Even for the most zealous teacher, a quarter-ton of papers
spanning 65 college careers is a daunting sight. But for Nancy
Sommers, the 10 file cabinets crammed with red, yellow, green, and
blue folders - color-coded for freshman, sophomore, junior, and
senior years - are a dream that has finally come true.
As head of the expository writing program at Harvard University
in Cambridge, Mass., Dr. Sommers had always wanted to track
students once they moved beyond their first college writing class.
"I saw students making progress within the semester," she says.
"But I always wondered what happened to them - and to their writing
- after they left my course."
Last month, Sommers began to answer that question with the
conclusion of a four-year study of undergraduate writing. It was an
undertaking that reaffirmed her faith in the way writing nurtures
and nuances thought, provides an intellectual foothold in college,
and helps students develop a more intricate sense of themselves.
An academic cornerstone
To Sommers - and to many of the students - writing is the
academic cornerstone of college. All Harvard freshmen take a
semester of expository writing, a seminar emphasizing close
reading, revision, and research, honing analytical skills and
laying the groundwork for future Harvard courses.
In addition to its central academic role, Sommers says that
writing provides a vital means of affirmation, helping students
"write their way into a new home.
"The freshman year is a time of tremendous transition. A lot of
those questions get played out in the papers students write." She
suggests that, in a time of self-doubt, "writing helps students see
that they are contenders, that they can do the work."
Sommers came to Harvard in 1987 as associate director of the
Expository Writing Program (known as "Expos"), after teaching
English at Rutgers University in New Jersey. In 1993, she became
director, propelling America's oldest college writing program into
its third century.
Freshmen choose from dozens of Expos classes with titles like
"The Culture of Consumption," "Mapping the Mind," and "Love in the
Western World" - offerings designed to give them "an intellectual
occasion" for writing.
Sommers seized her own occasion in 1996, when she asked the
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a grant to study undergraduate
writing. She received additional support from the Harvard
president's office, and, in the fall of 1997, invited all freshmen
to participate in a Web-based survey. Sommers hoped for a 10
percent response rate, and was astounded when one-quarter of the
class - 422 students - logged on to share their Expos expectations.
For the next four years, her team of researchers - a dozen
assistants, statisticians, programmers, and interviewers - focused
on a subsample of 65 students, meeting with them each semester and
analyzing every paper they wrote. Last June, that crop graduated
from college - and left Sommers with over 500 pounds of essays,
theses, poetry, and prose.
Sommers launched her study wondering what role writing plays in
undergraduate education, but quickly realized that the role changes
yearly, as students embark on increasingly intensive writing
"Freshman writing is often characterized by generalizations and
either/or thinking," Sommers says, "but by the senior year, there is
a complicated, complex argument sustained throughout. Students
first learn to mimic what they learn, and then they go beyond
mimicry, beyond the questions of the course, to ask questions of
In Sommers's experience, those questions can launch an
astonishing process of self-discovery, as students pursue research
of their own choosing and embark on assignments that "help to shape
their passions and show them what they're interested in. …