Watching the Fur Fly
Most Harvard quarrels are conducted discreetly, cloaked by quiet bureaucratic manuevering and polite diplomatic statements. But last week, a running dispute over the role of fiction writing in the Expository Writing program surfaced and the fur began to fly.
Richard Marius, director of Expository Writing, canceled Expository Writing 13, the Expos fiction option, citing his concern that freshmen are not learning how to write expository prose in fiction classes.
Marius's decision provoked criticism from students who viewed their fiction Expos as one of their most valuable Harvard experiences, but he drew the strongest fire from his own staff, in particular from Diana Thomson, who has taught fiction Expos for ten years.
Thomson and two other fiction staff members disagreed with Marius over the educational value of fiction writing. She, Cynthia Rich and Steven Erlanger contend fiction writing challenges students who have been screened for competence in expository writing to work on subtle improvements in their prose--control of tone, imagery, concrete detail, and style.
Marius and his staff also parted company over the leadership of the fiction program next year. Marius said he had expected to take charge of fiction this year, but found when he arrived at Harvard the former director had appointed Rich.
In order to ensure that fiction students received enough training in expository prose, Marius said he wanted to direct fiction next year, but Rich refused, saying Marius would have enough impact on the program through his role as Expos director and fiction teacher. At that point, Marius said he decided he could not compromise and canceled Expos 13.
But Thomson said the basis of the difficulty lies in her fundamental philosophical difference with Marius over the role of a teacher. Thomson says she believes good teaching demands compassion toward students as well as detached criticism. "Marius major objection to fiction and the way we teach it is that we deal with emotion," she noted, and added Marius' decision reflects Harvard's reluctance to admit that good teaching involves caring about students.
Marius counters that he does not believe teachers should be cold, but rejects as unprofessional the attitude that "the most important thing teachers can do is talk to students about their problems."
Marius apparently has extensive administrative support in his decision to cancel fiction and his attitude toward teaching. Members of the Standing Committee on Expository Writing interviewed yesterday, said they will back his decision.
One Faculty member, who asked to remain anonymous, said he believes fiction would have been canceled this year no matter who directed the program, in view of growing Faculty suspicion of the educational value of the course. Standing Committee members, however, said yesterday they did not impose such a condition when they hired Marius.
Thomson has written letters to Marius, Dean Rosovsky, and Standing Committee members protesting the decision and outlining her dissatisfaction with Marius. It looks like the fight isn't over yet.