Associate professor of history Leslie Butler loves teaching first-year seminars at Dartmouth.
"Though writing is crucial to pretty much every course taught in the History Department, a first-year seminar allows me to slow down and really linger on every phase of the writing process," Butler says.
First-year seminars are offered in disciplines across the arts and sciences and serve as the second component of Dartmouth's required writing curriculum for undergraduates. The seminars give every student the opportunity to take a course centered on intensive writing, independent research, and small group discussion. Students take the seminars after completing one or two first-year writing classes offered by Dartmouth's Writing Program (WRIT 5 or WRIT 2-3).
This winter term, the Writing Program is introducing curricular enhancements and a new website designed to centralize resources and create more of a shared student experience.
"We want our students to be exposed to a diverse array of texts but nonetheless take part in a shared experience," says James E. Dobson, director of the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric and an assistant professor in the Department of English and Creative Writing. "Ultimately, our curriculum encourages students to explore writing as a mode of thinking, and thinking as a mode of writing—preparing them to engage meaningfully with any field of study."
Creating a Community of Writers and Thinkers
Among many common goals, all first-year writing courses hone strategies for developing and supporting thesis statements and conducting research. Faculty who teach writing also facilitate peer editing and familiarize students with academic writing conventions.
A new website dedicated to the Writing Program details the curriculum and faculty as well as information about the newly renamed Writing Center (formerly known as RWIT), a peer tutoring service that serves more than one quarter of the undergraduate population and a substantial number of graduate students. (Dartmouth's Speech Program, which formerly shared a website with the Writing Program, now has its own site as well.)
"We're fortunate to have nearly 30 talented and dedicated instructors in the Writing Program who draw on their diverse experiences as professionals in academia, business, law, and the arts," Dobson says. "Our first-year courses prepare students to engage fully with intellectual work in every discipline."
Additionally, a newly created faculty committee with members drawn from the Writing Program, the Department of English and Creative Writing, and other units across Arts and Sciences will guide the future of the Writing Program.
For Dobson, the Writing Program plays a key role in engaging students with Dartmouth's expansive liberal arts curriculum. "It's very exciting for students to discover different ways of thinking, arguing, and examining evidence in so many disciplines and fields," he says. "We often hear about students whose experience in first-year seminars inspires them to change their areas of interest."
This winter term, Butler's first-year seminar focuses on Reading Lincoln in the Age of Twitter.
"This is particularly fun to teach because it's focused on Lincoln as a writer—and reader," Butler says. "He wrote constantly—always drafting lines that might appear in speeches or letters years later—and was deeply self-aware about the impact of his words. Exercises like 'live-tweeting' the Lincoln-Douglas debates enable us to think about how political communication worked in the 19th century and thereby to contextualize our own moment."
Butler takes pleasure in seeing her students gain confidence as readers, writers, and thinkers.
"We do a lot of writing throughout the term, of course, but we also read as writers: diagnosing what does or doesn't work in a piece of writing; reverse-engineering how arguments are constructed; and often just reading aloud and listening," she says.
"Reading as writers ultimately helps us write as readers: moving through stages of drafting and revision so we increasingly take into account the needs of a reader. It's great to watch this connection click with students and to see them take themselves seriously as writers."