Exposing a Flawed Writing Course

Facing turnover and lack of enthusiasm, Expos slow to reform, preceptors say

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Daniel E. Killeen

The Prescott Street home of the Expository Writing Program, which administers the college’s only universally required class and is currently beset by facutly infighting amid concern over the program’s future.

CORRECTION APPENDED

The program that oversees Expository Writing, Harvard’s only required course, is beleaguered by office politics, a lack of communication with the rest of the University, and worries about the program’s future, according to a Crimson investigation this fall.

None of the significant changes recommended in January 2006 by a Faculty committee charged with reviewing how Harvard teaches writing have been made. Preceptors interviewed said that those changes—smaller class sizes, increased salaries for writing instructors, and more involvement of tenured and tenure-track professors—appear to be years off. Some cited turnovers in leadership and a lack of enthusiasm from administrators in University Hall as reasons for the lack of change.

Administrators and those in charge of Expos say that revamping such a large and well-established program takes time, and that Faculty committees will continue to review the program this year.

“There has not been, frankly, much response from the dean’s office in the past,” said Director of the Korea Institute David McCann, who is chairing the committee that oversees Expos this fall. “I’m not Miss Sunshine about it. There are going to be challenges, but I do think that writing and speaking will get attention.”

Much of the Faculty’s curricular debates last year focused on wresting guidance of undergraduate education out of the hands of administrators and into those of professors. But McCann is one of only two tenured professors currently on the Committee on Writing and Speaking and the only person who has served on the group leading Expos for more than two years. Both tenured members of the committee are leaving for sabbaticals this spring, and English Department Chair James T. Engell ’73 will return to the committee from sabbatical; no tenured faculty member will be on the committee for the full year to oversee the program. [SEE CORRECTION BELOW]

Dean of the Faculty Michael D. Smith said in a written statement that appointment titles and class size in Expos will be discussed by the College’s Education Policy Committee this year.

Expos class sizes remain above the 12 students recommended by the Faculty committee in 2006, averaging more than 14 per section this fall.

And salaries for Expos preceptors have not increased, according to the program’s interim director, Thomas R. Jehn. One member of the program said that spending within Expos has tightened, as allowances for supplies have dwindled.

The change in spending comes as a result of a recent financial audit of the program, Jehn said in a written response to questions. “I’ve also explained to people in our program that although to people in our program that although Expos needs to revise some of its spending practices, we have the funds to support all of the important elements of the program.”

Jehn declined to be interviewed.

The Crimson granted anonymity to three members of the program because they said their jobs would be jeopardized if they spoke about Expos’s internal affairs. Throughout the fall, The Crimson contacted more than 40 people involved in the program.

(This summer, Jehn instructed preceptors to avoid speaking to The Crimson. “If you’re contacted by The Crimson about recent developments in Expos,” Jehn wrote in an e-mail, “please do consider re-directing the Fourth Estate to me so that I can help the reporter see that the program is stable.”)

‘AT THE KIDS’ TABLE’

Preceptors described their existence as a stressful one.

“Teaching writing and content in 50 minutes, you are frenetic,” Preceptor Kathryn B. H. Clancy ’01 said.

“Reading and commenting on so many student papers can be a bit of a grind, no question, but there is really no other way to teach analytical writing effectively,” Preceptor James P. Herron said in a written statement. Despite the grind, Herron called Expos “the most gratifying teaching experience of my career.”

The program’s low pay requires many preceptors to teach year-round, leaving little time for them to write on their own.

“Most people are struggling to pay basic bills of housing and child care on the Expos salaries,” said one preceptor.

As a rule, Expos preceptors are given one-year contracts, causing them to worry about job security.

“I’ve lived and worked on eight one-year contracts, and because of my first year, which was rocky.... I never took any of the subsequent seven years for granted. When I started in 1999, I rented a small apartment. When I left this summer, I was still renting a small apartment,” said Eric Weinberger, who taught in Expos from 1999 to 2007.

“Because I prized the job so much, it took me years to realize how debilitating, ultimately, all those one-year contracts would be,” he said. “Teaching full-time in Cambridge for a salary in the mid-high forties isn’t enough for one person, and since beginning Expos, I’ve acquired two more—my wife and daughter.”

Preceptors, most of whom have received doctorates, are considered for teacher awards in the same pool as graduate students, not professors.

“You feel like you’re at the kids’ table,” said Preceptor Kathryn A. Chadbourne.

