In Praise of Billy Shakespeare
Most artsy people, myself included, like writing. But not even the most highfalutin literary artsies that Harvard can muster like Expos. Almost no one likes Expos. It’s a marvel that the course, Harvard’s cruel admissions gift to unsuspecting freshmen, has stuck around for this long. Faculty and administrators are always rushing to reassert the importance of a humanities education in an increasingly technological world. Maybe abolishing the hefty deterrent of Expos would give the appeal of such an education a bit of a boost.
Can you blame freshmen for wanting to avoid writing-heavy concentrations when their introduction to scholarly writing at the collegiate level is almost uniformly painful? There are, of course, good arguments in favor of Expos. Harvard students come from such a wide variety of educational, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds that there is a genuine need for a single course to establish some common ground.
But current Expos offerings make students loathe writing more than they improve students’ aptitude for it. I think this failure stems from the lackluster nature of the course material itself. My Expos class was about “Pop Art.” It sounded great in the description, or at least an improvement on “Darwinian Dating.” But my expectations were quickly deceived.
I remember the very distinct breed of dread that accompanied my trek to Expos at 10 a.m. thrice weekly. This reluctance was remarkable given the extreme brevity of my commute: Expos met in the Barker Center, and I lived in Pennypacker. I felt a kind of hollowness that stemmed from two dead certainties: first, that the hour would yield not a jot of useful information; and second, that everyone in the room, including the preceptor, would rather be somewhere else—indeed, anywhere else.
Attempts to establish common ground and teach basic writing skills by forcing students to read about hopelessly contrived topics in courses like “Cross-Cultural Contact Zones” are bound to fail. It would make far more sense to make all students read a canonical author or text and use that as a basis for instruction in discursive writing. Aside from leveling the playing field by providing common material for all students, this might actually lend the course a feeling of purpose.
I’m not the first person to propose such a scheme. Harvard used to have a mandatory Homer course for all freshmen. As hard as this is for me to admit as a Classics concentrator, I realize that a Greek bard who lived over 2,000 years ago is not the most accessible author and is likely to foster as snooze-inducing an atmosphere as current Expos offerings. But what about Shakespeare?
Having just finished playing Olivia in the Hyperion Shakespeare Company’s production of “Twelfth Night.” I can attest that the humor of his bawdier comedies has withstood the test of time. But, more importantly, Shakespeare’s lexicon is one of the most colorful in the English language. By the end of the run of “Twelfth Night,” our cast was speaking almost entirely in Shakespeare-isms. No one should graduate college without getting to call someone a “rudesby” or telling someone to “sneck up.” It certainly beats talking about thesis statements and body paragraphs.
Shakespeare’s language is idiosyncratic and dated, but therein lies the relish, so to speak. It’s a valuable skill to be able to read Shakespearean writing with fluency and ease, and exposure to it has refined my command of both spoken and written English. More than that, his plays are fun to read, unlike the majority of Expos fodder. If I had had to read “Twelfth Night” for Expos in lieu of Mikhail Bakhtin’s incomprehensible musings on moral philosophy, I might have walked to class with a spring in my step.
—Columnist Anjali R. Itzkowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.