Punishing good deeds at Dartmouth, Part Two

I hadn’t planned to write anything more about the demise of the Departmental Editing Program (DEP) at Dartmouth. However, my post on the subject drew a strong reaction from a number of alums. Some liked what I wrote, others were critical, but most seemed to want more facts.
In this post, I’ll discuss the DEP itself. Joe Asch (’79) started the program in 1998 on a trial basis with the Art History department. Soon thereafter, the Religion department joined in. The Mathematics department followed a few years later. Each department was assigned a former high school teacher to work with students as an editor in the manner desired by the department. Joe Asch paid the salaries of the three editors.
The success of the program is clear from letters written in 2006 by the head of each department. The letters are written on behalf of the department faculty. I understand that the combined faculties of the three departments represent about one-tenth of the college faculty.
I’ll start with the relgion department, which is chaired by Susan Ackerman. Professor Ackerman is hardly an ideological ally of Joe Asch. In fact, she wrote a public and quite negative letter about independent trustees Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki a few years ago. However, her endorsement (on behalf of the Religion department) could not have been stronger.
Professor Ackerman wrote that the contribution of department editor Nancy Leavitt-Reibel “to our students and our curriculum. . .has been lively and much-needed. . . .” She added:

Her work has very much altered our teaching of those courses to which she is assigned, so that we can require more drafts per paper, and work much more intensively with our students as they develop these drafts. . .Nancy corrects incoherent organization, grammatical and some logic errors, and the wordiness that afflicts Dartmouth students who have seldom had occasion to write long research papers. . . In addition, all honors thesis writers are expected to work closely with her. The latter development has been an enormous improvement over the old days when the faculty thesis advisor had to spend as much time correcting grammar and spelling chapter by chapter as commenting on content.

(Emphasis added)
Ackerman goes on to list “some of the reasons” why students benefit so much from the program. Here are some of “some of the reasons.”

Some students perceive the DEP program as leveling the playing field: those who believe themselves to have inferior academic preparation are grateful for a chance to catch up. The more time they spend working with Nancy, the better their writing becomes.
Nancy has a broader knowledge of students’ learning styles than the
faculty, and also some knowledge of learning disabilities and how these can be addressed. A number of students with such disabilities have thrived under the individual coaching they get from Nancy.
Most importantly, Nancy’s presence in our department has allowed us to
set higher standards for honors theses, culminating projects, and other Religion Department assignments than would otherwise be the case. We don’t see the DEP as separate from other programs the College has in place, but it seems to us an indispensable top-tier program for producing Dartmouth graduates with mature writing skills.

(Emphasis added)
Ackerman then provided Joe with a series of student comments. I won’t reproduce all of them but the following are representative:

Nancy LR is a brilliant editor. I still send her my stuff. She’s a dear person and she did wonders for how I think about my writing.
She saved my thesis.
I thought it said so much about the Religion Dept. that it provided students with writing assistance. I loved working with Nancy. She helped me so much. I can’t imagine working on my seminar papers without her.
Not only did she help me craft the most technically excellent senior paper I could, but she was also a real intellectual partner in the writing and research process.
I think Ms. L-R was an excellent editor. She was a stickler for structure and grammar in a way professors. . .and even legal writing instructors at law school are not.
Nancy was a fabulous help when I was working on my culminating class project. She is hands down the best editor I have ever worked with. Not only did she have a vast knowledge of the subject matter, she was also extremely effective when it came to helping students incorporate time-management skills. I came to her after procrastinating for a good half semester on my final paper, in a pathetic and helpless state, and she somehow managed to get me back on track. She is vital to the success of Dartmouth’s religion program.

(Emphasis added)
Professor Ackerman concludes the letter by saying “both department faculty members and students have found the DEP program extremely successful and we are grateful to you for your support these last years. Your generosity has noticeably improved the writing of countless students and made a huge difference in the teaching experience of many faculty as well.” (Emphasis added).
The letter from Ada Cohen, acting chair of the Art History department, tells the same story about department editor Iona McAulay. After recounting success stories offered by a range of faculty members, Cohen concludes her letter on behalf of the department as follows:

Our department greatly appreciates Iona McAulay’s dedication to its students. She provides excellent analysis to art history majors writing senior theses, just as she does to those students taking art history for the first time. She is a patient tutor who understands the anxieties of inexperienced writers, and her critiques of their work are always thoughtful and sensitive. All the students who have worked with her mention how helpful and nice she is. On some occasions students have continued their association with Iona beyond graduation. Colleagues feel privileged to have her in the department, near at hand, which allows for consultations with her on a regular basis and makes it possible to refer students to her on-the-spot if necesary. A valuable resource for our students, Iona is also a wonderful colleague to the faculty. Indeed, as [one member] recently remarked, “I can’t imagine the Art History Department without Iona.”

(Emphasis added)
Finally, math deparment chair Thomas Shemanske, provided “representative comments” from two professors to show “how much the expertise of our departmental writing assitant has contributed to our courses, our students, and ourselves.” One professor stated:

Having a second reader, and furthermore a second reader with much more expertise in the teaching of writing, has been valuable to my students. Working together with a colleague who is trained and experienced in the teaching of writing has been invaluable to me.

A second professor said:

We work together as colleagues. I value her opinions and regularly consult with her about both individual students and curricular matters. She has expertise that I do not possess, but that I need if I am to give students the kind of education they need. I firmly believe that in a course like Math 5 we should teach students to communicate their technical idea to the general public. [The department editor] plays a crucial role in the overall process of coaching students to do that, one that I would fulfill in a less satisfying way. Given a choice, I would not choose to teach Math 5 without her.

(Emphasis added)
It’s difficult to believe that Dartmouth would not want to continue, and even expand, a program of this caliber. Unfortunately, that proved to be the case. In my next post, I’ll discuss the decision of the college (a) to refuse to take over funding of the DEP and (b) to refuse to permit Joe Asch to keep the program going by funding it himself.

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