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Then and now: the teacher of America's best writers of the past

THE teaching of English composition has changed less than most other things at Harvard since Edward Tyrrell Channing was Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. Every Harvard freshman must take a one-semester course in ``Expository Writing.'' About 15 students make up a class. They write about one paper every two weeks for a total of around 45 pages during the semester. Many sessions feature the reading aloud of a student paper. Everyone has a copy of the paper, and after it is read, students and the teacher comment upon it.

Four questions are asked of every paper:

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1. What does the paper say?

2. What is the logical path by which the paper arrives at its conclusion?

3. What can be said about the style of the paper?

4. Was the paper worth doing?

Teachers still meet students in frequent conferences about papers. No better way of improving writing exists than to have students do a lot of it and to talk to them about what they do.

But there have been changes, some good and some bad. Students in Channing's day came to Harvard from one social class in New England. Today Harvard reaches out to the world and brings together a student population of astounding talent and diversity -- including diversity in writing ability.

Channing's Harvard was so small that freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors each had their own dining room and could easily fit into it for meals. Today's Harvard overflows freshman dormitories in the Yard and 13 residential houses scattered from the river to the old Radcliffe Quad. No one teacher can teach them all. The Expository Writing program has about 45 staff members (the number varies slightly from term to term). No single person can have the influence that he had.

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Channing taught during the advent of mass literacy and the penny newspaper. He saw that popular rhetoric was changing its emphasis from speech to the printed word, and he was probably the first rhetorician in America to teach writing rather than oratory. His students probably shared some assumptions about writing that students do not share today when television, music, and the movies dominate youth culture.

No good writing teacher today can be content with marking an ``O'' for obscurity, a ``W'' for trite expressions, and a ``T'' for questionable taste. Students must be told patiently why they are obscure, or else they will say something like this: ``I understand this; why don't you?'' They have seldom read enough to know the meaning of ``trite''; and they hear people on television use trite expressions every day of their lives. And the notion of ``questionable taste'' seems quaint to students in the era of the R-rated movie and Penthouse magazine.

A student of mine once wrote an account of the Battles of Lexington and Concord in which he said, ``The Patriots gathered on hilltops and affronted the British as they came by.'' When I questioned the word ``affronted'' in such a context, he brought in the American Heritage Dictionary with its definition: ``to meet face to face defiantly; confront.'' Who was I to suggest that the dictionary might be giving a misleading impression about the meaning of the word?

Channing had status in his academic world; today's writing teacher at Harvard and elsewhere is usually a part-time instructor with no status at all. No Boylston Professor of Rhetoric in 50 years has condescended to teach composition. Today's writing teachers are the nomadic fruitpickers of academe, usually slipping into the institution to work at an isolated and even scorned task with scarcely any of the normal benefits of the professoriat, certainly with little hope of developing a career.

Channing read papers for 32 years and was revered by those who remembered him. At Harvard the part-time teacher can have a job for four years or, for outstanding service, for six. If she or he has the stamina to stay in the profession 32 years, she may have six or eight part-time jobs. But the chances are that by the time she learns to do the job well, she will leave for some more rewarding occupation such as driving a cab or welding.

Channing was able to require from each student 18 essays a year for three years, reading them with care. Today a student can get through Harvard and most other schools by writing as little as 10 pages a semester.

The mood is changing. Harvard and other schools are taking the writing task more seriously and demanding more writing from students. No society in history has ever demanded more writing than ours, and all schools with any claim to excellence must respond to that demand.

The Expository Writing Program has been running an increasing number of workshops for other programs and departments to help section leaders read papers more critically and to comment on them more effectively. Writing must be a commitment of the entire institution, not merely the writing program.

The remarkable thing is that more than a century after Channing, many of us remain devoted to his ideal that writing is the core of a liberal education, and that any sacrifice is worthwhile to teach it.

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