On Composing the Dartmouth '66 Seminar Exhibit


Annette Vee's Reflection

The Dartmouth '66 Exhibit is a project at least six years in the making, with a lot of conversations, collaborations and false starts. Here, I tell my perspective on the story of the research and some of the critical collaborations involved. My reflection is meant to give context to this exhibit in formation, stand alongside other invited reflections, and contribute to the multivocality at the heart of this exhibit.

When I first learned of the Dartmouth Seminar, I had been researching the history of the BASIC programming language, which was developed by John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz on the Dartmouth College campus around the same time. My interest in BASIC was connected to my central area of research: the connections between computational and textual modes of writing and literacy. To see my disciplinary history and my research in programming overlap was an exciting serendipity. I wondered: did the Anglo-American Seminar choose to locate itself at Dartmouth because of the exciting work Kemeny and Kurtz were doing to make computing more accessible? Were the participants of the Seminar and those working on BASIC aware of each other? Did they run into each other at the local bars and restaurants on campus? What if these educators found common ground in supporting creative work in composition, in supporting students, in progressive literacy work?

I dove into the archival records of both BASIC and the Seminar to answer those questions, which I thought might give a kind of coherence to my seemingly divergent research interests. The archival record of the Seminar never mentioned BASIC or computing resources at all, and other reasons were given for the choice of Dartmouth as a locale. But whether either party knew of the other was a question I could only answer by talking to the people who were there in 1966. And if I didn't ask those questions soon, I would never know the answer. John Kemeny passed in 1992 and Thomas Kurtz was in his late 80s. With the help of a first year research fellow at my university, I located last known contact information and obituaries. We found that there were only four participants left from the Dartmouth Seminar. 

I attended the Dartmouth Seminar 50th Anniversary conference in 2016, organized by Christiane Donahue, where I asked those questions about the potential interconnections between BASIC and the Seminar. There, I connected with Megan McIntyre, who was faculty at Dartmouth and who had visited the Carnegie archives to put together the historical exhibit for the conference. I also met John Hardcastle, who had been trained by Jimmy Britton and others in his generation and gave a fascinating presentation on the English context for Dartmouth. And I learned from John Brereton and Cinthia Gannett that choice of Dartmouth as a locale was more practical than inspirational, as I had hoped. And while the connection between BASIC and the English Seminar was seeming less and less likely, another connection between the two proved serendipitous to me personally: Emily Isaacs, a professor of writing studies at Montclair State University, who was in the audience for my talk, also happened to be Thomas Kurtz's cousin. She put me and Thomas Kurtz in touch. We exchanged emails in 2016-17, and Kurtz generously provided clarifying details about the development of BASIC.

Eight months pregnant with my third child and on a university research grant, I returned to Dartmouth in 2017 to visit the local archives and interview Thomas Kurtz, then 89 years old. We had a lovely conversation in which I learned a lot about the context of BASIC, Kurtz's progressive vision of general education, and Kemeny's ingenuity. I also learned, without a doubt, that the BASIC team had no knowledge of the English Seminar. Yet both the BASIC and English Seminar initiatives emerged from a general progressive trend in general education as well as the flush funding of the early 1960s. So there was a connection, albeit an indirect one. 

What to do with all the archival research I'd done on the Dartmouth English Seminar? I'd spent countless hours as well as research resources on digging into the Seminar and knew a lot about it. But the Seminar's history was already well-documented in accounts by Joseph Harris, John Trimbur and others. I didn't have much to add. Plus, I didn't want to write another history on a canonical event, especially one that occurred in an era when few women were part of educational planning, and even fewer people from non-Anglo American ancestry. 

That part of this history kept bothering me. I mean, it was the 1960s--what did I expect from the Dartmouth Seminar? It was a product of its time, and there's truth in its name: The Anglo-American Seminar on the Teaching of English. Yet, as Iris Ruiz teaches us, these old white guys weren't the only ones there at the time, even if they're the only ones we talk about. What happened to everyone else? Ruiz writes, "So I wanted to go back to the histories of composition; I want to account for what is not there." Ruiz's book Reclaiming Composition for Chicano/as and Other Ethnic Minorities: A Critical History and Pedagogy does a thorough job of that; this Exhibit more modestly asks: Why do people in the field learn about this Seminar, who was missing, why, and how can we look at it differently?   

Megan McIntyre and I thought through these questions together, as she had also spent a lot of time assembling and processing archival records from Dartmouth Seminar and shared my concern of (re)producing canonical history, especially in light of the welcome trend of more diverse histories of the field of Composition and Writing Studies such as Ruiz's. We decided that a more multivoiced history was possible for the Dartmouth Seminar--a history that revealed some of the complexities and lacunae (as I later hear Paul Olson describe them) of the Seminar, one that didn't put aside the contentiousness of it or its place in a racist, nativist, and sexist worldview. 

