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Writing 5 at Dartmouth, a closer look

I wrote here about Writing 5, a mandatory course for most Dartmouth freshmen. This course gave rise to threatened litigation by Priya Venkatesan, a former instructor at Dartmouth, against students who questioned the radical premises of her course. Although Venkatesan is not typical of those who teach Writing 5 at Dartmouth, I suggested that she may not be atypical in one respect – the left-wing ideological slant of her course. I also argued that when a writing course is developed around ideologically-based themes, the danger exists that the writing will take a back seat to the ideology. And I provided anecdotal evidence that this has occurred in Writing 5.

Since Dartmouth’s website does not describe the specific offerings that make up Writing 5, I was unable to provide this information. However, I now have descriptions for each of the Writing 5 sections offered in the Fall 2007 and Winter 2008 terms (unfortunately, I do not have them in linkable form). These descriptions, coupled with information about the instructors contained on Dartmouth’s website, reinforce my concern about the mixing of writing and ideology.

Before providing examples, though, I should emphasize that nothing I say below should be construed as a criticism of any particular course. It’s possible that a course relating to an ideologically-charged subject and taught by an avowed leftist can provide outstanding instruction in writing, and that the instructor can resist indoctrinating his or her students. For that reason, I have not identified any instructor by name. I should also add that I have not omitted any course descriptions that could reasonably be viewed as ideologically conservative. I found none.

Here is what I did find:

A section about “wilderness, agriculture, architecture, and environmentalism,” asked why “writing not grounded in evidence drawn from the earth-bound world we all inhabit can bounce off the reader’s brain like a stale marshmallow” (a frequent complaint by Power Line readers). Among the books assigned in this class was the critique of environmentalism by women’s studies scholar Giovanna di Chiro. She argues for “the feminist concept of intersectionality,” which “strives to put into practice environmental justice activists’ emphasis on the interdependence of human health, ecological integrity, and social justice.” In doing so, she opposes the “oppressive dichotomy” between the study of “nature” (geology, ecology, environmental chemistry)” and “critical analyses of the ‘social’ world (policy, law, culture and values, environmental economics).”

Another section explored how “writings of some Continental philosophers” have “often provided the logic for colonialism and settlement through the use of normative terms like wilderness, civilized/uncivilized, human/subhuman, freedom, etc.” The instructor describes herself as a Native American activist who, among other accomplishments, “organized and led a Peace Studies Mission to several Anishinabe, Din and Hopi communities, to introduce students and faculty participants to tribal leaders in those contexts who work for justice and sovereignty.”

A section on the topic of “literary utopia,” promised to pay special attention to the “recurring utopian concerns,” including gender. The instructor is a specialist in (among things) empire, colonization, Renaissance race and ethnicity, and gender in Renaissance drama.

Another section promised “through pointed questions and group activities” to “consider our relationships to representations, and their political implications.” The instructor specializes in African America drama, literature, performance, and culture, as well as women’s and gender studies. Her book project argues that “African American drama presents strategies to interpret historical evidence embedded in black performance (e.g. cakewalking, singing the blues, and delivering a sermon).”

The “unifying theme” of one section was “the quite topical one of war and violence.” This course was taught by a visiting professor from Scotland interested in, among other things, class and gender in the Highland and Lowlands.

The “construction of identify” provided the theme of another section. Among the questions considered was: “Do we control who we are or merely act out roles in the social drama of our lives?” To get at this question, students read a novel by Julia Alvarez (a Latina author) and plays by Phillip Kan Gotanda (who focuses on the experience of Asian-Americans). They also read poems by hip-hop poet Saul Williams. The instructor’s current book project “looks at the mechanics of joke work and identity formation, particularly the way that comic transactions subvert, or enhance, or obscure, race and ethnicity.”

Another section focused on the high school experience. Key issues included “the rationale and usefulness of homework,” the “subjectivity of grading,” and “21st century apartheid in urban American schools.”

Another section focused “on how images convey power” and “how rulers create a message and a legacy.” The instructor specializes in “Women and the arts in Medieval Germany.”

Not all of the sections looked like all-ethnic, gender, and/or race studies, all-the-time. Some were described without radical buzz words or other content suggesting any ideological or political slant. Ironically, Venkataean’s course fellinto that category. But the absence of such language obviously is no guarantee against slant. For example, one instructor’s course was described without any reference to any theme other than “writing that matters.” This instructor is deeply involved in women’s studies including “religion, gender, and the contemporary feminine voice” and the “mythic construction of gender.” As I noted in my earlier post, one student told me he eschewed all sections that looked too ideological yet still found himself subjected to what he considered left-wing indoctrination.

Is it an exaggeration to say that Writing 5 has become the preserve of feminists, deconstructionists, and other radical critics of the white-male-west hegemony? Probably. Is it an exaggeration to say that Writing 5 places too many freshmen at risk of being indoctrinated by instructors who answer to these descriptions? Probably not.

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