by Daniel Gross
Expository Writing is a new type of class for many freshmen entering Harvard. In high school, most of us wrote standard 5-paragraph essays in English and Social Studies, but few took an intensive class dedicated solely to the practice and process of argumentative writing. Understandably, when we arrive on campus, some ask: “What do these essays that we’re supposed to write look like? Where can I find argumentative writing in the real world? When will I use this again?”
You can’t get around expository writing. Not because it’s required, but because it comes in all kinds of disguises. If you open a newspaper (Google News, these days) you’ll find Expos staring you in the face. We can learn something about how to craft academic arguments – and why we might want to – if we take a look at the well-written editorial below. We might even think of it as Expos-in-disguise, because it has plenty in common with academic arguments: it’s concise, it builds on itself, it guides the reader the entire way, and it offers legitimate counterarguments.
Knowing how to formulate and take apart these kinds of arguments can help you well outside of your freshman requirements. And that just might make your Expos class a blessing, in its own disguise. Here’s “Advantages for the Advantaged,” an opinion piece written for the Harvard Crimson by Adrienne Lee.
The Harvard campus today is a far cry from what it was 50 or even 20 years ago. With an increasingly diverse student body, a robust financial aid program, the withdrawal of official recognition for final clubs, and a randomized housing system, the College has taken numerous steps to stop privileging the rich and well-connected above other students.
A notable exception to the general trend is Harvard’s relative inertia with regard to giving legacy students preference during the admissions process. Providing an admissions boost to applicants who have a close relative who attended Harvard is, in effect, affirmative action for individuals who already enjoy many advantages—a practice that should be officially discontinued.
While Harvard has traditionally been reticent about the specifics that go into admissions decisions, Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 stated in a 2003 Wall Street Journal article that legacy status is used as a “tie-breaker between comparable candidates” during the admissions process.
Displaying favoritism toward students because of their lineage rather than individual accomplishments or academic achievement runs contrary to the meritocratic values that the College ought to promote. Despite the diversification of Harvard’s alumni pool in recent years, legacy preference still overwhelmingly favors white applicants from wealthy backgrounds, whose relatives have historically enjoyed an edge in admission to the College.
Proponents of legacy admissions point to the utilitarian benefits of admitting the children of alumni. It is said that legacies are more likely to matriculate if accepted, thereby augmenting a school’s yield. Alumni are also thought to be more generous in donating their money, and perhaps their time, to their alma mater if they think those contributions will increase the chances of a son or daughter getting in.
These concerns largely ignore the preponderance of other factors that lead students to choose schools and alumni to give to them. Some students choose to attend Harvard because their parents went there, but many other students choose based on the College’s unrivaled financial aid package or because the Harvard name is attractive enough by itself. Likewise, alumni donate and involve themselves with their alma mater for a wide variety of reasons—perhaps because they believe in Harvard’s mission and core values or because their time at the College was a formative experience in their lives.
Harvard’s really big donors, the ones who underwrite research funds and other initiatives at the College, will likely continue to donate for philanthropic reasons, regardless of legacy preference. Alumni of all economic backgrounds should be encouraged to give back based on the principle of supporting an institution that generally enriches the lives of many students, rather than on the principle that there will be a direct payback for their contributions.
Even if Harvard stops giving legacy preference tomorrow, plenty of highly-qualified legacy applicants will continue to be admitted to the College. Being a child of a Harvard graduate already confers many advantages: The zip code one lives in, the type of school one attends, and the type of academic and college preparation enrichment that one has access to may all directly or indirectly relate to where one’s parents went to school. There is no need to confer an additional advantage to those whom the circumstances of birth have already endowed with plenty.
Leaving out our own opinions on the issue, we can still learn a lot about how to put together a convincing argument by reading this editorial. In other words, let’s read it like it’s an Expos paper.
