A Brief History (from the US perspective)

(written and compiled by Dr. Christiane Donahue, August 2015)

It took place in 1966, August 20-September 16.

The official title was the “Anglo-American Conference on the Teaching and Learning of English” but it quickly became widely known as “The Dartmouth Seminar.”

Co-planners were Arthur Jensen (Dartmouth host), James Squire (U. of Illinois and Executive Secretary, NCTE) and Albert Marckwardt (Princeton); the associate director was Frank Whitehead (Sheffield University, UK).

Arthur Jensen was a member of the original Great Issues committee, chaired the Great Issues course for several years beginning in 1952 at John Sloan Dickey’s request, and became Dean of the Faculty in 1955. He also oversaw the shift to quarters in 1958, described in one news report as designed to foster independent learning, depth, and the ability to think for oneself among Dartmouth students.

The purpose was to define English (“What Is English”) and outline the ways it might best be taught. Topics were identified before the conference; the overarching call was to modernize the English curriculum. Very quickly, the actual discussions focused in on language and writing; most of the concrete results of the Seminar were about teaching and learning writing, in relation to language, technology, and speech.

The three-week seminar was designed to create dialogue, with Working Papers presented at plenary sessions and follow-up Study Groups of 5-6 participants each. I have the original copies of the working papers as well as participant responses.

Albert Kitzhaber, keynote speaker and driver of the U.S. focus, had done groundbreaking work at Dartmouth prior to the seminar, studying error in student writing and the general first-year curriculum. He had moved to the University of Oregon by 1962. His Working Paper 1 (the conference keynote), “What Is English,” presented English as a triad of grammar, literature, and communication skills.

James Britton’s response (Institute of Education, London) sparked a shift in a new direction, defining writing as “a space where we should encourage students to use language in more complex and expressive ways,” and emphasizing process rather than only product.

Forty-seven invited participants, primarily from the U.S. and U.K., were complemented by a few Canadian representatives and participants from elementary and high school teaching, as well as twenty-one consultants who came for segments of the three weeks. One notable feature of these participants and consults was their disciplinary backgrounds, ranging far afield from “English” (for example, Psychology, Theatre, Speech, Education, Linguistics…).

Within the ten years after the initial Seminar, the group continued to work on national and international efforts and events.

Jensen, in an interview recorded for a collection of interviews of previous trustees, faculty, and administration housed at Rauner Library, said:

The Carnegie Corporation requested that the event be held at Dartmouth; Jensen asked Dickey, who approved.

Preparation included visits back and forth between the U.S. and the UK prior to the event.

It featured “top people in the teaching of English” and “was only a month but it was a very successful conference.”

After the conference, “For the next six months at least, whenever two Dartmouth participants met, it seemed as if they could talk of nothing else […]” (Marckwardt 1971).

A Few Key Quotes

In 2007, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) asked: “How has the profession been transformed by historical moments, such as the formation of NCTE in 1911, the Dartmouth Seminar in 1966, of the English Coalition Conference in 1987 . . .?” [Note: the 1987 English Coalition Conference is informally known as “Dartmouth II.”]

“‘Dartmouth’ for master teachers […] meant a whole reconceptualization of English” (Zebroski 1992).

“The Dartmouth Seminar of 1966 has taken on a legendary status in the annals of U.S. college composition” (Trimbur 2008).

“[W]e were very much informed by the work that came out of the Dartmouth conference […] as it registered in John Dixon’s Growth through English (1967/68 pub.) That book initiated a radical shift in the teaching of English from a focus on subject matter to the pupil, and the notion of English as an instrument of personal growth” (Horne 2007) with language shaping students’ experiences.

“Curricular developments and research fostered by James Britton and his colleagues at the London School of Education from 1966–1976, in particular seeded the WAC [writing across the curriculum] movement. Britton’s work was first introduced to American educators at the 1966 Dartmouth Seminar […]; several British conference participants, James Britton, Douglas Barnes, and Harold Rosen, soon became key figures in the [U.S.] WAC movement” (Bazerman 2005).

“In summarizing the retrospective glances of Dartmouth participants, I find, first, a generally held belief that the process of bringing together educators from varying backgrounds to solve common problems seems ultimately more significant than the actual solutions” (Donlan 1974, after he queried Dartmouth Seminar participants 5 years later).

T. Booth, ten years later in 1976, noted “The original Conference was a tremendous stimulation to the field, but the problems and the need for improvement stay with us” – a statement I think is still true 40 years after that.