Solving Public Problems in ENGL 202U

public photo

At the encouragement of my English doctoral dissertation chair at Old Dominion University, I’ve experimented with the design and structure of the ENGL 202U Critical Writing and Research II class that I’ve taught the past several years. I’m sharing this experience with members of the CoP because results from students’ end-of-semester evaluations have been surprisingly positive.

Although the focus of ENGL 202U is academic research writing in preparation for the Knowledge Management I and II sequence that follows, I’ve reframed the assignments toward practical applications outside higher education. Rather than writing for the sake of academic writing with an audience of one, I’ve framed the purpose of academic writing as providing research resources to communities and publics toward solving public problems. I’ve used John Dewey’s approach to publics as described by Melvin L. Rogers’ (2012) introduction to Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems: An Essay into Political Inquiry to understand public problems as producing their own publics (rather than a public “having” a problem). As a result, the purpose of writing throughout the course is to bring together the public that coalesces around public problems toward addressing the problem with a research-based approach. I’ve described the approach as follows from my latest syllabus:

Research into adult development and learning indicates that post-traditional students (like you) learn best when tasks clearly connect to lived experience (Hansman, 2001; Holton, Swanson & Naquin, 2001; Knowles, 1975; Merriam, 2001). As a result, each composition should contribute in some way to the problem you seek to address. While each composition provides a framework for your response in the shape of a topic or selection of topics, each encourages you to engage your own experience in responding to the prompt. You are free to make these assignments as applicable to your professional and/or personal life as you’d like. Seek to engage your lived experience in solving the problem posed by each prompt. You may choose a complex problem and suggest different kinds of solutions with each composition assignment, or you may choose a different approach for each assignment. You are encouraged to write with a purpose that could be applied beyond the classroom environment.

We’ll be using ideas from John Dewey’s (1927) The Public and it Problems to frame our conception of problems faced by publics. We’ll read Melvin L. Rogers’ introduction to the 2012 critical edition of the text to distill Dewey’s ideas for use throughout the semester. The introduction is available online as a Google Books preview; the introduction appears on pages 1-29. Unfortunately, you can’t print the text, but you can read it online.

The practical approach of our class focuses on proposing a solution to a public problem. Our first class sessions will outline the problem or problems the class seeks to address using Rogers’ essay as a starting point. You will have the option to contribute toward proposals for solving a single problem as selected by the class as a whole, or to divide into groups of three to five students to address a problem as a smaller group.

When selecting a problem to address, the first question will be how to identify a public. A public problem is shared by a group of people: how will you characterize the people in that group, and how will you propose a palatable, acceptable solution to the problem that group faces? Your goal is to know the public so well that you craft your proposals to their unique needs and idiosyncrasies.

Framing the purpose of academic writing as having practical applications to lived experience has resonated with students. My latest course evaluation included the following statement, one that honestly blew my socks off because I don’t think I’ve ever received so clear a message of support for an instructional strategy.

I love the direction the teacher takes the assignments, which have more meaning in the real world.

In practical terms, the course as I’ve reframed it requires four major compositions in addition to in-class participation and online communication participation. Each composition contributes to the single project of solving a public problem selected by the student.

Composition 1 requires a minimal level of research into the public(s) that emerge around a public problem. This is among the hardest of the assignments, as it requires a clear sense of the public problem and requires a clear distinction between victims of the problem and the publics that coalesce toward solving or addressing the problem; victims and perpetrators are generally aspects of the public, of course, but other publics are involved in the problem and its solution.

Composition 2 is a critical review of a work of scholarship that proposes a solution to a public problem. This assignment requires a moderate level of research literacy to identify a scholarly source that proposes a solution. The purpose of the review is to dissect the proposal toward understanding what does (and does not) contribute to a meaningful solution proposal.

Composition 3 requires additional research literacy as students seek to compose an extended definition of their problem. For this assignment, students find themselves immersed in the various aspects of the problem, which are always broader and more numerous than expected. My hope for this assignment is that students will recognize the breadth of the problem and select a narrow aspect of the problem to address.

Composition 4 culminates the semester and requires a formal proposal to solve the problem, written to the audience of the public(s) emerging from the problem. Group work sessions throughout the semester along with content from previous compositions contribute content to this proposal, which requires some additional research but focuses more specifically on demonstrating understanding of the problem, its publics, and the complexity that solutions must address.

A fifth “minor” composition requires groups of students to develop single-page visual flyers that identify a common aspect their public problems to share and visually represent the solution proposal. This assignment is less structured and allows for considerable latitude, but it helps students recognize ways their work must 1) be easily presented to a public and 2) coalesce with work of others.

I’ve contributed this experience report not because I think the reframing was working. In fact, I was confident students would not reflect positively on the experience, and expected my course evaluations to be negative. Instead, I received confirmation that the reframing is useful to students. I have much to do to improve the instruction — I’d like to consider assigning sections of the proposal throughout the semester so the fourth composition more directly and specifically encourages synthesis of the semester’s work, and I’d like to incorporate much more digital and multimodal composing practices and strategies throughout the semester rather than assigning the single visual artifact at the end of the semester.

The most important contribution to the CoP, as I see it, is that reframing the course around a practical application, even if not shared with anyone outside the classroom, presents adult learners a much clearer rationale for performing. Rather than “simply” writing academic artifacts, students are writing academic prose that contributes to society in formats that require research but can be used in professional settings as well. This finding confirms what adult learning theory suggests, that adult students learn better by doing and by applying academic skills to professional contexts.


Dewey, J. (2012). The public and its problems: An essay on political inquiry (M. L. Rogers, Ed.). University Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. Original published in 1927.

Hansman, C. A. (2001). Context-based adult learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 89, 43-51.

Holton, III, E. F., Swanson, R. A., and Naquin, S. S. (2001). Andragogy in practice: Clarifying the andragogical model adult learning. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 14(1), 118-143.

Knowles, M. S. (1975). Adult education: New dimensions. Educational Leadership, 33(2), 85-8. Retrieved from

Merriam, S. B. (2001). Andragogy and self-directed learning: Pillars of adult learning theory. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 89, 3-13.

Daniel Hocutt

Web Manager and Adjunct Professor of English for the University of Richmond School of Professional & Continuing Studies.