So what values do editorials and academic essays share? Or, to frame the question another way: what does a bespectacled professor reading student papers have in common with a coffee-drinking commuter going through the morning paper? Both:
1. Like what’s easy.
2. Don’t believe everything they hear.
3. Care… a little.
THEY LIKE WHAT’S EASY
That means two things: say it quickly, and say it simply. Adrienne gets to her thesis early in the essay, and explicitly – there isn’t a lot of padding to obscure the argument:
Providing an admissions boost to applicants who have a close relative who attended Harvard is, in effect, affirmative action for individuals who already enjoy many advantages – a practice that should be officially discontinued.
Put even more simply: Adrienne thinks legacy admissions should stop. Similarly, look how easily we can sum up the claim in Paragraph 3: favoritism isn’t meritocratic. She mentions more precisely why it’s unfair later – because those who benefit from favoritism are often well-off and white – but the important thing is we never lose sight of what her argument is.
Obvious and explicit claims allow the reader to spend effort thinking about the ideas instead of digging a buried argument out of your words. It’s hard to lose sight of three or four words.
It costs the Crimson money if Adrienne wastes her words. An extra word, sentence, or paragraph is space another article lost – and little chunks of time that hundreds of undergrad readers wasted. Not only that, if you don’t like the article – if it’s imprecise, boring, or too long – you’ll just skip it.
Assume both of these are true of your essays, too. Redundant words just aren’t worth the extra ink and paper. And even though a professor won’t toss your paper aside, you’ll know if she wants to. It’s written in the big fat letter on top. So make it easy.
THEY DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING THEY HEAR
The only way to convince a skeptic is to play their game. Be skeptical of yourself. If you see a gap in your reasoning, addressing it can strengthen, rather than weaken, your argument. On the other hand, pretending it’s not there will probably undermine your argument. Notice how much time Adrienne spends on potential objections to her argument (paragraphs 4, 5, and 6). There are a few main counterarguments here – which (if left ignored) could undermine her argument, but instead (as written) help her.
Here are the ideas she’s disputing:
1. Legacies are more likely than non-legacies to accept admission.
2. Legacy admissions encourage alumni to donate more money.
Adrienne doesn’t buy either of these arguments, and she gives a detailed explanation of why. First of all, she argues that admitted applicants choose a college for a variety of factors, including financial aid and prestige. She reasons that if we take into account these factors, the first claim is weakened. Meanwhile, she also argues that other factors lead alumni to donate, including personal values and appreciation for their educational experiences. That, in turn, questions the second claim. Finally, she adds an ethical argument to her refutation of the second claim. She writes: “Alumni of all economic backgrounds should be encouraged to give back based on the principle of supporting an institution that generally enriches the lives of many students, rather than on the principle that there will be a direct paycheck for their contributions.” Not only are legacy admissions relatively ineffective – as she states above – they’re also not really right.
Adrienne ends her piece with a look at the bigger picture, with another counterargument embedded: ending legacy admissions won’t eliminate a bunch of highly qualified applicants, like some people might think. It’ll just give advantages to the already advantaged. This, too, is an argument of principle – and a final plea for why the policy of legacy admissions should end.
Counterarguments don’t always have to be a side-note – in this editorial, they make up just about half of the text. That may not be typical in your discipline. But disputing other people’s arguments is a great way to conclude, as Adrienne does – and they’re also a great way to clarify and express your own thesis. So be skeptical of yourself.
THEY CARE… A LITTLE
We already know that professors and commuters don’t have a lifetime to read what’s in front of them. Earlier I said brevity and simplicity are important. But there’s more to it than that. How are you going to make your paper worth reading?
Adrienne makes her piece relevant to her audience. The current state of Harvard (her introduction) brings her readers, who are mostly Harvard students, into the picture. She doesn’t have to work too hard in this sense. Naturally, the topic of admissions into elite schools will interest students who recently experienced that process (though it also forces her to be cautious not to alienate her audience).
Finally, adding an ethical dimension helps to justify why she’s writing at all. Legacy admissions are going on right under our noses – if it’s unfair, shouldn’t we do something to stop it?
If you’ve got your nose in a newspaper on the T to work, or if you’re a professor spending a Friday night grading papers, you’ve got plenty on your mind. That’s why it’s crucial that readers figure out why an argument matters. Make them care.
Daniel Gross ‘13 tutors at the Writing Center.