Writing at Harvard: The Source of the Problem


ACCORDING TO Expository Writing Director Richard Marius, there is a serious problem with undergraduate writing at Harvard. He pronounces his own program blameless, however, and instead faults the undergraduates themselves and the University at large.

Marius is correct that there is a problem, and the University as a whole may be largely responsible. But to absolve the Expos program entirely may just let the germ of the problem fester.

To write well requires confidence. The good writer is sure of his ear, his cadence, and his imagery. He must trim his prose with the zeal of the Inquisition. He needs the courage to choose those thoughts which seem right to him, the belief that his thoughts are worth articulating, and the faith that the articulation of those thoughts is worthy. In short, the successful writer is cockily sure of his craft. He is willing to put in the extra hours of work because he knows the result will be commensurate to his effort.

Expository writing does not inspire such necessary confidence. I walked in there an innocent with faint dreams of being a writer and I slid out a quivering lump that grew queasy at the sight of a pencil. I wasn't alone in my shame--others in my section and in other sections found their illusions of talent dissolved into thin air.

By the time I took Expos, everyone knew the grading policy of the section leaders. Bomb the first paper and let the paupers work their way up to a respectable grade. This policy was meant to break down your bad habits and allow you gradually to rebuild your skills. Confidence was assumed to follow. If you did all the assignments--even it you still hadn't completed a sentence--you were almost guaranteed a B or better.

Rather than catering to the needs of individual students, Expos sections, or at least mine, seem to prefer to evaluate students according to prefabricated patterns. I went through that pattern, and I still feel that my final paper--which received a significantly higher grade that the first--is interior. As a result, I passed through the course without having any concrete idea of what good writing ought to be like.

The conferences, which could have been outstanding opportunities to learn what I was doing right as well as what I was doing wrong, turned out to be hurried fifteen minute encounters where the pat comment was, "spend more time editing and to get closer to the text." It was a fair criticism of my writing, but no one ever showed me in class or in conference the way to go about it. If the Expos staff were a football team, its cheerleaders would chant, "Closer to the text," as if this would really help lead the team to victory."

BECAUSE OF the courses I have taken, I have had graduate student section leaders that know how to teach good writing, filling in the gap left by Expos. That seems, though, a little late in the process.

Expos could be a great course, one of the best at Harvard. But it needs help. For one thing, there should be one uniform Expos course, with more emphasis on writing than on subject matter. Within this course, students could still retain flexibility in choosing paper topics, just as they have in most Harvard courses.

Expos should also be more rigorous. Assignments should be shorter and more frequent, and more emphasis should be placed on editing. The only way to learn writing is to write, and the only way to believe that editing is worth the time is to see its effects.

Classes need to be smaller, which would necessitate hiring more teachers. The conferences could then be longer and far more personal. The best way to inspire confidence is to have someone sit next to you and go through your papers.

Humility may be a virtue, and Expos is right in trying to rid students of their bad habits. But all too often, the whole writer is shattered instead.