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As the Harvard College Writing says, “We welcome you to Expos, a Harvard tradition”.
Since its inception in 1872, the expository writing requirement has been a staple of the Harvard experience, accommodating undergraduates from a range of writing backgrounds and academic aspirations. From the time of its founding, all undergraduates have been required to take at least one course in the expository writing department prior to graduation.
Nowadays, most undergraduates take part in the “Expos tradition” through Expos 20, the only course at Harvard with the distinction of, at some point, enrolling every student at Harvard. While strengthening Expos 10 and creating the option of Expos 30 are praiseworthy efforts on the part of the College to improve the expository writing program, the fact remains that most students will still take Expos 20 to satisfy their writing requirement. In reforming expository writing, the College should direct its focus on Expos 20, the course that will undoubtedly continue to encompass the greater part of the student population.
In mandating a course for the entire student body, the College should take responsibility for ensuring the highest possible quality for this course. Evidence shows that Expos 20 lags behind other Expos courses in satisfaction ratings.
For the Fall 2009 term, Expos 10 received a 4.34 overall Q-score while Expos 20 received a 3.83. To compare, the benchmark for the humanities division was 4.24. While the Q score for Expos 20 is not distressingly low, the discrepancy between the division average and the course average outline an area for possible improvement. Action should be taken to evaluate the successes of Expos 10 and other Expos courses and re-create these successes in Expos 20.
Such evalutation starts foremost with the quality of preceptors, who are an integral part of expository writing courses. First and foremost, preceptor contracts should be evaluated on a yearly basis to weed out especially low-performing instructors. Preceptors not up to the high standards of the program should not continue to teach this specialized course. In addition, efforts should be made to standardize the curricula and difficulty levels across sections. Current standards made it too easy for a preceptor to design a course that focuses on personal interests at the expense of a unified writing curriculum. While we acknowledge the principle of expository writing that “good writing requires good thinking”, good thinking on specific topics should not take precedence over instruction on general writing skills. The freedom that preceptors appear to have in varying the difficulty of the course material should also be curtailed. Outlier Expos courses that are notorious for having higher or lower than average course loads defeat the purpose of having students complete the course with similar levels of instruction and contribute to general dissatisfaction with the program.
With Expos 30 being considered as a future add-on to the program, the writing program is taking a step in the right direction towards meeting student’s needs and addressing inconsistencies within the program.
At present, Expos 20 embodies a broad talent gradient with outliers at either end, creating an exceptionally difficult set of needs for any course to fill. Some of the inconsistencies within Expos 20 obviously stem from the diversity of incoming talent the course receives. While Expos 10 does an exemplary job providing for students who are not fully prepared for Expos 20, there is no sister program in place for students who have already developed a superior foundation in writing.
In redesigning Expos, the writing department should consider the structure used by the Harvard Mathematics Department. A broad range of courses from Math Ma to Math 55 cover many skill levels and provide students with an environment of peers of a similar ability level in the subject. The experience of like-minded engagement and exchange does a great deal to add to the enjoyment and effectiveness of the course for students. Though it cannot be considered a panacea, the option of Expos 30 should do a great deal to address the particular discontent of students who feel Expos 20 has little to add to their skill set.
Related to more effectively tracking students, the Expository Writing Program’s decision to re-design the writing placement exam shows insightful consideration on their part. The current process, a two-hour online essay, is arbitrary and does not reflect the type of writing required by most college courses. Indeed, it focuses on the writing skills students develop to get into college, e.g. the writing section of the SAT I, rather than the writing skills they will need to survive in a more advanced academic environment. The additional time allotted by the placement exam, in addition to its greater “rigor”, is a more characteristic representation of a typical college writing assignment.
In general, Harvard attracts a bright, motivated student population with a diversity of talents and should keep up their end of the bargain in providing these students with resources tailored to their particular skill set. That said, the Expository Writing Program, given the immense range of talents they cater to, should pay particular attention to how they differentiate between skill levels. Given that the majority of students will still enroll into Expos 20 to complete their expository writing requirement, this course should be at the focus of the current reform, though the more targeted Expos 10 and Expos 30 courses will certainly have their own important roles to play.
There is undoubtedly a strong demand for critical writing and interpretation skills within society and an indispensable need for a good writing curriculum within the College. However, Expos can only maintain its relevance within the modern liberal arts curriculum if it, like all long-standing traditions, accepts a certain amount of re-evaluation and renovation.
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