Last year, a student writing a policy memo for her "Counterterrorism Law and Policy" course at Duke University received feedback on a draft of her paper—from a Coast Guard commander responsible for the security of 2,200 miles of inland waterways. A fellow student, enrolled in an environmental-science course, received comments on her analysis of sea-turtle-conservation issues from a wildlife expert whose work has been featured in National Geographic and Scientific American. Another student, who was enrolled in "News Writing and Reporting," got reactions to her stories from a senior writer in Duke's communications department.
The development of students' written communication skills is among the top educational priorities of most undergraduate institutions. To develop those skills, students need feedback that is timely, thoughtful, and appropriate to the kind of writing they are doing. Yet providing such commentary is often difficult.
Many classes are too large for professors to attend adequately to each student's work, and while peers, writing-center tutors, and graduate-student teaching assistants can help in some situations, they lack the professional experience needed to help students learn to write for readers with insider knowledge and sensibilities. For example, an engineering instructor whose professional experience is limited to academic research might want her students to write both a product proposal aimed at potential investors and a design report intended for industry managers. Even when an instructor can successfully role-play, students who have rarely composed papers for anyone other than their teachers and professors often struggle to write with any other audience in mind.
Through collaboration between the Thompson Writing Program and the university's office of alumni affairs, the Duke Reader Project offers our faculty members a way to supplement their own responses to their students' writing. When professors include their courses in the project, their students can get comments on drafts of papers from an alumnus or employee who has relevant experience in the field, like the Coast Guard commander or the wildlife expert. Whether an alumnus who just loves movies responds to drafts of a film review for a course on Spike Lee, or a biochemist at our medical-research center comments on a student's senior chemistry thesis, the reader project makes use of a remarkably rich but otherwise untapped educational resource—the many members of our community who normally play no direct role in the institution's educational mission.
How the program works. Instructors who include their courses in the Duke Reader Project consult with its personnel to develop or revise a writing assignment tailored for the project, identify appropriate reader characteristics, and map out a series of interactions between students and readers. Students who sign up are matched with volunteers whose backgrounds make them appropriate readers for the particular assignment. Readers are provided with instructions and examples for giving feedback in which they comment on their reactions to the students' draft as "consumers" of the text rather than as editors or evaluators.
With guidance from the project manager, students and readers communicate through face-to-face, Webcam, e-mail, audio recording, or phone interactions, depending on the reader's location and the participants' preferences. For example, a number of professional journalists on Duke's communications staff signed on as volunteers, so most students in the university's "News Writing and Reporting" course met with their readers on the campus. But a student taking an economics course on international trade and development had to meet with her reader—a World Bank program coordinator for Vietnam who was in Hanoi at the time—by satellite phone.
Nearly 300 alumni and employees have volunteered as readers, and 350 students have participated in more than 40 courses. Several courses have become regulars in the program. This semester, students taking an economics course on medical malpractice have the chance to show their drafts to physicians and lawyers, and public-policy majors undertaking senior theses can sign up to work for an entire year with an employee or alumnus with experience relevant to their project.
Benefits. Volunteer readers, not burdened with the need to help an entire class, come to the task fresh, with more time and intellectual energy to devote to individual students. And since volunteers are disconnected from the classroom environment and the grading process, their involvement helps students approach their writing projects as serious communicative tasks.
In an assessment conducted last year, nearly two-thirds of student respondents indicated that as a result of their participation in the project, they had developed a better sense of what it means to write for a particular audience, were better able to revise their writing to fit the demands of a particular context, and were more likely to solicit comments on future writing. Two-thirds reported that they would be more critical of their own writing, and 70 percent reported having a better sense of the importance of writing beyond the classroom. Over half indicated that they were motivated to complete drafts earlier, and an equal number said their participation had helped them develop a deeper knowledge of the topic on which they were writing.
There are institutional benefits as well. Instructors with classes in the reader project tend to give additional thought to the writing tasks they set for their students, and more members of the university community are productively involved in the educational mission. Alumni-affairs people are enthusiastic about this opportunity for Duke graduates to help educate our current students. Through three years of experimentation and refinement, we've learned that many of our alumni and employees are qualified to help undergraduates develop their writing and reasoning skills, and that our students can benefit tremendously from these interactions.