Introduction to Public Discourse

This freshman college course introduces students to the art of persuasion & three common essay genres used in public debate

Course Description

Many freshman students have recently turned eighteen and 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 democracy requires us to talk with 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.


In this course students choose a problem in their community and research its causes, its effects, the relevant stakeholders, potential solutions, past attempts to solve the problem, and current debates surrounding the problem.


Next they join the public debate about that problem by writing across three genres of essay: the newspaper op-ed (short for “opposite the editorial page”), the call to action, and the open letter. With these essays students attempt to persuade a general audience to adopt their point of view, compel a specific audience to take concrete steps that will help solve the problem, and convince an audience of two community organizations to collaborate in ways that both benefit them and help solve the problem.


This course asks students to empathize with others, not defend policy positions. A common high school essay assignment asks students to defend a public policy position. Such assignments emphasize proving one’s point about abstract principles (what is best, what is right) over empathy with other people. This course instead asks students to research a community and its problems, empathize with the interests and positions of community members, and propose ways people and organizations can take action to help their community.


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? In this course students try to answer those questions.

Educational Goals

In this course students will learn:

  • the differences between academic and public discourse
  • three common essay genres used in public discourse: the op-ed, the call to action, and the open letter
  • the Rogerian strategy of persuasion
  • how to appeal to ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos
  • how to research a local problem in and out of the library
  • how to evaluate sources according to their contexts, relevance, usefulness, and credibility
  • how to choose an audience for their message & make rhetorical choices suited for that audience 
  • how to craft an arguable thesis
  • how to craft a Rogerian-style thesis

Required Texts

Additional Readings

overview of Assignments

Short Assignments & Quizzes

 -  quizzes

 -  semester topic guiding questions

 -  topic proposals

 -  bibliography of sources

 -  rhetorical analysis of Adam Ruins Everything 

 -  op-ed discussion board post

 -  call to action guiding questions

 -  call to action discussion board post

 -  call to action proposals

 -  open letter guiding questions


Essay 1:  Political and Civic Autobiography

As children we lived within a bubble of home, school, and family. Sometime in early adolescence we became aware of the larger world and its effects on our lives. This assignment asks students to reflect upon that awakening by writing an autobiography chronicling their relationship to their community and society. This is an opportunity for students to explore their place in their neighborhood, their community, the United States, and the world, and to take inventory of themselves. The style should be professional but not academic.


Essay 2:  An Op-Ed

Every day thousands of op-eds are published by American newspapers in print and online. For this assignment students write an essay in the style and format of a New York Times op-ed. Their goal is to convince a general audience with a stake in a problem to adopt the student's point of view or position about that problem. 


Essay 3:  A Call to Action

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


Essay 4:  A Rogerian-Style Open Letter

Many public problems could be solved if community organizations worked together. For this assignment students write an open letter addressing two community organizations with a stake in the student's chosen problem. The letter includes an unbiased presentation of each organization’s positions and interests, an explanation of their common ground, and a proposal for collaboration that requires short term compromise but will benefit both in the long run.