Expos Studio 20


The novelist George Saunders recently said in a commencement speech,

When young, we’re anxious — understandably — to find out if we’ve got what it takes. Can we succeed? Can we build a viable life for ourselves? But you — in particular you, of this generation — may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition. You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can . . .  “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.

This course takes up the very challenge that Saunders put before the college graduates he addressed, asking some of “the big questions” that can’t afford to be ignored. In particular, we spend the semester exploring what a successful life consists of, investigating the different definitions and assumptions we might hold about success. First, we will examine accounts of working in a variety of professions (from investment banking to medicine to technology). What, according to each portrait, makes the work in that career meaningful? How do people measure success in these occupations? And what do people sacrifice for their success?

Next, students will conduct original research to answer a question about success they’re interested in, whether happening right here at Harvard or elsewhere. What, for example, predicts success in school, or in athletics and other extracurricular activities? What difference does a person’s race, socioeconomic background, gender identity, culture, or religion make to their attaining success? What power do media images of success and failure have on people? What are potential barriers to success in a college or high school environment? When we look back at Harvard’s own history, who fought to change institutional barriers to success and how, and what barriers might still remain? Students will learn how to use Harvard’s rich—and what can seem like overwhelming—library resources. They will also be introduced to the fundamentals of various powerful research methods encountered in social science and humanities courses at Harvard and that professionals in various workplaces expect college graduates to be able to deploy, whether how to interpret documents, conduct interviews, or gather and analyze data from surveys. Students will finish the semester with a multimedia capstone project to share their insights into the successful life.

The course will also give students the opportunity to become more confident and skilled oral presenters and to learn the art of writing an effective personal statement commonly required by fellowship, grant, and award applications. 


Expos Studio 20 continues the yearlong sequence designed to support students in their transition to college writing and in their growing development as writers.

The Studio 20 course shares some essential goals with a standard Expos 20 course: both focus on developing original arguments, working with nuanced evidence, writing a research paper, and using sources with integrity. However, Expos Studio 20 maintains the approach of Expos Studio 10: the course offers intensive small-group instruction with more frequent feedback, and is structured to allow students multiple occasions to practice ideas and approaches, gaining expertise and confidence as they build longer and more complex arguments. Sections of Studio 20 are limited to 10 students.


The chart below details the main differences between Expos Studio 20 and standard Expos 20 courses. One way to think about your decision is to reflect on how the approach of Expos Studio 10 has benefited your growth as a writer. If the smaller class size, frequent conferences, and the chance to try out ideas in smaller assignments have been helpful for your transition to college-level academic writing, then Expos Studio 20 could be a good choice for the spring term.


Expos Studio 20   Standard Expos 20

Meets Harvard’s writing requirement

Meets Harvard’s writing requirement

Sections limited to 10 students

Sections limited to 15 students

Topic: The Successful Life

Topics: multiple choices offered; students are sectioned into one of nine choices they select

Two major essay assignments

Three major essay assignments

Several pre-draft steps per essay, sometimes revised more than once, giving students the chance to practice specific skills and approaches for each assignment

Typically one pre-draft response paper per essay


Frequent one-on-one conferences throughout the semester, both before and after drafts

Typically one individual conference per essay


Research skills and strategies taught in stages, giving students multiple opportunities to become familiar with Harvard’s vast library resources

Typically one library class dedicated to learning Harvard’s library resources

Practice in effective writing at the sentence level, focusing on clarity, tone, and strategies for crafting sophisticated sentences


Emphasis on collaborative work to develop ideas and projects


Practice in skills of oral presentation


Occasions for developing as writers beyond the classroom, particularly in writing compelling  personal statements for fellowships, grants, and award applications


A capstone project, giving students the chance to practice communicating their ideas to an audience beyond the classroom

Some Expos 20 courses offer group capstone projects