“Having” a Problem

It is well-known that I am partial to redheads. Bette, for instance, is not confused about how much I enjoy being married to a redhead. [1] On the other hand, I formulated the instrumental significance of the notion of “problem” in grad school and it would not be very much too much to say that the University of Oregon granted me a doctoral degree in recognition of the work I had done with that particular word.


So when I saw this picture in the Sports Illustrated for July 23—August 1, I paused to admire the redhead. And then I read the text, which refers prominently to “having” a problem. She wants to have a big problem.

I wish I could be her teacher in my political psychology course. I would try to teach her what I have—successfully in some cases—taught several decades of students, namely: what you really want is not necessarily a big problem; you want a problem that is just the right size.

I hope that seems oversimple to you.

I would try to teach her that a problem is not something you “have;” it is something you make. “Problems” as I work with them are not conditions in the real world, but constructions in the rhetorical world. Let me illustrate.

At Portland State, where I taught this course most recently, I would begin by saying what I meant by “problem.” A problem is a set of related propositions, one of which asserts a normative standard, the second a factual observation that violates the standard, and the third and explanation of why that violation has occurred. [2] These propositions, together, ARE the problem.

Then I would ask whether, using this understanding of the word, the existence of widespread starvation in the world was “a problem.” They agreed that it was not. I told them that day that on the first test just a few weeks away, I would ask them this question and they would miss it. Three weeks later, I would ask this question and about half the class would say that widespread starvation was “a problem” as the term is used in this class.

It is hard to internalize the notion that “a problem” is something you construct, not something you “find” or “have.” It is worth it, though, because if a problem is something you make, you can make it whatever size you need for it to be. Some people, for instance, are strongly motivated by big problems. Knock yourselves out; make it as big as you like. Others are intimidated by big problems and turn to denial and distortion. Fine; make it a small problem. Whatever gets you started to working on it.

“Good problems” in my way of thinking about them are not big or small or medium-sized. [3] They are the size you need for them to be. They are also—to touch on an issue I dare not pursue here—“where” you need for them to be. They are inside you or in your immediate environment or in the larger environment

Finally, “outside the box” is not always a good place to look for answers. It is always a place to be able to look for answers. This “nine dot” problem relies on our understanding the solution as connecting the nine dots without extending the line beyond the imaginary “box.” That’s what we took for granted, and this exercise is supposed to help us NOT take it for granted. That assumption is “the box.”

problem 1

Being able to think outside the box is a wonderful thing. Thinking that the best answers are “outside the box” is just another box. Most of the time, the best answers are inside the box. It is only a certain kind of answer—the kind of answer Thomas Kuhn had in mind when he wrote about inter-paradigmatic conflict—that requires a new and larger box. Most “normal science” and most “normal life” is inside the box and simple competence will suffice.

I would love to be in or teach in a school like the one described in this ad. My concern is limited to their describing as an unqualified good, what I would describe as an ability that is worth having. If you “have” the ability, that’s a good thing. “Having” a problem is not a good thing.

[1] Every now and then, she likes to have other virtues noted. Perfectly understandable. Fortunately, she has other virtues and I do note them. Still like her red hair.
[2] NS, FO, and CA in the in-class jargon. Normative Standard, Factual Observation, and Causal Attribution.
[3] As Whoopi Goldberg was in the movie Ghost.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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