On any given day of the year, I would take any pset (problem set, notorious in science classes) over any written assignments. Although I dread deriving equations that other, more brilliant scientists have already derived, I feel much more accomplished doing this compared to spending 10 minutes mentally drafting each meticulous sentence to eloquently express my semi-insightful ideas. However, if I swallow some of my scientific pride, I can definitely appreciate the beauty of the written word. No other class has catalyzed and reaffirmed this appreciation more than the Expository Writing 20 class I took last spring semester (2011).
The summer before your first semester at Harvard College, you take Placement Exams – I remember taking one for math, science (biology or something like that), a language one (if you’re interested in that), and a mandatory writing one. Although actual placement isn’t strictly forced (it’s just highly recommended by faculty, me and my peers!), the latter exam is suppose to determine your entrance into one of two essential Expository Writing classes.
Expository Writing 20 (colloquially termed Expos) is a mandatory class for all freshman and is definitely frequently spoken about. I’m truly being honest when I say most of my conversations about Expos are more like obsession-confessions since the classes are small and led my talented preceptors, but keep in mind that there will always be a handful of people that dislike Expos. The class serves to help transition students into writing in the college environment. There are many, MANY types of Expos 20 classes and this hefty selection not only makes it appealing to the normal student, but more so to students who aren’t inclined to writing (guilty). Students rank these Expos classes by interest and some fancy type of randomizing algorithm places students. Some classes may have multiple sections which increases your chances in the lottery process.
Last spring semester, one of my favorite things to boast about was my Expos 20 class. I was enrolled in Tales of Murder (my first choice was actually Darwinian Dating, but I’ve never been more happy to lose a lottery) and after announcing the title of my class, everyone becomes so intrigued!
The class was divided by three papers and each paper was devoted to a specific unit – this is a typical Expos 20 structure. Our first unit was murder ballads – the preceptor (Emily Shelton) provided a CD of old murder ballads with accompanying lyrics to analyze. The second unit (my absolute favorite unit in which I produced the best six pages I’ve ever (and will ever?) write!) was termed the “lens” unit because we read a variety of stories by Edgar Allan Poe along with literary critiques. We then had to synthesize these two sources to extract a theme about murder. My paper in the second unit argued that anyone who was literate was also capable of committing murder and getting away with it…a creepy thought considering my environment. Unit three was a film unit. I know this sounds like every student’s fantasy but I checked out one of the films from Lamont and since it was only loaned to me for ~5 hours, I returned it immediately after watching it. This means I walked ~1000 yards at like 4am in the dark right after a movie revolving around murder. Scariest thing ever! I had HUPD (Harvard University Police Department) pre-dialed on my phone just in case. Speaking of safety, there’s an escort service HUPD provides so you never have to walk alone if you feel even slightly uncomfortable. It’s always important to remember that Harvard is located in an urban environment; therefore, knowing both your surroundings and resources is crucial. Okay, the preaching is over.
Basically, Expos 20: Tales of Murder completely revamped my writing style. I remember in high school, for the most part, writing felt extremely formulaic. Your first sentence is a general statement, then you narrow your focus into your thesis which had to be the last sentence of your introductory paragraph or else it wasn’t really a thesis. Each body paragraph started with a supporting thesis, followed by a lead in to your quote/concrete evidence. I always felt so constrained and only started feeling like I was actually persuading my readers during my junior year of high school in Advanced Placement English Language (APEL) where my supporting theses didn’t have to be the first sentence of every body paragraph. My writing world really started rocking senior year of high school when a lot of the papers we wrote were promptless – my Advanced Placement English Literature (AP Lit) teacher would provide leading questions and ideas, but it was really up to us to extract an insightful message from the author. I guess you just have to earn freedom in your academic progression. This freedom was really epitomized in my Expos 20 class. When my preceptor told me that introductory paragraphs should really be introductory pages – this wasn’t just the best thing ever, but it just seemed too good to be real!!!!!
There were just so many revolutionary ideas about writing in Expos 20 that I still can’t hardly handle it. We talked about explaining motives which entails proving to readers why both the author and you as an author have a rhyme and reason to write. We talked about “standard readings” and although obvious, it’s important to include. More importantly, however, are the shocking twists and turns to these standard readings which drive the paper into its thesis.
The concepts I learned in Expos 20 still reverberate to this day. During Reading Period (when official classes stop for a week before Final Exams begin), I looked back through my Expos notes in preparation for my 12 page marathon paper for my Ethical Reasoning 24: Bioethics course. I know there are plenty of you out there that can crank out many more quality pages in a leisurely afternoon while dog-sitting, but I would literally rather run a marathon…twice.
That being said, Expos 20 was truly the arsenal of knowledge (and caffeine!) that got me through my final paper. I was so thankful that I even emailed my former preceptor to inform her of my boundless appreciation. I’m still stunned by her immediate (and of course eloquent) response where she basically summarized all three of my papers! Ah! She’s SO COOL! Is she still fair game to invite to my faculty dinners? TBD