An odd appoach to reforming Dartmouth’s writing program

I’ve written here and here about the Writing 5 course at Dartmouth, one that most freshmen are required to take. My thesis is that by using ideologically-charged subjects, taught in many cases by ideologically-oriented faculty, as the platform for writing instruction, Dartmouth runs too great a risk that the writing will take a back seat to the ideology. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this risk too often becomes a reality.

This, though, is not the only complaint one hears about Writing 5. Jacob Baron of the Dartblog writes:

I have no personal experience with the College’s freshman expository writing class. What I have heard does not impress. . . .[M]any students see the expository writing class as a grand waste of time. One student told me his writing professor was from the Arabic Department and wrote worse English than his students. Another in a similar situation was routinely given [improper] corrections on papers. Many writing classes spend little time on writing, but rather on “the research process.” In a similar vein, a major project in many writing classes is to film and edit a short video that surveys an issue. I was interviewed for one such video my freshman year. Forgive me if I’ve missed something, but I would have thought a writing class would teach writing?

It may not be surprising, then, that Carol Folt, Dartmouth’s academic dean, has announced that Dartmouth’s writing program will be overhauled in the coming years. But the nature of the overhaul seems odd. Here is Dean Folt’s six part plan:

* eliminate all exemptions from the Writing Requirement so that all students will now take two writing courses;

* add two positions to teach courses in public speaking;

* introduce upper-level writing instruction in non-writing intensive disciplines;

* offer a wider array of writing courses for students who desire to develop greater sophistication in their ability in written communication;

* expand student support services, including writing assistance for students taking foreign language courses;

* develop and implement assessment tools to determine the effectiveness of the teaching of writing and speech.

Thus, instead of revamping or eliminating Writing 5, Folt proposes to force every freshman to take it. This makes sense if the goal is to expose more students to radical feminism, critical race theory, the deconstruction of science, etc. But absent evidence that (a) Writing 5 is achieving its goals qua writing program and (b) the writing of students who exempt out of Writing 5 suffers from their not having taken the course, it is difficult to perceive the non-ideological merit of forcing all freshmen into the program. Given the issues I’ve raised, it seems unlikely that such a showing can be made. To me, it looks like the very weakness of the current program is serving as the pretext for expanding it — a common enough phenomenon even when ideology is not a consideration.

To make matters worse, Dartmouth recently killed a highly successful writing program. I discussed that decision, which appears to have been made at least in part due to animosity towards the anti-administration alum who was funding it, here, here, here, and here. I will recap this sad story in another post.


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