Friday, March 25, 2005

The Darker Side

While the two examples of historical precedent for writing center work that I brought up in my previous two entries seem well worth emulating, not all early writing centers were so enlightened. One of the more frightening places was the Writing Clinic at Dartmouth College, which was created in 1939 and existed until 1960. Here's the 1939 college catalog description of the Writing Clinic, a description that wouldn't change for twenty years:

Remedial work for students whose writing in any College course is seriously deficient either in organization and sentence-structure or in such matters of usage as spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Any student in the College may apply to the Clinic of his own initiative or at the suggestion of any instructor. Individual conferences and exercises. No credit.

The Writing Clinic was created by Peter Cardoza, a fairly recent graduate of Dartmouth and an aspiring writer. Cardoza lasted only one year in his post, starting a trend that would continue throughout the life of the Writing Clinic. No director lasted more than three consecutive years on the job (many were English faculty members with half-time release to run the Clinic), and by 1958, the Clinic was run by a faculty member with a full-time appointment in another department and who thus could only devote one-sixth of his time to Clinic duties (essentially one afternoon a week).

The Dartmouth Writing Clinic was offered as an unfortunate, but necessary element in the messy business of ensuring high standards. As described in a 1954 report, “students prone through ignorance to write badly, illiterately, can have their ignorance dispelled by the Writing Clinic." How about that line for your next PR campaign!

By 1960, the Writing Clinic seemed to have outlived its usefulness. That year, Albert Kitzhaber was in the midst of a three-year, Carnegie Foundation-funded study of the Dartmouth Writing Program, and for Kitzhaber the Clinic represented an identity that would potentially tarnish the reputation of an elite college like Dartmouth. In his final report, Kitzhaber concluded that “it seemed clear that the great majority of students referred to the Clinic for poor writing were quite capable of remedying their own deficiencies without special help from the Clinic. All that was needed was to convince them that they had to.”

In the work I've done on writing center history, I often try to dispel contemporary notions that our historical past was a dark time of basement locales and drill-and-kill worksheets. Still, some of those places certainly did exist--just as they exist now. That, too, is our history.

Neal Lerner


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