Under Sommers, Expos Has New Focus, Structure

In her corner office, in the Expository Writing Program's ornate new building at 8 Prescott Street, Nancy Sommers is reading out loud in Italian.

Sommers, the director of Expos since 1994, doesn't speak Italian. But this week she's flying to Italy, where the University of Pisa has asked her to help design the country's first writing program for undergraduates. On the day before she leaves, Sommers is practicing the short thank-you speech she'll give to the Italian faculty when she arrives.

The trip abroad, into uncharted writing-program territory, is indicative of the new Expos. So, too, is the new look to Sommers' office, with tall windows looking out onto the Barker Center for the Humanities and with boxes still stacked against the teal walls since this summer's move from Vanserg Hall.

Since Sommers, who came to Harvard in 1987, took over as Expos director, the program has shifted focus.

Where once Expos sought only to teach first-years how to teach first-years how to write essays, the program now aims to impact all of writing at Harvard: "For Expos to be successful, it can't be an isolated freshman writing class," she says.

Moreover, Expos is embarking on a new study of undergraduate writing, following current students throughout their education to better understand how Expos can be improved.

Overall, Sommers has led the Expository Writing program into a newly-energized era, where the leadership can look beyond the narrow definition of the first-year class and into a downright global attitude.

The Writing Epicenter

Under Sommers, the Expos program, founded in 1872, has become more structured, with centralized procedures pervading both preceptor training and the semester-long course every first-year must take.

Preceptors can now stay only five years, instead of eight, a change Sommers defends by noting that "eight years is a long time in someone's career."

The program now features a strenuous application process for preceptors and a support system for them once they join Expos.

Gordon C. Harvey, the assistant director of Expos, runs a training program for new preceptors, a much-applauded feature added since Sommers took over.

The teachers also meet to read and critique each others' own writing.

And where the program once engendered feelings of distrust among preceptors, Expos teachers now say the working atmosphere is friendly.

"It makes teaching very exciting to feel that you are part of something new and possibly revolutionary on the academic front," says preceptor Peter Rand, an author and former writing teacher at Columbia University who joined Expos this fall. "In this atmosphere there is also a very warm rapport between preceptors."