My 2020 interview with Paul Olson, the last surviving American participant of the Dartmouth Seminar, reinforced this decision. As I talked with him that summer, Black Lives Matter activists were in the street protesting the persistent violence against Black lives, most immediately in terms of police violence. But another part of the systematic violence under protest was educational disparities and opportunities--reflected in the Dartmouth Seminar participant demographics as well as the Seminar's deficit-based approach to non-mainstream English. Olson is a longtime grassroots advocate for rural and native communities and in Nebraskans for Peace. In 1967, with a federal grant for the Tri-University Project, he had substantively contributed to a movement that included Appalachian and Navajo communities in some of the first community controlled schools (Gibney). He had advocated for the Cheyenne community when coal companies sought to take advantage of them. When we spoke, he had an editorial coming out soon in the local Lincoln, Nebraska paper that spoke to BLM, and which he had cowritten with a Black community member in their interracial peace organization. In both the seminar and throughout his career, Olson long maintained that education that didn't meet students with their own cultural values and background was colonialism. His colleagues note that Olson squares his academic and personal commitments: he walks the walk (Gibney). Of all the participants I might have talked with about this Seminar, I was glad that I was able to interview Paul Olson. 

More notably for the purposes of this Exhibit, Olson pointed me to the fact that Nearlene Bertin had attended the Seminar as the secretary--the only Black attendee at the Seminar--and mentioned her subsequent marriage to Nelson Francis. Using his information, I was able to track down Dr. Chérie Francis, Bertin's daughter, now a graduate administrator at UCLA. Dr. Francis generously filled in details on Nelson Francis and Nearlene Bertin's life. 

I was similarly glad when John Hardcastle put me in contact with John Dixon, a lovely and generous person, as well as a leading spokesman for the Dartmouth Seminar through his influential Growth through English. Dixon's long career included work in the schools in London and attention to progressive education generally. While less critical of the Seminar itself, Dixon, too, acknowledges the missing voices in it--commensurate with the time in which it occurred. He declined an oral interview--"I'm 93"--and so he answered my questions over email. As we went back and forth about Dartmouth, Dixon and I also exchanged news about our gardens, families, the American presidential election, and our lives in quarantine. I rejoiced when the vaccine finally came to London in late 2020. 

All this time, I was in regular contact with Hardcastle, whom I'd met at the 50th Anniversary Conference at Dartmouth. Recently retired, Hardcastle had personally known many of the British participants in the Seminar through his academic training and positions in London, as well as his historical research with Peter Medway and others. He helped me understand the context of the Dartmouth Seminar in the UK, who was invited and likely why. He had interviewed Douglas and Dorothy Barnes, knew Harold and Connie Rosen and was friends with their son Michael Rosen, who is a beloved children's author in the UK. Each time I made an interesting find or had a question about Dartmouth, I wrote to him and he responded, sharing my enthusiasm, encouraging me to continue with the work. When my kids and I spent a whole afternoon listening to Michael Rosen tell stories on YouTube, I sent a picture of the scene to Hardcastle. He urged me to move forward with interviews--not much time left--whether I felt the rest of the project was ready or not. He was right and I knew it. And if I'd truly listened, I might have had the chance to interview Wayne O'Neil, who passed away in March 2020. 

Megan and I also had ongoing discussions of what to do with the project, and finally set upon the idea of an exhibit. We reached out to WAC Clearinghouse, which had not yet hosted something like this, but seemed like a good home for such a repository. Mike Palmquist was responsive, supportive and interested in hosting it--plus, very patient as Megan and I had other priorities come up in our lives and put off this collaboration. Later, he designated Lindsey Harding as support and contact for the exhibit, who has been similarly patient and supportive and instrumental to getting it out into the world. 

The final Table of Contents for the Exhibit is a reflection of the depth of research both Megan and I have done over the course of these years, and made available as a tool for further research, inquiry, and pushback on the ways that Composition has formed into a discipline. Megan's other commitments meant that her role shifted into collaborative consultant for the latter parts of the project, along with annotating the selections from the Carnegie archives, but her take on the Seminar and this project have been formative for it. The other voices in the critical responses featured here are also a result of discussions with her. 

As I reflect on the Exhibit, and what it means to do historical work on a canonical event such as the Dartmouth Seminar, I have in mind not only Ruiz's history, but also Aja Martinez's critical work on counterstories and Jacqueline Jones Royster's work with tracing nondominant histories in archives that are inherently misrepresentative. Given the work by Ruiz, Martinez, Royster, and others, I believe that it's possible to tell multivoiced stories with the materials in archives, and I hope that's what this Exhibit is. Ellen Cushman warns that archives take objects from their context of use and away from the stories that place them in their histories and communities; Gesa Kirsch and Jacqueline Jones Royster write that historical reexaminations such as we attempt in this exhibit provide important context to archives and published histories. Our attempt to assemble the archival items digitally but also include stories is our best effort for scholars in the field to have access to rich and varied documents and voices on this formative part of our history. We hope that the materials available here will generate more stories, counterstories, and critical engagements for students of composition, such as those Jessica Enoch, Katie Bramlett, and Elizabeth A. Novara describe in their exploration of archives in undergraduate education. There's more work to be done.

