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Those Who Can't, Grade

An emphasis on style as well as substance would benefit all Harvard writers, and readers

By Anthony S.A. Freinberg

A few years back the British government launched an advertisement to woo more young people into teaching. It featured various celebrities—including the Prime Minister—naming their favorite teachers, and climaxed (rather nauseatingly) with the catchphrase, “Those who can, teach.” Had they asked me—I was, shockingly, snubbed—I would have chosen Jane Sillery, the Northern Irish firebrand who taught me history during my last two years before college.

I’ve had plenty of teachers who were more encouraging or more cheerful. History classes with Sillery were a form of academic boot camp—rigorous, tiring, occasionally dispiriting, but highly beneficial in the long-run. Usually the papers she gave back were covered—and I mean covered—in green ink. She had essentially rewritten my essays, removing all the fluff and the pretentious (mixed) metaphors, leaving behind passable pieces of work. “Your writing suffers from adverbial overkill,” she explained. “And one day perhaps you’ll learn, as George Orwell once said, to ‘never use a long word when a short one will do.’”

Sillery came strangely to mind last week. I had gone to visit Sosland Director of Expository Writing Nancy Sommers to ask about the future of the program after the curricular review. (The answer, of course, is that it’s far too early to tell.) On my way out, Sommers gave me a stack of Expos materials to look over. One pamphlet particularly caught my attention: an update bulletin on the Harvard Study of Undergraduate Writing, a project organized under the aegis of the Harvard Writing Project (HWP), an Expos subsidiary.

The study followed over 400 members of the Class of 2001 throughout their Harvard careers, attempting to “draw a portrait of the undergraduate writing experience.” Strikingly, 87 percent of those questioned said that it was either “important” or “very important” to them that faculty give them more detailed feedback on their papers. Obviously, the one semester of Expos did not, on its own, provide enough stylistic guidance to last a college career. Which was where Sillery—and her forests of green ink—popped into my head. While I have often received extensive comments from the Teaching Fellows (TFs)—or, occasionally, professors—who grade my papers, virtually none have focused on style and substance as two sides of the same coin.

One key to pedagogical improvement across disciplines, to my mind, lies in convincing TFs that they are teachers, not graders. My worst ever experience with a TF came in a Core class for which I was required to write a seven-page paper. The TF returned it with a grade and a one-word comment: “Good.” (It wasn’t even.) Clearly, that type of approach, prioritizing letter grades over substantive feedback, is unacceptable. Obviously, though, that experience is the exception, not the rule. Most of the TFs I’ve had at Harvard have been just fine—and some have been truly fine. The practical way to improve undergraduate education at a vast research university like Harvard lies in reforming the TF system, not replacing it. Even as things stand right now, almost all TFs write detailed comments at the end of papers—even if all-too-often that simply involves listing twenty other points whose inclusion “might have strengthened” a three page response paper. Still, comments that focus entirely on papers’ factual content can only ever be of limited use to students.

Lawrence Buell, now Chair of the English Department, seemed to recognize as much in that same issue of the HWP Bulletin. “All academic writing,” he said, “should be evaluated for the effectiveness with which it presents its ideas and not simply on the basis of the ‘ideas themselves,’ because quality of writing is inseparable from quality of thinking.” Buell’s eloquent prose neatly proves his own point. One tricky task for those serving on the curricular review’s Working Group on Pedagogy under Jones Professor of American Studies Lizabeth Cohen and Cabot Professor of Biology Richard M. Losick, under whose purview this issue falls, will be finding a way to spread that philosophy throughout the College. It is easy to recognize that style and substance are intertwined; it is far harder to think of a way to force professors and TFs to drive home the message. After all, it is terrifying to think of how much time it must have taken Sillery to “correct” the 18 history papers she received from my class alone.

Nevertheless, getting some stylistic guidance in classes other than Expos would be invaluable for Harvard students. And, with a little imagination, the curricular review could nudge Harvard professors and TFs in that direction. Perhaps instruction in how best to give stylistic feedback should be part of a TF training regime at the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. Maybe it should be organized by the HWP, or even by the departments themselves under centralized supervision. Figuring out the details will be complicated—but it is logistical challenge worth tackling. After all, knowing how to write well is a skill that is useful across disciplines, and, dare I say it, far beyond Harvard.

Sillery was a tough taskmaster. But I learned a great deal from her – even if I still selectively choose to ignore her advice and (foolishly) indulge my penchant for ponderous adverbs. Forcing Harvard professors and TFs to follow her example would not only result in more lucid papers for them to read, but would also help Harvard to produce better educated graduates.

Anthony S.A. Freinberg '04 is a history concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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