Expos Head Criticizes Students' Writing

The director of the Expository Writing Program, in a 21-page report released yesterday, said Harvard undergraduates suffer from poor writing and analytical skills and the College bears some of the blame.

Although Richard C. Marius, who heads the mandatory freshman "expos" course, said Harvard students write at a level higher than those at other schools, he stressed the need for the University to improve the manner in which it teaches writing.

Overall, the Marius report is extremely critical of the writing skills of young people. He said students do not think clearly and critically and therefore their writing suffers.

The report is slated for a rare discussion of broad educational issues at the November meeting of the full Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Marius' criticisms of student writing come at a time when some of the nation's top educators, including Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, are calling for a renewed emphasis on the fundamentals of learning in college.

Although Marius finds fault in secondary school programs, his report includes suggestions for improving the writing of students when they come to college.

Marius recommends that professors be careful to assign papers that require thought and not just the compilation of material. He also suggests that papers be due before the end of the term, allowing time for discussion and revision. Teachers should also discuss writing in class, the report says.

Most of the report focuses on the inability of students to argue their positions in logical order and support these views with well-constructed evidence.

For example, Marius writes, "We usually say that no more than about 15 percent of our freshmen can argue a case well." He presents lengthy excerpts from several undergraduate papers, collected in his nine years here, to support his argument.

Marius is also critical of students who do not explain or develop their arguments, relying on block quotations rather than inferring from the texts and thinking for themselves.

"Far too often students seem content to compile information from various sources, to stick it together in a paper, to make some obvious statements about that evidence, and to believe that they have done a good piece of writing," the report says.

Marius, in an interview last night, said Harvard is not providing its students with the education they deserve.

"We have wonderful lecturers, but we're not demanding of the students that they think about the knowledge they are acquiring," he said. "We are dealing with a generation that needs a lot of help. Harvard kids are very bright, but they don't know how to reason."

Poor writing among Harvard students is not limited to undergraduates, and that it is a major part of the problem, Marius said.

"All too often Harvard papers are graded by graduate students whose own level of writing is so poor that they canscarcely be counted on to make helpful comments tostudents," he writes in the report.

Marius said he favors the establishment of amandatory course for all Core curriculum teachingfellows that would teach them how to grade papersand teach writing. "A whole lot of them don't haveany idea what they're doing," he said of teachingfellows.

Marius in his report also faultedundergraduates for having what he described as atedious style.

"Most students at Harvard use the most commonsentence forms again and again," Marius writes."They often shun active verbs and in consequenceproduce writing that lies inert on the page.