Liberal Education

The Duke Reader Project: Engaging the University Community in Undergraduate Writing Instruction

In “Assessing Quality in Higher Education,” Douglass Bennett proclaims, “No single capability is more important than writing well. Virtually every college and university seeks to have its students write better when they graduate than when they first enroll” (2001, 45). In a recent survey of Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) member institutions, writing topped the list of desired learning outcomes for all students (Hart Research Associates 2009). Students report being more engaged in courses with intellectually stimulating writing assignments (Sommers and Saltz 2004). Indeed, there is a clear consensus on the importance of writing instruction in undergraduate education.

There is also strong agreement that, to be effective, writing instruction must help students understand writing as a contextual act. Students need to learn how to identify the particular conventions of the different genres they undertake, and how to anticipate and accommodate the expectations of the audiences they are addressing. The report of AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative recognizes the need for students to develop such rhetorical awareness in its “Guide to Effective Practices,” which promotes writing-intensive courses “at all levels of instruction and across the curriculum” in which students “produce and revise various forms of writing for different audiences in different disciplines” (AAC&U 2007, 53). Such curricula, often labeled “writing in the disciplines,” have been essential in the move to help students become more mature and flexible writers, and in shifting responsibility for teaching undergraduate writing from English departments alone to the faculty as a whole (Russell 1991; Carter 2007). But if we had the opportunity to design an ideal writing in the disciplines program unencumbered by the assumptions and conventions of normative practice, what might we do differently?

I believe that the change with the greatest pedagogical implications results from how we interpret the phrase “writing for different audiences.” The common interpretation (and likely that which the authors of the LEAP report had in mind) is that students should practice writing as if they were addressing different kinds of readers. A student might, say, write a policy memo intended for school board members in a public policy course, compose an essay suitable for Harper’s in an English course, and craft a design report in an engineering course. But, under this interpretation, the writing this student produces for these assignments will not be read by any school board member, Harper’s aficionado, or engineering firm manager. Now imagine a curriculum in which the for in “writing for different audiences” was taken literally, a curriculum in which students would regularly get to find out how their attempts at different forms of discourse are actually received by the audiences for which they are intended, to—in effect—test their writing to see how it works. Even better, imagine that after their first attempts, students could revise their papers and test them again. Might not this change have a profound impact on how students understand and approach writing?

Table 1. Participating schools and departments and genres of student writing

Arts and Sciences

Senior thesis (research report)

Chemistry

Economics

Policy briefing, book review, scholarly article

Education

Appellate briefs

English

Film Review

Evolutionary anthropology

Journal article

Genomics

Scholarly article

History

Business case study, biography

Political science

Research paper

Psychology

NIH-style grant proposal, research proposal, journal article

Writing

New Yorker-style essay, scientific commentary

Engineering

Product Proposal

Environmental sciences

Congressional testimony, reflective nature writing essay, conflict analysis report

Public policy

Policy memo, news story, op-ed, nonfiction narrative

 

The Duke Reader Project

At Duke University, we are experimenting with a new approach to writing in the disciplines that offers students the chance to test out their writing in just this way. The Duke Reader Project, a partnership between Duke’s Thompson Writing Program and Office of Alumni Affairs, matches undergraduates working on a course writing assignment with a Duke alum or employee volunteer who can serve as a member of the target audience for that assignment. Depending on the reader’s physical location and preference, the pairs interact in person, or by webcam or phone. Volunteers need not be expert writers themselves, but only have experience as consumers of the kind of texts the students will write.

Faculty members may enlist suitable courses in the project, and students enrolled in these courses are invited to participate. Over fifty courses have been included to date, representing all four schools with undergraduate programs and involving a wide range of writing projects (table 1). Audiences for student writing projects have ranged from the highly specialized—biochemists, national security experts and policy makers, environmental scientists, health professionals, lawyers and judges—to educated lay readers with an interest in nature, genomics, philosophy, or film.

Of course, the Reader Project can capitalize on the wonderful diversity of these assignments only if enough qualified readers sign on. In fact, we now have over three hundred volunteers in our reader pool, some of whom have participated as many as four times. Students in a course on American business history worked with the editor of CIO Magazine, an employment litigation lawyer, and a business journalist. One student in an international trade and development course got feedback from an alum who ran businesses in Kazakhstan; another worked with the World Bank’s country program coordinator for Vietnam. Students in other courses have received feedback from a venture capitalist, an internist, a Coast Guard commander, a Foreign Service officer, a dietician, a biotech CEO, a science journalist, a project manager for the Environmental Defense Fund, the director of NASA’s Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems Office, and on and on. 

