A Class on Dartmouth’s History, Informing Its Future


In 1857, a 19-year-old Dartmouth student named Henry Ellis Stowe—son of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe—drowned in the Connecticut River.

“It seems like he just cramped up,” says John Stahel ’18, who is examining a contemporary account of the tragedy at Rauner Special Collections Library. “He was with two other people who were trying to hold him up, but they couldn’t hold him up for that long, and he just went under.”


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“Writing 5” instructor James Dobson and Natalie Kwan ’18 examine 19th-century plans of the Dartmouth campus in Rauner Special Collections Library. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)


Stahel and his classmates from “Writing 5: Dartmouth College in Fiction and in Fact” are in Rauner to explore documents from the 1850s and begin to piece together a picture of what life was like for students of that era. Among the artifacts on the tables in front of them: fraternity meeting minutes that read like the record of a debate club, letters home asking for money, a report to the trustees detailing how chapel renovations reduced hazing, and a tin horn used to heckle an unpopular visiting congressman.

In the course, taught by James Dobson, a lecturer in the Institute of Writing and Rhetoric and the English department, students are “interrogating the experience of college” through novels, memoirs, films, and artifacts from Dartmouth’s founding in 1769 to the present day.

The class’s small, hands-on session in Rauner may make its own mark on Dartmouth’s history: it’s being filmed for a segment of the forthcoming DartmouthX massive open online course, or MOOC, on the American Renaissance, which Dobson is co-teaching with Donald Pease, the Ted and Helen Geisel Third Century Professor in the Humanities.

Dobson says he wants his students—both in his undergraduate class and in the DartmouthX course—to develop what College Archivist Peter Carini calls “archival intelligence.” The hope, Dobson says, “is to model this for DartmouthX and think about the ways in which we can create new narratives out of Dartmouth’s archival material that will supplement our understanding of the literary past.” The video segments the DartmouthX team creates, he says, may in turn be used in the classroom to help future students develop their archival intelligence.

The American Renaissance describes the period of the 19th century during which, for the first time, a truly American literary tradition emerged, with writers and thinkers—including Stowe, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and their contemporaries—grappling with profound issues, from slavery and women’s rights to the relationship of individuals to society and the natural world.


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“Writing 5” students Ian Sullivan ’18, left, and Christopher Nkoy ’18 discuss documents from the 1850s with College Archivist Peter Carini in Rauner Special Collections Library. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)


According to Pease, “all of the major issues that American Renaissance writers confronted were also taken up by Dartmouth students—and the Dartmouth students’ responses to these questions are in the archive.”

Pease points to the example of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s son, who attended Dartmouth at a time when its president, Nathan Lord, was a noted slavery advocate. “Imagine what Dartmouth students made of that: the greatest antislavery writer of the era sends her eldest son—under a pro-slavery president—who then drowns in the river here.”

Dobson’s “Writing 5” students say studying the history of Dartmouth has given them perspective on current events at the College. Natalie Kwan ’18 says that while it may feel that Dartmouth is at a turning point, with major initiatives like President Hanlon’s Moving Dartmouth Forward plan, “This class has really taught me you’ve got to look at the whole picture.”

“The American Renaissance” DartmouthX course is slated to open for registration in spring 2016. The hope, say Pease and Dobson, is to build a forum for virtual and live communities—particularly alumni—around the themes of American Renaissance literature and history.

Pease and Dobson plan to co-teach an undergraduate course, “English 52,” on the American Renaissance in winter 2016. Students taking that class will have an instrumental role in creating content for the DartmouthX course—as Dobson’s “Writing 5” students are doing in Rauner.

Three other DartmouthX courses are in various stages of production, in conjunction with the nonprofit online learning consortium edX. The first, “Introduction to Environmental Science” with Richard and Jane Pearl Professor in Environmental Studies Andrew Friedland, wraps up this month. Registration for the second, “The Engineering of Structures Around Us” with Vicki May, an associate professor at Thayer School of Engineering, is currently open; that course launches May 5. An introduction to opera, taught by Professor Steve Swayne, chair of the music department, is slated to launch later this year.

Hannah Silverstein, MALS '09