Writing Connections

November 30, 2008

When Caitlin McLaughlin signed up for Ed Tower's economics course on international trade and development this past spring, she got more than she bargained for—in the best possible sense. Thanks to a new Duke project, McLaughlin '08 ended up with an invitation for dinner—in Hanoi, Vietnam, with Myla Taylor Williams '75, Country Program Coordinator for Vietnam at the World Bank.

McLaughlin met Williams when both chose to participate in the Reader Project, a joint initiative between Duke's Writing in the Disciplines program and the Duke Alumni Association (DAA). The Reader Project matches students who are working on class writing assignments and Duke alumni and staff members with expertise in the topic students are writing about. These readers give the students valuable feedback on their drafts from the perspective of a professional in the field.

The project was the brainchild of Cary Moskovitz, director of the Writing in the Disciplines program, who, over the past few years, has been tapping local health-care experts to provide feedback for students in his health-science-oriented writing class.

In 2007, Moskovitz approached the DAA about expanding the program by inviting alumni from around the country to participate. "The DAA is always looking for new ways to engage alums," says George Dorfman '85, A.M. '01, associate director of alumni affairs. "The Reader Project offered an opportunity for alumni to connect in an unusual way—through their areas of expertise," he says. "And we thought helping students improve their writing would be appealing to alumni and educationally beneficial to the students."

The DAA agreed to participate in a pilot program, which was launched in four courses over the spring semester. A grant from Duke's Center for Instructional Technology provided students and alumni with webcams that allowed for more personalized interaction. Participants in the project began with an introductory meeting—in person or, more often, via webcam—that gave them a chance to get to know each other and discuss the student's project. Some readers worked with an individual student; others, with a small group.

Next, the students sent drafts to their alumni readers for critiquing. After revising the drafts, the students met again with their readers to determine what was working and what needed additional attention.

Alumni volunteers who participated in the pilot project brought a wide range of professional experience.

For example, Laura Yonce Ph.D. '93, a manager in the cardiovascular division of a biotechnology company, helped a student who was writing her senior chemistry thesis on a genetic study of a potentially harmful fungus. Elana Varon A.M. '91, executive editor of CIO magazine, worked with a pair of students doing a case study of General Motors for a course in the history of American business. And Lyn Sedwick M.D. '78, who serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology, gave feedback to a group of students co-authoring a paper on a medically related topic for their Writing 20 course.

Given the positive response from both students and readers, the Writing in the Disciplines Program and the DAA plan to expand the program this spring to include students in eight classes. In addition, the DAA, Trinity College, and the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Studies have created a new position to administer the two-year pilot program. Alumni interested in participating in the program should contact Beth Higgins '07, networking coordinator for the alumni association, at networking@daa.duke.edu.