Dartmouth’s “back to the future” writing program

There was a little piece in Inside Higher Ed today, “Evolution of a Writing Program,” which is about changes coming to Dartmouth’s first year writing program. The opening paragraph:

Many a college has de- and then re-constructed its approach to teaching writing — in composition courses, in classes across the curriculum, or both. In announcing the creation of a new Institute for Writing and Rhetoric last week, Dartmouth College presented its particular take, including a new focus on tying together public speaking and writing instruction, expanding support services for students writing in foreign languages, and eliminating exemptions from an introductory writing course sequence required of all Dartmouth students.

The exemption thing is significant because (apparently) about 200 of the 1,000 first year students get out of the writing requirement now– that’s several more sections of fycomp that they’re going to have to staff. The article also quotes the dean of faculty wondering how the heck they are going to access writing success among their students? Where will they turn for resources and advice? Where indeed….

Actually, it also strikes me as a move that could benefit schools like EMU. Speaking only for myself, I would just as soon make it impossible for students to be able to exempt our required first year writing course; maybe with the move Dartmouth is making here we can argue “well, if they’re requiring for all their students, why the heck shouldn’t we do the same?”

Anyway, this all makes me think of the past in two different ways. First, depending on the version history that one subscribes to, it is from old and ivied schools like Harvard and Dartmouth and such where the split between writing and speaking first became evident back in the 19th century. I did some research on this that I (regrettably) have yet to publish on this stuff as it ties in with elocution, and I think this is an argument that David Russell makes in Writing In the Academic Disciplines, 1870-1990, but basically, this split in the US happened after the Civil War. Some places never did quite give up the whole connection between FYComp and speech– this was the case at the University of Iowa when I was an undergraduate.

Just a guess, but I suspect that as writing and composition studies becomes more about “media studies” (with pedagogy that embraces multimedia/new media as standard fare in all sorts of courses, including fy comp) and as the field drifts even further away from literature and traditional English department studies, I suspect we’ll see more programs like this.

Second, this is a “back to the future” moment for me personally. For reasons I won’t go into right now, I actually tested out of first year composition entirely at the U of Iowa. As a first year student, I of course thought this was great thing, but as a college professor, I think I missed out. As Lindsay Whaley, associate dean for international and interdisciplinary programs, says in this piece: “In a sense, I think it was [perceived as] an honor to be exempted. There was a sense that ‘Wow, this is great.’ From a faculty standpoint, there was a sense that they’re missing out.” I think that’s right.

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