ICS 139W Spring 2005
Influencing Policy

The assignment

Often, we write to persuade someone to adopt our point of view or take some action. Perhaps more than any other writing, persuasive writing requires appreciation of the reader's interests and goals.

For this assignment, you will write a letter to one of the policy makers listed below (or another that is a more suitable choice). In approximately three double-spaced pages, you should take a position, recommend some action, and back it up with the best reasoning you can; don't just raise the issue or state a concern. Plan actually to send this letter; don't treat it as simply a classroom exercise.

Choose a public policy issue involving technology, an issue you care about strongly, and one about which you have some information or knowledge. It's much easier to write with conviction if you really have that conviction; it requires real talent to fake it. On the other hand, you must approach your topic with enough objectivity to understand the opposing point of view and deal with those arguments in a reasoned way.

Your topic should be one that you as a computer scientist have some particular reason to address. Some current policy issues that relate to computing are objectionable material on the Web, the proliferation of spam, illegal file sharing, privacy issues, and software patents. (There are many others, of course, so don't limit yourself to one of the examples listed.)

You should choose a specific recipient, a policy maker who is an appropriate audience for your opinion, such as President Bush, Senator Boxer, Senator Feinstein, or the editors of the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times. If you have a specialized issue, we can suggest other appropriate policy makers (perhaps after we've done a bit of research on the topic ourselves, if it's one we're not entirely familiar with).

As a first step, write a five- to ten-line outline of your argument, listing the supporting points and the conclusion; turn this in with each revision of your letter. You may find useful the entries in Writing from A to Z on argument, logic, and thesis. You might also think back on what you know about symbolic logic.

Your conclusion should recommend some action on someone's part; don't simply raise the issue and complain about the status quo. Moreover, be sure that the recipient of your letter is someone who has the power to take the action you recommend. Broadly, here are some guidelines.

If you took Writing 39C at UCI and wrote a research paper on a technical policy issue, you may write about the same issue here. Note that, as it may have been three or more years since you took Writing 39C, the rapid pace of technological change may have, at worst, rendered your topic less relevant, your understanding of it obsolete, and your conclusions about it flawed; be sure that you update your knowledge of the topic before reusing it. Also, remember that a letter to a policy maker is different from a research paper; this letter is shorter, it won't cite research sources as completely and meticulously, and it will recommend to the recipient a particular course of action and address explicitly the reasons why the recipient should take that action. In particular, you need to say what you want, right up front, and then give the reasons. It's an unfortunate and brutal fact that high-profile officials receive hundreds or thousands of letters a day; they have staff who screen them, perhaps just reading the first paragraph and tallying the letter as "pro" or "con" on a particular issue. It's the rare letter that's so well written that the staff person will read the whole thing, and even rarer still that they'll pass it along to the official him- or herself. Of course, it's that kind of gemlike letter that we're aiming for, but for it to pass the first threshold, it has to state up front what it wants the official to do.

Finally, make sure you address your letter properly; you don't say "Dear Mr. Bush" when addressing the President. (Search for "forms of address" on Google if you need to.)

Due dates

Date What's due?
W 4/27 Your outline, together with a good draft of your letter. We will edit these jointly in class.
M 5/2 An improved draft of your outline and letter, revised based on the joint editing. Attach your draft #1 editor's comments to one copy, which you will turn in. Bring another copy for peer editing in class.
F 5/13 The final version of your letter is due via Checkmate at 1:50pm. Bring all previous versions (and outlines) and editor's notes to class to turn in.