I'm grateful for all of the collaborators who brought this project to life, and glad to finally have my research questions answered in the Exhibit. I hope that it prompts more research questions, reflections on methodologies, critical approaches to education, and new insights on how a field traces its histories.  

Pittsburgh, PA, May 2021

Megan McIntyre's Reflection

Like Annette, in some ways, I stumbled into this archival project. I had, of course, heard about the 1966 Dartmouth Seminar during my doctoral work; it was mentioned in various historiographies of the discipline as a pivotal moment. But I didn’t know much more than that. Until, that is, I joined the faculty at Dartmouth College. In the summer of 2015, fresh out of graduate school, I joined the amazing team in the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, the home of Dartmouth’s writing and speech courses. The director of the Institute and my mentor, Christiane Donahue, spoke frequently of the importance of the seminar in her own understanding of the discipline and in her vision for our work within the Institute. 

Soon after I arrived at Dartmouth, Christiane began planning the 50th Anniversary Conference to celebrate the work of the 1966 Seminar and the ways that it helped shape the discipline of writing studies. As part of her planning, she asked whether I would be interested in digitizing the Carnegie Corporation archival materials related to the Seminar, which are held at Columbia University. So, armed with research about the best practices for digitizing and a handy-dandy handheld scanner, I drove the four hours from Dartmouth to Manhattan. I came back with hundreds of scanned documents and plans for building a digital exhibit for the 50th Anniversary Conference that highlighted moments from the planning of the Seminar and responses to the work done there. But I also came back with questions about how to understand the complicated relationship between this group of almost entirely white, male scholars and teachers who’ve had such a hand in shaping our discipline and the discipline as I understand it now. I was lucky enough to meet Annette at the 50th Anniversary Conference, and this project became one avenue for getting to ask those questions.

For much of the life of our discipline, composition history has jumped from ancient Greece to Harvard to Dartmouth before opening to a wider set of experiences in places like CUNY and the University of Michigan. That early, Ivy League-focused history excludes so much important work and so many kinds of students, scholars, and teachers. What the archive taught me, though, was that Dartmouth’s Ivy League identity is largely incidental to the actual work that happened at the Seminar. The participants represented institutions, both K-12 and higher education, from across the US, UK, and Canada. The participants were drawn from among the ranks of those working toward progressive educational reform in the US, UK, and Canada, including Albert Kitzhaber, whose work at the University of Oregon and with Project English helped shift the focus of literacy education in the US. The Seminar lacks ethnic or racial diversity; there’s no disputing that. But it did represent a broad range of views of language, literacy, and education that seem to align with more complex disciplinary histories, like the one Iris Ruiz lays out in Reclaiming Composition for Chicano/as and Other Ethnic Minorities

When I left Dartmouth to join the faculty at Sonoma State, the questions remained, but my time was overtaken by the challenges that come with directing a first-year writing program. Still, (wonderful, patient, kind) Annette let me hang around the project. This final form is so far beyond what I had first imagined, and that’s a testament to Annette’s hard work. (And I’m grateful, too, to the lovely folks at WAC Clearinghouse who have patiently supported this work for last year.) 

I hope that this exhibit offers other members of our discipline an opportunity to engage with the history of composition in new ways. I’m reminded of this quote from scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith: “Coming to know the past has been part of the critical pedagogy of decolonization. To hold alternative histories is to hold alternative knowledges. The pedagogical implication of this access to alternative knowledges is that they can form the basis of alternative ways of doing things” (34). I hope that this exhibit helps us confront our disciplinary history in ways that move us closer to antiracist ways of doing composition.

Sonoma, CA, May 2021

Works Cited

Cushman, Ellen. "Wampum, Sequoyan, and Story: Decolonizing the Digital Archive." College English, Special Issue: The Digital Humanities and Historiography in Rhetoric and Composition, Eds. Jessica Enoch and David Gold. Vol. 76, No. 2, (Nov 2013): 115-135.

Enoch, Jessica, Katie Bramlett, and Elizabeth A. Novara. "Decoding (a Woman’s) Diaries: The Transcribe-A-Thon as an Undergraduate Public Memory Project." College English, Vol. 81, Iss. 5,  (May 2019): 407-431.

Kirsch, Gesa E., and Jacqueline J. Royster. “Feminist Rhetorical Practices: In Search of Excellence.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 61, no. 4, 2010, pp. 640–672. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27917867. 

Martinez, Aja Y. Counterstory: the rhetoric and writing of critical race theory. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2020.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.

Ruiz, Iris D. Reclaiming Composition for Chicano/as and Other Ethnic Minorities. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Books, 1999.