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Expos Revised: Addressing Varied Writing Skill Levels

By Rediet T. Abebe, Crimson Staff Writer

With the many thousands of classes Harvard has to offer its wide-eyed incoming students fresh out of high school, a mandatory semester-long writing course may seem less than desirable.

But a full year of writing instruction might seem even worse. Since its inception, Harvard’s writing program has both struggled and strived to meet the needs of freshmen whose writing skills vary on an enormous spectrum. One of the major efforts to close such a gap between students has been the creation in 1985 of a separate expos class engineered for students coming from weaker secondary school writing backgrounds.


The Expository Writing Program is one of Harvard’s oldest traditions, dating back to 1872 when the College instated a single-term writing requirement for all its freshmen.

Since then the program, commonly known as “Expos,” has expanded to cover different subject areas, such as nature writing or poetry analysis, as well as higher level courses such as a public speaking practicum. Twenty-five years ago, the Faculty approved another expos course to supplement its standard one-term requirement in order to assist “freshman with severe writing problems,” a 1985 Crimson article reported.

According to The Crimson’s 1985 coverage of this expos class—then called Expos 5 but now known to students as Expos 10—writing program officials intended it to give some students for whom English is a second language, as well as students with significantly weaker writing backgrounds additional instruction to prepare them for college-level writing.


The basic philosophy of the Expository Writing Program has remained the same over the years regardless of the type of expos class being offered.

“The mission of this course was to get people to write clearly and coherently,” said Terry K. Shaller ’72, a Mather House Senior Tutor in 1985 who taught a history-themed expos class up until the early 80s.

According to current Assistant Director of the Harvard Writing Project James P. Herron, today’s program does well “to assure that all Harvard students get a solid grounding in the common elements of argumentative writing.”

“The [whole] program was very embryonic though,” said English Professor Lawrence Buell, who served as Dean of Undergraduate Education from 1992 to 1996 and helped manage the Expos operation as the program’s titular head. “Your Expos 20 was one of the [courses] offered with some regularity, I believe, and even Expos 20 was still very much topical.”

Today’s single-semester Expos 10—recommended for students who fall below a certain threshold on the freshman writing test—is a bare bones course without specialized topics, and specifies that students who enroll must also take a Expos 20 the following semester.

The inaugural 1985 version of today’s Expos 10 combined frequent writing assignments and more extensive and intensive instructor feedback to boost the analytical writing skills of “those students who lack competence in writing that would allow them to do satisfactory work at Harvard,” a written proposal to Harvard faculty in 1985 read.

According to a Crimson interview with the late former Director of Expository Writing Richard C. Marius, 1985’s Expos 5 was an overhaul of the previous one-on-one tutorial program available for students who performed poorly in their regular fall Expos courses, a system that proved inefficient because “it was [give students] special work after they’ve gone through regular expos.”


Throughout the 90s, Expos 10 has attempted to maintain its original pedagogical structure.

“It was paced more moderately, and was more targeted towards basic grammar and paragraph-building skills than the regular Expos course was,” Buell said. “Faculty accepted it as a transitional class for the less prepared students.”

But one of the worries surrounding Expos 10 has been the stigma of being placed into a “remedial” course. Even in 1985, Faculty were wary of terming the course as “remedial,” and gave it the title Expos 5 to avoid any pejorative connotation.

But some students who took Expos 10 this year reported positive experiences.

Stephanie N. Regan ’13, who took Expos 10 with Zachary C. Sifuentes ’97-’99 in the fall, described her Expos 10 experience as one where the students learned “how to build an essay from the ground up” and one that was “rigorous in different ways” from the Expos 20 she took in the spring.

“I had weaker English teachers in high school,” she said. “[Sifuentes] was definitely one of the best teachers I’ve had this year...he really broke down writing style and techniques.”

“And Expos 20 didn’t really do much for me besides practice the techniques I learned in Expos 10,” Regan added.

—Shan Wang contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Rediet T. Abebe can be reached at

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Commencement 2010Class of 1985