Evolution of a Writing Program

Dartmouth announces changes in its approach to teaching writing and speech.
February 6, 2008

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 was originally purely for resource reasons,” said Lindsay Whaley, associate dean for international and interdisciplinary programs. About 200 out of the approximately 1,000 Dartmouth freshmen have been granted exemptions each year based on SAT verbal and, in recent years, writing scores. (The cut-off varies each year based on capacity and class size, but last year for instance students needed at least a 740 on both the verbal and writing portions of the test to qualify.) “In a sense, I think it was [perceived as] an honor to be exempted,” Whaley said of the student view. “There was a sense that ‘Wow, this is great.’ From a faculty standpoint, there was a sense that they’re missing out.”

“We are fortunate we do have students who come to us with pretty good writing skills, basic writing skills. But what we know is that we need to take them from a basic understanding of writing to a level where they have a pretty keen sophistication,” Whaley said. He estimates that the college will need to add 19 more courses once the exemption is fully phased out (the timetable for that is still uncertain), and will be hiring faculty accordingly. All Dartmouth writing courses are taught by full-time or part-time faculty, as opposed to graduate students.

In creating its new institute, Dartmouth will create an umbrella organization for all of the activities supporting the curricular "Writing and Rhetoric Program," Whaley said. Student support services will be expanded as part of the newly announced changes. In particular, the college will expand its peer mentoring program to include writing assistance in foreign languages.

In addition to hiring an institute director, Dartmouth will be hiring two new public speaking professors with the idea of offering courses specifically in that subject in addition to somehow connecting speaking to writing instruction. (The exact mechanism to make that connection is to be determined, probably after another couple years of discussion, Whaley said. The current changes are the culmination of six years of discussion coming out of multiple faculty committees and councils.)

And another committee is now looking into the development of assessment tools. “How do you assess improvement in writing from the time students enter a place like Dartmouth to the time they leave? Are you seeing progress; how do you see progress?” asked Carol Folt, Dartmouth’s dean of the faculty. An evaluation of a portfolio of a student’s writing – perhaps at several points during the college career – is among the options being considered.

Dartmouth officials estimate that the changes will cost about $700,000 annually, bringing the total budget for the various writing programs, including the auxiliary services, to approximately $2.5 million. With several faculty committees already at work considering further improvements, Whaley said the new institute will be established with a mandate.

“OK, now help us move to the next level of what we want to accomplish.”

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