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Standing before Édouard Manet’s “The Street Singer” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Daniel A. Gross ’13 absorbed the painting’s details, analyzing the way “shadows were painted, the different textures in different parts of the paintings, the repeated angles and repeated shapes.”
“And I drew a picture of it—a very crude picture,” he adds, above the scrawled notes he had written on the back of a handout from class.
Those notes would become a four-page draft that culminated in the final paper that awarded him a spot in Exposé Magazine, the Harvard College Writing Program’s annual journal of writing.
Gross wrote the essay for his Expository Writing 20 section, “Re-Discovering the Impressionists,” which, like the broader program, uses a system of workshopping student essays. But Gross says that the techniques he used to write and revise his award-winning essay were largely introspective.
“In general, I didn’t find the processes or workshopping or talking one-on-one as helpful as systematically reexamining my own writing,” he says.
The Standing Committee on Writing and Speaking has, at least in part, recognized this concern on the part of students. It is currently in the process of evaluating how effectively Expos 20 fosters the growth of talented writers like Gross.
For the Class of 2016, the Expository Writing Program hopes to roll out a new course—Expos 30—for advanced writers. The program also plans to establish a revised expository writing placement exam, which is planned to be implemented for the Class of 2015.
Currently drafting a report that evaluates Expos 10, the committee will proceed to examine Expos 20 in a subsequent report.
Interviews with students like Gross—highly talented writers who say that they have passed through the program without having significantly gained from the experience—indicate that, if administrators wish to address the needs of students, they may need to substantively alter the introductory writing program.
THE EXPOS 20 EXPERIENCE
Unlike Expository Writing 10, which students nearly uniformly praised, Expos 20 has received far less acclaim and students offer mixed reviews of the more advanced course.
While Stephanie N. Regan ’13 says that she enjoyed Expos 10, Expos 20 did not live up to her expectations. “Expos 20 was just one of those classes that you had to get through,” she says.
Regan says that she was disappointed with her Expos 20 section on American sports culture, a topic that she says she loves. But the section presented the material in a way she describes as “crude.”
“Expos 20 was just a check-in to see if you can write,” she says. “When your essays were acceptable, they kind of just said, ‘here’s your grade.’”
But Jane Rosenzweig, director of Harvard College’s writing center, says she thinks some students are dissatisfied with Expos 20 because it does not live up to their expectations of what a writing course should be.
Expos 20, Rosenzweig says, was never designed to be a course to improve students’ style of prose. Rather, the course is meant to teach students the method of academic argument.
And in a mere 12 weeks, Rosenzweig says that it is difficult to incorporate instruction in both prose and argumentation, even if students come into the course with the expectation that it will focus on prose.
“The balance in one semester may not be enough towards prose style to suit [some students],” Rosenzweig says.
“We’ve got three essays and twelve weeks,” she says. “We just can’t do that.”
Students also criticize Expos 20 for bringing together students of dramatically varying writing abilities.
“In Expos 20, they had those specialty writers who were always going to have those answers,” says Regan. “It didn’t matter if anyone else pitched in because those who were experts at writing knew the answers they were looking for.”
As a result, Regan says she thinks the class remains an unequal plane—even for students like her who graduated from Expos 10.
“There are just brilliant writers at Harvard,” she says. “And there were quite a few people in my class that didn’t need to be there.”
For these writers, the Standing Committee on Writing and Speaking has moved to recommend establishing a new course, Expos 30.
Thomas R. Jehn, director of the Harvard College Writing Program, says the course, if established, will serve “the very, very top” writers at Harvard.
“The most skilled mathematicians go into Math 55 or higher, but all of our writers go into Expos 20,” Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris says.
But Expos 20 preceptor Joaquín S. Terrones says he thinks part of the strength of the class is the students’ diversity of writing abilities.
“It prepares students for the realities of what a lot of their academic life is going to be, which is having a dialogue not just with students in their concentration, but with students and professors across the university,” he says.
Gross says he would be hesitant to endorse Expos 30 due to the potential limitations of such a placement test.
“I like being in the class with everyone rather than people who are picked from a possibly inadequate placement system,” says Gross, who also agreed on the advantage of having a diverse group of “minds and skills” in the class.
TESTING INTO 20
But in order to find the talented writers, the expository writing program plans to roll out a new placement exam for the Class of 2015.
The current exam, which takes place over two hours, prompts incoming freshmen to respond to a passage by calling on “evidence of your own observations and knowledge, whether from personal experiences, current or past events, or from your reading” in two hours or less.
“[An ideal placement test] should be an experience of rigor, and there should be gravitas to it,” Jehn says.
Jehn says the redesigned exam will allot more time—perhaps 72 hours—for students to complete their essays and that it will place greater emphasis on responding to a text instead of prompting students to draw on a broad selection of personal experiences and knowledge.
The new test would ask students to compose an essay based on a smaller selection of evidence and would be more similar to the work done within the Expos program.
“I like the idea of having to take some time to reflect on the reading that you’re doing and having to take some time writing the piece,” Jehn says. “Obviously 72 hours is still only 72 hours, but that gets you more of a taste of what’s to come.”
—Stephanie B. Garlock and Julie M. Zauzmer contributed to the reporting of this article.
—Staff writer Gautam S. Kumar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at email@example.com.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction.
CORRECTION: Feb. 13, 2011
The Feb. 11 article "Emerging Expos 30" misattributed a statement regarding the appropriate time required for the expos placement test. The statement was, in fact, made by Thomas R. Jehn, the director of the Harvard College Writing Program.
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