Introduction to Public Discourse

This freshman college course introduces students to common essay genres used in the public forum

Course Description

Many of you have recently turned eighteen and thus now have the right and responsibility to participate in public affairs. A democratic society requires that its citizen not only vote, but also read the news, attend public meetings, serve in community organizations, and so forth. Most of all it requires us to talk with and listen to our neighbors, recognize and understand their points of view, and think creatively about how we can solve shared problems in ways that benefit the greatest number of people. Human beings organize themselves into states and form governments in order to solve problems they cannot solve on their own. A democratic society means, fundamentally, people solving problems together.


This course is less about writing mechanics and more about creative problem solving and participating in public discourse, i.e. debate and conversation. How to do we listen to each other, empathize with each other’s concerns and interests, invent creative solutions to problems, and then use writing to persuade others to support those solutions? This semester we will try to answer those questions.


You will first choose a shared problem within your community and research its causes, its effects, the relevant stakeholders, potential solutions, past attempts to solve the problem, and the current debate surrounding this problem. Next you will join the public debate about that problem by writing across three genres of essay: the newspaper opinion-editorial (op-ed), the call to action, and the open letter. The open letter will use the Rogerian method of negotiation and collaborative problem solving.


With these essays you will attempt to persuade a general audience to adopt your point of view, compel a specific audience to take actions that will help solve the problem, and encourage an audience of two stakeholder organizations to collaborate in ways that both benefit them and help solve the problem.


You should already know the fundamentals of essay writing such as introductions, conclusions, transitions, et cetera, as well as English syntax and grammar. Students struggling in these areas will be directed to the Writing Studio.

Educational Goals

In this course, students will:

  • learn three essay genres used in public discourse: the opinion-editorial (op-ed), the call to action, and the open letter
  • learn the Rogerian method of negotiation and collaborative problem solving
  • learn the rhetorical principles of ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos
  • research a shared problem in their community, its causes, its effects, the relevant stakeholders, potential solutions, past attempts to solve the problem, and the current state of debate surrounding that problem
  • evaluate relevant sources according to their contexts, usefulness, and credibility
  • summarize sources through note-taking, annotation, quotation, paraphrasing, and citation
  • choose an appropriate audience for their message and demonstrate audience awareness by making rhetorical choices suited for that audience
  • assess the rhetorical effectiveness of assigned readings.

Required Texts

selected readings will be provided by your instructor


Short Assignments
  -  guiding questions: my communities & contemporary problems
  -  topic proposals
  -  bibliography of 25 sources
  -  civic and political autobiography
  -  Adam Ruins Everything questionnaire
  -  guiding questions: the op-ed
  -  op-ed discussion board post
  -  guiding questions: the call to action
  -  call to action discussion board post
  -  call to action proposals
  -  guiding questions: the open letter



Essay 1: An Op-Ed

Every day American newspapers publish thousands of op-eds in print and online. For this assignment you will write an essay in the style and format of a New York Times op-ed. Your goal will be to convince a general audience with a stake in your problem to adopt your point of view or position about that problem.


Essay 2: A Call to Action

Thousands of people have affected change in their communities by launching petitions on For this assignment, you will write a call to action modeled after essays from successful campaigns. Your essay will 1) engage an audience of uninvolved stakeholders about your chosen problem, 2) educate this audience about your proposed solution, and 3) empower this audience by convincing them not only that your solution will work, but that they are essential to its success.


Essay 3: An Open Letter in the Rogerian Style

Many public problems could be solved if relevant organizations worked together. For this assignment you will write an open letter addressing two organizations with a stake in your problem that nevertheless have different goals. Your letter will include an unbiased presentation of each organization’s positions and interests, an explanation of their common ground, and a proposal for collaboration that requires each organization to compromise in the short term but will benefit both in the long term.


Course Calendar