The Story of Writing Instruction at Dartmouth

For more than a century, writing instruction at Dartmouth College has both reflected and anticipated national trends in writing pedagogy. 

Originally rooted in the study of rhetoric and oratory, Dartmouth’s writing courses—like writing courses nationwide—were re-designed in the early twentieth century as writing-about-literature courses. This model would stand until the 1960s, when ideas regarding the teaching of writing began to change.  Dartmouth found itself at the center of national and international conversations.  In the early 60s, Albert Kitzhaber completed his “Report of the Dartmouth Study of Student Writing,” a work that later served as the foundational case study for Themes, Theories, and Therapy, a widely read assessment of first-year writing in American colleges (1963). Kitzhaber’s recommendations included providing students opportunities for writing instruction in departments other than English, throughout their educations. Responding to the idea that writing should be taught across the disciplines, Dartmouth revised its first-year requirement to include not only English 5, offered by the English department, but also a first-year seminar, offered by departments and programs across the disciplines. 

In 1966, the college hosted the “Anglo-American Conference on the Teaching and Learning of English,” which quickly became known as the Dartmouth Seminar.  There, scholar-teachers from the U.S. and Great Britain met to attempt to define the field of English, and to determine those methods by which it might best be taught. Many experts in the field consider the Dartmouth Seminar to have cemented the establishment of a scholarly field dedicated to understanding, researching, and teaching writing in higher education.  In 2004, Dartmouth would fully embrace the notion of writing studies as a distinct field of study, creating a freestanding Writing Program whose teaching and learning would be informed by research and practices in this field.  With the addition of Speech in 2008, this Writing Program would become the current Institute for Writing & Rhetoric.

In the years since it was established, the Institute has worked to integrate the writing curriculum within the college’s broader curricular aims.  Through a study of first-year writing funded by the Davis Educational Foundation, we have been developing a better sense of what kinds of compositional “moves” our students are making in their first-year courses.  Through our well-designed and well-attended faculty development workshops, we have been expanding our ongoing conversations about teaching to include discussions of how knowledge about writing might better transfer from our first-year courses to other courses in the curriculum. In addition, we have developed and are continuing to offer pilot programs to support faculty interested in asking students to compose multi-modally—that is, not only with words, but also with images, audio, and video.  We have also hired a multilingual specialist, so that we can best address how to support our multilingual speakers and writers, and to inform other students about the many Englishes in use in today’s global society. Through the annual Summer Seminar for Composition Research begun in 2011, Dartmouth has become a place where writing specialists meet yearly to talk about and develop their ideas for data-driven research. 

Through the ongoing work of the Institute, Dartmouth will continue to shape—and be shaped by—cutting edge work in the field of writing studies.