, tangible outcomes that the conceptual outcomes might help us achieve;
  • and a solution or promise of a solution that can help address the problem brought up in the destabilizing condition and consequences. In the context of a student introduction, this solution usually becomes the paper’s main claim.

Here’s an example of a solidly formed problem statement, my paraphrase of the problem statement of a Slate article about Sacha Baron Cohen by Christopher Hitchens:

Defenders of Sacha Baron Cohen praise his humor for its ability to bring out the worst in people. When Cohen’s Borat character was able to get an audience from the American southwest to sing along with a song containing the lyrics, “Throw the Jew down the well,” for example, people thought Cohen was exposing a latent anti-semitism in that audience. These defenders, however, ignore many of the ways Cohen gets people to do and say offensive things. His targets want to be nice to a confused foreigner more than they want to attack Jews. Defenders of Cohen misunderstand what his humor actually shows: not that Americans are reprehensible bigots, but that Americans are polite to a fault.

I show my students solid problem statements, but I also show them problem statements that I view as flawed. I enjoy writing these, because they let me both channel the problems I’ve already seen in students’ writing and to try to channel the voices of students. In class, I have them break up into groups. I assign each group a problem statement or two to work on. They diagnose the problem with the problem statement in their own terms, then try to write a better one. The flawed problem statements we’ll be working with in class today:

  1. Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” character seems offensive. But Borat also shows stereotypes. The Borat character is useful and good. People should respect Cohen for what he has done with the Borat character.
  2. In “Cartoon Wars Parts 1 and 2,” South Park makes fun of Family Guy’s comedy, asserting that the show uses random combinations of pop-cultural references to make jokes that do not fit with the show’s meager plots. Family Guy’s humor, while it does follow some of the conventions South Park describes, actually works in the context of that show and helps develop its characters. If people believe South Park’s mockery, they will miss the opportunity to watch Family Guy, and Family Guy will almost certainly be taken off the air. South Park’s creators should offer a public apology and publicly repudiate their over-hasty dismissal of Family Guy’s quality.
  3. Free speech is something we all live with. But free speech can be offensive. People get hurt by offensive language. We should keep free speech but ban truly offensive speech.
  4. People say Family Guy is just stupid humor, but I really love Family Guy. I love the stupid humor, and I think it’s really funny. If people don’t like Family Guy, they’ll miss an opportunity to watch a really awesome show. These people should watch Family Guy because it’s really funny.
  5. Lots of people say that hip-hop music is offensive. But you know what’s actually offensive? Those people! They keep attacking music they don’t listen to, and they’re probably racist. I think they should just shut up and listen to their own stupid music. They’re wrong, and they just don’t get it. They should pay more attention and listen to hip hop music because it’s good.
  6. In “Gay Witch Hunt,” an episode of The Office, Michael learns that his underling Oscar is gay and ends up telling everyone in the office. Michael thinks he is doing Oscar a service, but when Oscar finds out everyone knows he is gay, he is very angry. He thinks that his right to privacy has been violated and that his personal life is none of his coworkers’ business. Michael calls a meeting of the entire office staff, but his attempt at understanding only exacerbates the problem. The episode is hilarious but sad.
  7. Almost everybody believes that all offensive music should be banned. But lots of people like offensive music, and offensive music has value. Clearly people are getting something out of offensive music. Offensive music should not be banned at all.
  8. People say the N-word is bad, but then it’s all over the place in hip-hop music and popular culture. Since it’s around so much, how bad can it really be? Nobody really gets hurt by the N-word. People should just chill out and not worry so much about language, in particular about the N-word.

Some of these statements take problems I’ve seen in student papers to an extreme—I’ve rarely seen a problem statement as grouchy and dismissive as number 5. But these flawed statements do a good job of capturing at least some of the ways problem statements go wrong. Some are vague or wishy-washy. Some are not specific enough. Some present a problem that doesn’t actually get addressed in the claim. Some simply repeat the same claim over and over. Some simply summarize a work of art. And some simply reverse the status quo unthoughtfully.

It’s not the most radical form of pedagogy, but once students have diagnosed the problems in these problem statements, they have a language with which to diagnose the flaws of their own problem statements and those of their classmates. At the end of class, we’ll workshop the problem statements for their next paper—and hopefully the students will be better equipped to do so once they’ve thought hard about these sometimes more obviously flawed ones.

DigiWriMo scorecard: this post 1,273 words; month-to-date 6,417.

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