In this section we present several steps to identifying an issue. You don’t have to follow them in this particular order, and you may find yourself going back. And forth among them as you try to bring an issue into focus.
Keep in mind that issues do not simply exist in the world well formed. Instead, writers construct what they see as issues from the situations they observe. For example, consider legislation to limit downloads from the Internet. If such legislation conflicts with your own practices and sense of freedom. You may have begun to identify an issue: the clash of values over what constitutes fair use. And what does not. Be aware that others may not understand your issue. And that in your writing you will have to explain carefully what is at stake.
◼ Draw on Your Personal Experience
You may have been taught that formal writing is objective, that you must keep a dispassionate distance from your subject. And that you should not use I in a college-level paper. The fact is, however, that our personal experiences influence how we read, what we pay attention to, and what inferences we draw. It makes sense, then, to begin with you — where you are and what you think and believe.
We all use personal experience to make arguments in our everyday lives. In an academic context, the challenge is to use personal experience to argue a point, to illustrate something, or to illuminate a connection between theories and the sense we make of our daily experience. You don’t want simply to tell your story. You want your story to strengthen your argument.
For example, in Cultural Literacy, E. D. Hirsch personalizes his interest in reversing the cycle of illiteracy in America’s cities. To establish the nature of the problem in the situation he describes, he cites research showing that student performance on standardized tests in the United States is falling. But he also reflects on his own teaching in the 1970s, when he first perceived “the widening knowledge gap [that] caused me to recognize the connection between specific background knowledge and mature literacy.” And he injects anecdotal evidence from conversations with his son, a teacher. Those stories heighten readers’ awareness that school-aged children do not know much about literature, history, or government. (For example, his son mentions a student who challenged his claim that Latin is a “dead language” by demanding, “What do they speak in Latin America?”)
Hirsch’s use of his son’s testimony makes him vulnerable to criticism, as readers might question whether Hirsch can legitimately use his son’s experience to make generalizations about education. But in fact, Hirsch is using personal testimony — his own and his son’s — to augment and put a human face on the research he cites. He presents his issue, that schools must teach cultural literacy, both as something personal and as something with which we should all be concerned. The personal note helps readers see Hirsch as someone who has long been concerned with education and who has even raised a son who is an educator.
An issue is something that is open to dispute. Sometimes the way to clarify an issue is to think of it as a fundamental tension between two or more conflicting points of view. If you can identify conflicting points of view, an issue may become clear.
Consider E. D. Hirsch, who believes that the best approach to educational reform is to change the curriculum in schools. His position: A curriculum based on cultural literacy is the one sure way to reverse the cycle of poverty and illiteracy in urban areas.
What is the issue? Hirsch’s issue emerges in the presence of an alternative position. Jonathan Kozol, a social activist who has written extensively about educational reform, believes that policymakers need to address reform by providing the necessary resources that all students need to learn. Kozol points out that students in many inner-city schools are reading outdated textbooks and that the dilapidated conditions in these schools — windows that won’t close, for example — make it impossible for students to learn.
In tension are two different views of the reform that can reverse illiteracy: Hirsch’s view that educational reform should occur through curricular changes, and Kozol’s view that educational reform demands socioeconomic resources.
◼ Resist Binary Thinking
As you begin to define what is at issue, try to tease out complexities that may not be immediately apparent. That is, try to resist the either/or mindset that signals binary thinking.
If you considered only what Hirsch and Kozol have to say, it would be easy to characterize the problems facing our schools as either curricular or socioeconomic. But it may be that the real issue combines these arguments with a third or even a fourth, that neither curricular nor socioeconomic changes by themselves can resolve the problems with American schools.
After reading essays by both Hirsch and Kozol, one of our students pointed out that both Hirsch’s focus on curriculum and Kozol’s socioeconomic focus ignore another concern. She went on to describe her school experience in racial terms. In the excerpt below, notice how this writer uses personal experience (in a new school, she is not treated as she had expected to be treated) to formulate an issue.
Moving from Colorado Springs to Tallahassee, I was immediately struck by the differences apparent in local home life, school life, and community unity, or lack thereof. Ripped from my sheltered world at a small Catholic school characterized by racial harmony, I was thrown into a large public school where outward prejudice from classmates and teachers and “race wars” were common and tolerated. . . .
In a school where students and teachers had free rein to abuse anyone different from them, I was constantly abused. As the only black student in English honors, I was commonly belittled in front of my “peers” by my teacher. If I developed courage enough to ask a question, I was always answered with the use of improper grammar and such words as “ain’t” as my teacher attempted to simplify the material to “my level” and to give me what he called “a little learning.”
After discussing several subjects, he often turned to me, singling me out of a sea of white faces, and asked, “Do you understand, Mila?” When asking my opinion of a subject, he frequently questioned, “What do your people think about this?” Although he insisted on including such readings as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in the curriculum, the speech’s themes of tolerance and equity did not accompany his lesson.
Through her reading, this student discovered that few prominent scholars have confronted the issue of racism in schools directly. Although she grants that curricular reform and increased funding may be necessary to improve education, she argues that scholars also need to address race in their studies of teaching and learning.
Our point is that issues may be more complex than you first think they are. For this student, the issue wasn’t one of two positions — reform the curriculum or provide more funding. Instead, it combined a number of different positions, including race (“prejudice” and “race wars”) and the relationship between student and teacher (“Do you understand, Mila?”) in a classroom.
In this passage, the writer uses her experience to challenge binary thinking. Like the student writer, you should examine issues from different perspectives, avoiding either/or propositions that oversimplify the world.
◼ Build on and Extend the Ideas of Others
Academic writing builds on and extends the ideas of others. As an academic writer, you will find that by extending other people’s ideas, you will extend your own. You may begin in a familiar place, but as you read more and pursue connections to other readings, you may well end up at an unexpected destination.
For example, one of our students was troubled when he read Melissa Stormont-Spurgin’s description of homeless children. The student uses details from her work (giving credit, of course) in his own:
The children . . . went to school after less than three hours of sleep. They wore the same wrinkled clothes that they had worn the day before. What will their teachers think when they fall asleep in class? How will they get food for lunch? What will their peers think? What could these homeless children talk about with their peers? They have had to grow up too fast. Their worries are not the same as other children’s worries. They are worried about their next meal and where they will seek shelter. Their needs, however, are the same. They need a home and all of the securities that come with it. They also need an education (Stormont-Spurgin 156).