Revised Gen Ed A Surprises All By Turning Into the Season's Hit
EXPOSITORY WRITING reads the neatly lettered sign to the right of the basement door of the Freshman Union. Inside, there is still the jungle of little wire baskets that hold corrected papers, and you can still hear a faint hum, from the Union kitchen. But the program that lives there has changed more than its name this year; Gen Ed A and all the perfunctory drudgery the name implied are rapidly becoming things of the past.
What is newest and most exciting to both students and teachers in the program are five middle-level courses with imposing names like "Exposition and Historical Inquiry" and "Exposition and Scientific Methods." Of the 250 enrolled in these half-year seminars, 80 per cent are super-literate freshmen who pulled the required 700's on both the verbal and math SAT's and 4's or 5's on the CEEB Advance Placement exam in English. The rest are upperclassmen who managed to impress section men with their enthusiasm or need for writing instruction at interviews this fall.
This meticulously screened group tackles writing assignments varying from the conventional (formally analyze Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale") to the bizarre (describe the taste of a Canada Mint). One teaching fellow runs his class like a "watered-down graduate seminar" assigning pairs of students to prepare a book for class dissection each week. Another has given a series of lectures on six schools of literary criticism.
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One class is required to reread chestnuts like The Scarlet Letter or Huckleberry Finn. But obscure writers like Rilke and Jose Luis Borges also get assigned. Robert Crunden has chosen ten books on Woodrow Wilson and the Victorian period to illustrate styles of historical writing for his Expository Writing 103.
These transformations of the once-staid and uniform Gen Ed A program are the brainchild of Robert J. Kiely, assistant professor of English and director of the course. Last year Kiely himself taught an honors Gen Ed section as a dry-run for courses in writing for special fields. He pronounced the experiment "very very successful" and last spring the Committee on General Education approved the five new courses.
Adding these specialized seminars to the only course all Harvard and Radcliffe students take has created some substantial headaches. Administrators were ready to assign 1300 freshmen to regular and honors Expository Writing 10. They expected that 10 or 15 upperclassmen would apply to join the 200 freshmen who qualified for the middle-level courses. When more than 100 upperclassmen showed up for interviews the middle group courses became painfully overcrowded -- some sections have as many as 20. The freshman stampede into middle-group courses left honors section so depopulated that even when everyone shows up there are only 10 or 12 in a class. Next fall there will be enough middle-level sections to accommodate expected demand.
Roger Rosenblatt, acting Director of Expository Writing this year while Kiely is on sabbatical, wants the procedure for selecting the middle-group elite reformed. Next fall a few chairs in each of the accelerated courses will be saved for students who write dazzling first papers in regular sections. This year talented freshmen writers who didn't take the AP test or failed to make the arbitrary cutoff scores had no chance to get into the middle-group seminars.
In any case, middle-level classes are the Gen Ed section man's dream. He is freed from the dreary search for inept metaphors and badly constructed sentences that absorbs most of a teaching fellow's energy in what one of them called "the basic idiot's course." Instead he is able to teach his own field to students who have declared an interest in it. The old "why-bother-with-the-reading-it's-only-Gen-Ed" syndrome seems to have vanished in middle level sections.
A few, like Andrew T. Weil '64, former editor of the Harvard Review, who will teach "Exposition and Scientific Methods" this spring, remain convinced that "almost all Harvard undergraduate writing is bad" and will continue to emphasize basic stylistic virtues. More often, though, the middle group courses start by assuming technical competence.
Novelist Carter Wilson's section, "Exposition and Narration" floats in what one Cliffie member calls an "atmosphere of creativeness." This week's two-hour meeting was spent on short stories by Borges, and Eliot, Berkeley, Joyce, Faulkner and Brecht all managed to creep into the discussion.
At one point Wilson stopped the discussion to tell a student, "that might be an interesting idea to think about if you ever write a philosophical novel -- your philosophy might destroy your novel." Wilson talks to his students as if they are either great writers already or great writers-to-be. His attitude is typical; most of the seminar leaders call their classes "the best I've ever taught."
But being packed into one small room with 15 such people can be overwhelming for the less self-assured. "Some of those Cliffies are really petri- fied," said one of the section leaders. A Radcliffe freshman laments, "All the others are so brilliant. I'm frightened to open my mouth." Freshmen are often sure that at least half the class are juniors and seniors. Upperclassmen in the same section think the opposite -- "They put me in to balance out 18 brainy freshmen," comments one.
The mutual intimidation was most painful at the first class meetings where students glowered intelligently at each other but said very little. Rosenblatt tackled the problem head-on this fall by making each student submit the first paragraph of a short story to the class for criticism.
"It's a sort of nakedness they've never experienced before," says Rosenblatt. "What they're expressing is their individual creative power, not just the gloss they've picked up in high school. For some it's really a rugged process, but they're all brought together by it, and we haven't had any problems since the first weeks."
As soon as they feel comfortable in the middle-group courses, most students find the educational experience euphoric. They generally revere their section leaders ("He's a God," sighed one Cliffie), and accept his criticism as the kind advice of a helpful expert. Most look with solicitous condescension on those stranded in the renamed version of Gen Ed A.
The program's administrators also worry about what's happening to average students. Putting down the over-confident has never been a problem. "It's easy," says Rosenblatt, "to get across the message, 'you may be the best thing your high school English teacher has ever seen, but you're not the best thing we've ever seen.'" With the middle level courses, keeping the best minds sufficiently stimulated has also disappeared as a difficulty. The others are more of a problem.
"The solid B student may pass out of our hands, still writing the kind of mechanical prose that is all you need to get B's around here. He often has the ideas to do A work and we wish we were able to teach him how to write it," Rosenblatt says.
Kiely expressed the same concern in a recent article in the Radcliffe Quarterly. "Style is not an incidental appendage of the mind. Nor is the correct and graceful use of language a simple matter of well regulated memory." Students whose "good preparation" in secondary school has made them complacent about their writing are the targets of Kiely's worry.
Rosenblatt talks vaguely of extending the "spirit" of the middle-group courses into the rest of the expository writing program. This year he has asked the heads of regular sections to encourage students to choose their own approaches to assigned material.
The vision is an appealing one, but it has sharp practical limits. No one contemplates throwing away Inquiry and Expression and turning all freshmen loose in specialized writing seminars like the middle-group course. "We just can't do that," says Rosenblatt, "with people who haven't demonstrated the ability to put sentences together." And for those, it will probably always be questionable whether spirit or renaming can make Gen Ed A more than a necessary evil of the freshman year