Preceptors said such treatment contributed to the rocky state of the program.

“People who are treated like second-class citizens take it out on themselves. Oppression becomes internal,” Clancy said. “These are the most well-meaning colleagues I’ve ever had. It’s unfortunate that such great people have obstacles in improving the program.”

“I don’t think any of us preceptors can speak for preceptors as a whole,” Clancy added, “because I imagine many are too worried about job security to speak honestly.”

‘BEHIND THE CURTAIN’

In July, in one of his last acts as dean of the College, Benedict H. Gross ’71 appointed Jehn as interim director of Expos. Jehn replaced Nancy Sommers, who had led Expos for 13 years. The surprise move came two months after Gross began a review of the program.

“Now seems a good time to pause and take stock of a program central to the academic life of all Harvard College students,” Gross wrote in a May 4 message obtained by The Crimson. A human resources consultant, he said, would look at Expos’s “work environment, faculty responsibilities and compensation, opportunities for professional development and organizational structure.”

Publicly, preceptors described Sommers’ departure and Jehn’s arrival as interim director as a smooth one.

“I think the program is heading into an extraordinarily strong and productive year,” Senior Preceptor Karen L. Heath said in a written statement. “And we’re lucky to have the leadership of Tom Jehn, who over his many years at Expos has had experience with every aspect of what our program does.”

In private, however, the atmosphere inside the writing program is less cheerful. On Sept. 20, preceptors met with administrators—Jehn, McCann, and Interim Dean of the College David R. Pilbeam—at the Faculty Club and in the Barker Center for a one-day retreat.

There, Jehn refused to answer questions from preceptors about Sommers’ sudden exit from the program.

“I had to explain that I couldn’t comment on personnel matters,” Jehn wrote to The Crimson. “It’s certainly a difficult situation, one that I can imagine is frustrating for people in our program who understandably want to know what happened.”

Preceptors said they are not being treated honestly.

“I wish that we were trusted enough in the program to be talked to in a honest manner, told what is what, have our voices heard,” Chadbourne said.

During the summer, Jehn attempted to reassure preceptors that the leadership change would not interrupt any other plans for the program.

“My mandate as the interim director is not to oversee any dismantling of the program but rather to maintain stability and help our program do what it has done so well,” Jehn wrote in an Aug. 8 e-mail obtained by The Crimson.

But according to three members of the program, administrators failed to provide that reassurance at the September retreat.

“The faculty retreat was a bit of a disaster,” one preceptor said. “David Pilbeam came in and gave an obviously unprepared speech where he talked about how we shouldn’t be worried about losing our jobs, that everything was okay, and that everything would stay the same in Expos. I think that was the moment that suddenly we preceptors saw ‘behind the curtain’ what a mess everything is in, how no one knows what they’re doing, and how we’re in more trouble than any of us realized.”

Chadbourne also said that administrators appeared to be inauthentic in their reassurances. “I don’t understand it. I feel that we keep hearing from people saying, ‘We care. We care.’ It seems a case of ‘the lady doth protest too much.’ It is frustrating.”

Pilbeam declined to be interviewed about Expos. Administrators maintain that they are committed to the writing program.

“David Pilbeam cares deeply about our Expos Program, and effective teaching of writing and speaking in our undergraduate curriculum,” Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs Georgene B. Herschbach said in a written statement. She has been the University Hall administrator most involved with the program.

Members of the program said that preceptors feel isolated from the University and are frustrated by a lack of communication within the program.

“The biggest problem,” said one member of the program, “is no one feels comfortable talking, but everyone’s whispering.”

A national search for the next full-time director of Expos is planned but not yet underway, Pilbeam said in an e-mail last month. But Pilbeam may not be around to see the search through to its conclusion; he is set to step down when the permanent dean of the College is appointed.

With the leadership turnover, it seems significant changes to Expos will have to wait. In the meantime, Expos’ shaky reputation among students persists.

“It’s not quite as horrible as I expected it to be,” said Julienne K. Coleman ’11, “and I’m actually learning things.”

—Sarah J. Howland and Lindsay P. Tanne contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Samuel P. Jacobs can be reached at jacobs@fas.harvard.edu.

CORRECTION: The Oct. 23 news article "Exposing a Flawed Writing Course" incorrectly stated that no tenured professors would serve on the Committee on Writing and Speaking, a group reviewing Harvard's Expository Writing program, for the entire academic year. In fact, Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Literature David McCann will continue to serve on the committee even though he will be on leave this spring.