How to Solve a Problem

Choose a problem, large or small, and argue for the best way to solve it. You may choose a small, localized problem, such as how to keep the French fries hot at the restaurant where you work, or a much larger problem, like global warming, or something in between. Choose something that interests you, so that you can enjoy writing this paper. Whether your problem is large or small, the first step is to explain exactly what it is, and why it’s a problem. Some problems are well known and we all agree that they are problems (high college tuition? Air pollution in Southern California?). Other problems, perhaps relating to your own area of expertise or experience, are not known to the general public, so you must begin by explaining what they are. Sometimes we all understand what the issue is but may not agree that it’s actually a problem (low minimum wage; income inequality; availability of firearms) so you need to be careful. If it’s going to take too long to persuade the audience that the problem is really a problem, pick another topic. We can all agree that smoggy air, cold French fries, and unaffordable tuition are problems (?), so these would be easier topics. After you have defined the problem, you will need to explain clearly, specifically, step by step, how you propose to solve it. The most common weakness in these papers is vagueness, so be as specific as possible. Then your real task begins: you need to argue in favor of your solution. You need to defend it against two types of attack: 1)     Counter arguments, in which people say that your solution is not going to work, or would have unacceptable side effects; and 2)     Counter proposals, in which people say “Yeah, your idea might work, but forget your idea because mine is better.” The structure of your paper is up to you. It might flow most naturally if you addressed the counter-proposals first and got rid of them before presenting your own solution. Or you might decide to present your idea first, then shoot down the counter-proposals. It’s generally not possible to deal with counter-arguments until after you’ve made your proposal, but you may decide how exactly you want to set up the structure of this paper. The main thing is: HAVE a structure; don’t just throw your ideas out in a stream of consciousness. Make a plan for how best to convince the skeptical reader. I offer two specific cautions regarding solutions. 1)     Avoid solutions that involve forcing everyone to take some kind of training class. This seems to be the first thing that students want to propose: “To solve the problem of _______, we need to introduce a class in high school to raise awareness of __________.” There is already a shortage of time in high school to cover the essentials. Where would you find the time to hold such an awareness-raising class? Make everyone get to school early? Make them stay late? Cancel lunch? Cancel some existing course material? And besides, really now, do you think that people would listen in such a class, even if you found time to conduct it? Maybe, but . . . . there are a lot of problems in the world. We would be at school until midnight if we solved each one with an awareness class. 2)     Avoid solutions that involve spending large amounts of money, unless you have some clever, relatively painless way of raising the money. Please don’t raise my taxes—unless you absolutely, positively must. After awareness classes, the most popular solution to everything seems to be throwing giant piles of (other people’s) cash at the problem. I’m not saying that you can’t spend some money; just be aware that money is a precious commodity, and in the real world, people get upset very quickly when you propose taking their money. Keep your costs down; tell us specifically what the costs will be; and think of some clever, painless way to get the money. (Of course, the most elegant solutions don’t involve money at all . . . just better ways of doing things.) NOTE: you might need to do some research to determine cost estimates. Be sure to clarify whether your solution is mandatory, or just a suggestion. Sometimes students “solve” problems by making suggestions that are reasonable, cheap, and theoretically effective . . . but totally inadequate without some realistic model of enforcement. For instance: “To solve the problem of childhood obesity, we need to get kids to eat less fast food and get more exercise.” Yes, Captain Obvious, thanks for that. Now how we will do that? If you can explain how to actually make those things happen, great! You have a good proposal.  On the other hand, be careful about making things mandatory. “We need to get the government to send the police to make sure that kids get their exercise!” Whoa, easy there. Yes, I get papers like that. Your challenge is to find the right balance between the suggestion that nobody follows, and the kind of inappropriate coercion that makes people rebel. This assignment is more challenging than it might have seemed at first. Give it some careful thought—and do have some fun with it. Remember: counter-arguments and counter-proposals—defend against them.

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