The key to the project is that most of our readers are not otherwise involved in the education of undergraduates. For these volunteers, responding to student writing is an unusual—even novel—activity. Unlike faculty, these readers receive only one paper at a time. And while the commitment of four hours over the course of the writing project is considerably more than most faculty members could devote to each of their students, it is a light burden for our readers. In fact, most of our volunteers have indicated that they would like to spend more time interacting with students.

How it works

The process begins each semester with the matching of students and readers. Volunteers in the pool are sent an email with a link to a website that describes each course and the kinds of readers needed. For example, one course might need readers with graduate degrees and experience in psychology or an allied social science field, while another might only require that volunteers be regular readers of the New Yorker or similar magazines. Volunteers who believe they would be a good fit for one or more courses respond with their preferences. If additional readers are needed, they are solicited via targeted appeals to the volunteer pool and other databases and campus listservs.

Students and their assigned readers are then provided with each other’s contact information and prompted to schedule an introductory meeting. This meeting gives participants a chance to develop a relationship prior to the exchange of drafts and feedback, and allows students to imagine an audience for their writing from the start. From this point on the process varies by course, but it typically looks something like this: When students have produced a reasonably coherent but still malleable draft, they e-mail it to their readers who provide feedback within a week. After students revise the paper, they meet again with their readers to discuss the revised draft. Finally, students prepare the final versions of their papers, which they are expected to share with their readers.

Feedback

We instruct volunteers to respond as experienced readers rather than as editors or instructors, describing their reactions to student papers honestly and clearly, with a supportive attitude and good humor. Rather than telling students what’s wrong with their papers and how they should change them, we want readers to show student authors where they’re interested and where they’re bored, where they find it easy to follow the logic and where they get confused, where they find an argument compelling and where they are skeptical, and so on. That’s not to say that readers should completely refrain from making suggestions, for our readers often have useful advice to give these novice writers. Yet when students get feedback from professionals, they can be tempted to tacitly accept suggestions rather than deciding for themselves which changes are warranted. So when direct advice is warranted, we ask readers to give the advice in relation to principles that students can apply in the future, rather than only as specific fixes to problems in that particular text. To maximize student learning and minimize problems related to academic integrity, we ask volunteers to be careful to avoid taking over student papers.

We encourage readers to give feedback orally when possible—whether in person or via digitally recorded spoken comments. Compared with written comments, audio feedback is generally more easily understood, conveys more nuance, and can give students a greater sense of engagement (Anson 1996; Still 2006; Ice et al. 2008). We provide an online guide to giving feedback that includes models—both written and in recorded audio—on a range of genres.

Assessment

In May of 2009, as a preliminary assessment of the Reader Project, we conducted a survey of participants. Two thirds of student respondents indicated that 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 seek feedback on future writing projects. About the same proportion reported that they would be more critical of their own writing in the future and felt that the final version of their paper was better due to their participation. Approximately 70 percent reported that participating gave them a better sense of the importance of writing beyond the classroom.

There were other benefits as well: a majority of student respondents indicated that they were motivated to complete their drafts earlier and that their participation helped them develop a deeper knowledge of the topic on which they were writing. A large majority of students (76 percent) felt that the amount of interaction was “about right,” while the rest would have preferred more.

While the responses of volunteers in this survey were generally positive (some glowingly enthusiastic), they also revealed what has turned out to be the biggest challenge in implementing the project. Some readers noted that students had been slow to make initial contact or insufficiently responsive to e-mails. Others noted that students had procrastinated on their assignments (no surprise here) and then expected them to provide feedback on short notice. A number of students disappointed their readers by not sending final copies of their papers, and a couple essentially disappeared from the project after signing up.

Some of these behavioral problems may be the result of students being embarrassed by the quality of their work. Since students’ interactions with their readers do not affect their grades, students who procrastinate excessively or know they have produced sub-par work may simply ignore their readers rather than having to admit their behavior. Similarly, students who fail to send the final version of their papers to their readers may be uncomfortable with the quality of the final product. I must emphasize that the readers who made such comments have been amazingly patient and good-humored, understanding both the realities of young adulthood and the experimental nature of the project itself; almost all indicated their enthusiasm about the concept of the project and a willingness to try again. Nevertheless, we continue to make changes to the project to address these issues. We now require students to sign an agreement that describes our expectations for respectful and professional behavior. And while we encourage instructors to be enthusiastic about the project, we ask them to help us in making sure that students understand their responsibilities and in keeping students informed about the various steps and deadlines.

There have also been two cases in which readers were insufficiently responsive to student communications. Such readers are flagged in our database and will not be used in the future. Finally, in some courses we are unable to provide enough qualified readers for all students who wished to participate. In those cases, we admit students according to the order in which they sign up.

