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“Ask who teaches the freshmen.”

A pithy anecdote about Dartmouth’s President in the 1970’s, John Kemeny, is making the rounds again:

Some years ago, a parent asked Dartmouth President John Kemeny, “What is the most important question parents should ask in determining where to send their children?” Kemeny responded, “Ask who teaches the freshmen.”

Kemeny’s observation came to mind when I saw that Dartmouth’s augustly titled Institute for Writing and Rhetoric is holding its first annual two-week Research Summer Seminar starting today. Over the years the effort to teach Dartmouth’s freshmen to write well has fallen to different groups: in my day the task was the responsibility of professors in the English department. They acquitted themselves far more successfully than the varied group of adjuncts, instructors, lecturers, and itinerant ideologues who now teach freshman writing under the auspices of the IWR.

The parlous state of student writing is one of the academy’s dirty little secrets — to everyone except employers like major corporations and law firms, who routinely put their expensive new hires into remedial classes. In these sessions new graduates are obliged to do the hard, grinding work of learning that now seems beneath the dignity of tenured or tenure-track professors at the College.

Pease.jpgNot so in 1975, when a dozen of us filed into English 5 class with Professor Pease. Say what you like about Don Pease (gauche caviar comes quickly to mind), but at that time he was a hard-working teacher and a scholar on the way up. A dozen years later his book, Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writing in Cultural Context, won the Mark Ingraham Prize for the best new book in the Humanities.

Who else was teaching freshmen back then? In contrast to today, introductory language classes were also the province of the College’s best young professors.

Beatriz_Pastor.jpgI took Spanish 1 with Beatriz Pastor, who is still a dynamic professor at the College. In addition to Intro Spanish, she has taught literature and various creative interdisciplinary courses, and in 1984 she won the College’s Huntington Best Teacher Award. Needless to say, Spanish 1 was about a whole lot more than grammar. Professor Pastor has also held a seat in the NH legislature since 2008.

Vickers.jpgMy Italian 1 prof was Nancy Vickers, who won teaching awards at the College and later at USC. Dartmouth awarded her its Presidential Medal for Outstanding Leadership and Achievement in 1991. And, by the by, Professor Vickers served as President of Bryn Mahr from 1997 until 2008. Quite a profile for someone teaching Intro Italian to kids who had trouble rolling their rrrr’s. She did so with passione.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to imagine that John Kemeny would rue the decline in the teaching of freshmen at Dartmouth today.

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