Making connections

The campus writing program and the Office of Alumni Affairs may seem unlikely partners, but collaborating has allowed both units to do things neither could do alone. Alumni Affairs’ help in organizing and promoting the project has been essential to its success, and access to their large and diverse pool of potential volunteers has made it possible to find suitable readers for students in a wide range of courses. On the other hand, volunteer opportunities for alumni are usually limited to reunion planning, fundraising, and so on; the Reader Project offers a chance for alumni to participate directly in some of the most important work of the university. The collaboration has also sparked conversations about student writing that I could never have imagined. For example, Alumni Affairs hosted an hour-long presentation about the Reader Project at a recent board of directors meeting. The lively discussion of student writing that followed carried over to that evening’s banquet dinner.

The project has also been beneficial from a faculty development perspective, offering occasions to discuss writing pedagogy with many Duke faculty members who would otherwise have little if any interaction with the writing program. This is especially true for faculty in the schools of environmental science, public policy, and engineering, and those who hold joint appointments in an arts and sciences department but who work principally out of the medical center. Through my work at Duke and as a consultant at other institutions, I know that instructors frequently ask their students to begin work on major writing projects so late in the semester that there is little time for serious reflection and revision; not surprisingly, the work students turn in is often their first serious draft. When I meet with instructors for the Reader Project, we think through the pacing of their assignments together, working out a calendar that gives volunteers a reasonable amount of time to provide feedback on student drafts and that gives students enough time to put that feedback to good use.

We also discuss how to articulate (and often choose) the appropriate rhetorical context for assignments: What type of writing will students be doing and what is this type of writing called? Where are such texts found? Who reads such texts, and why? I work with faculty to answer these questions in ways that will help students understand the rhetorical task and help their readers know what kind of writing students are aiming to produce. These conversations can help instructors realize why students can struggle to do good work in response to putatively generic “school writing” prompts and learn how to stage writing assignments that sponsor the kind of thinking and writing they want students to do.

The intellectual riches of a university community

As long as student writing remains constrained to the classroom, even rhetorically diverse and sophisticated writing assignments may not be sufficient to produce the kind of growth we hope to see in our students. Given their prior experiences with school writing, many students have trouble approaching any assigned writing as something other than a product intended for evaluation by a teacher (Nelson 1990). Unless students have the chance to learn how their writing is received by the intended audience, the very idea of audience remains a mere abstraction. To provide our students with engaged audiences for their writing, we need to look beyond the traditional boundaries of our classrooms.

In their recent Liberal Education article, “Engaged Learning,” Hodge, Baxter Magolda, and Haynes encourage the development of “a vibrant campus learning community that . . . capitalizes on the roles of all constituents (faculty, staff, and students) in promoting student learning” (2009, 19). The Duke Reader Project embodies this idea and even extends it, including alumni in the learning community as well. For our students, the project offers the opportunity to get detailed feedback on multiple drafts of their papers from engaged readers who are familiar with the kinds of writing they are attempting. For our alumni and our many non-instructor employees, it offers a valued and interesting way to be directly involved in our educational mission. For our institution, it builds meaningful connections between segments of our community that rarely intersect.

References

Anson, C. M. 1997. “In Our Own Voices: Using Recorded Commentary to Respond to Writing.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 69: 105–113.

Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2007. College Learning for the New Global Century: A Report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America's Promise. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Bennett, D. C. 2001. “Assessing Quality in Higher Education.” Liberal Education 87 (2): 40–45.

Carter, Michael. 2007. Ways of Knowing, Doing, and Writing in the Disciplines. College Composition and Communication 58 (3): 385–418.

Hart Research Associates. 2009. Learning and Assessment: Trends in Undergraduate Education. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Hodge D. C., M. B. Baxter Magolda, and C. A. Haynes. 2009. “Engaged Learning: Enabling Self-Authorship and Effective Practice.” Liberal Education 95 (4): 16–23.

Ice, P., R. Curtis, P. Phillips, and J. Wells. 2007. “Using Asynchronous Audio Feedback to Enhance Teaching Presence and Students’ Sense of Community.” Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 11 (2): 3–25.

Russell, D. R. 1991. Writing in the Academic Disciplines, 1870–1990: A Curricular History. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Sommers, N., and L. Saltz. 2004. “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year.” College Composition and Communication 56 (1): 124–49.

Still, B. 2006. “Talking to Students: Embedded Voice Commenting as a Tool for Critiquing Student Writing.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 20 (4): 460–75.


Cary Moskovitz is director of Writing in the Disciplines in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University.


To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the author’s name on the subject line.

 

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