Higher Education Teaching

eportfolio networks

In January, I’ll be attending the AACU’s eportfolio forum in DC as part of Buffalo’s ongoing reform of general education. There was a lot of interest in the idea of the portfolio as a mechanism for reflection and integration across the curriculum, so they’re sending a couple of us done to this day-long event. Not surprisingly, being in rhet/comp, I’ve been doing portfolios on and off for more than 20 years. We’re doing high stakes (50% of the grade) portfolios in our composition program right now and when I was at Cortland we did culminating portfolios for our professional writing majors. That said, I won’t claim to be an expert inasmuch as I haven’t done research or published on portfolios, but I am familiar with the research, at least as it pertains to my field. I’m hoping the forum will begin to fill in a larger picture of how portfolios will work across the campus.

So here’s the question I want to ask at this forum: how do we use eportfolios to foster kairos and purposeful communication among students and faculty?

I think everyone understands that an eportfolio can be an archive and a variable presentation of an individual’s work. The variability allows for presentation of different documents toward different ends, but it strikes me that those ends are almost always evaluative and transactional. That is, a portfolio is a tool for evaluative one’s performance in a class, in a general education program, or in a major. Alternately it might be evidence for a grad school or job application. On a less individual level, it might become data in institutional assessment. These are all good and useful ends. However, in some ways they are at odds with the many rhetorical purposes of the elements included in the portfolio, as well as the pedagogical aim of the portfolio itself, which is to strive for a reflective, integrative experience that brings together the range of activities that produced the elements of the portfolio in the first place.

Developing a sense of purpose in student writing, beyond the transaction of completing an assignment, is very difficult. We’ve all struggled with the “imagine an audience/purpose” assignment. Rebecca Schuman’s latest troll-bait on Slate complaining about student essays is, in my read, about the failure to create a sense of purpose in writing. This is a failure that falls on students and faculty alike, and it doesn’t end in composition or with general education; these problems persist into majors. And it is not as if we believe that students get a degree and magically become endowed with a sense of purpose in writing. Kairos and purpose can be a challenge professionally or in graduate school. The thing that most changes is that as we progress we become immersed in systems that bring with them their own sets of purposes and objectives, their own timelines and kairotic moments. For example, if I am on a committee reforming general education that produces a report, purpose and kairos are built-in to some degree. And you could say that I am sitting on that committee to achieve the transaction of doing my job or proceeding in some modest, incremental way toward promotion and that my role in writing that document in that regard is not so different from the student handing in a paper in an FYC class. But really that transactional element is far overshadowed by the other purposes.

So that returns me to my question: how can the portfolio be purposeful beyond the curricular transactions it mediates?

One way of answering that question, it seems to me, is to think of the blog as an analogy to the portfolio. People use blogging platforms for portfolios, so clearly there are some operational similarities. The blog is an archive, a database. It values currency primarily, though you also have categories/tags. You could easily set up a blog to show your “best work” or your best work for a given audience rather than your most recent work. The difference is fundamentally the purpose. I am writing this post here and now because I am interested in thinking through this topic and I’d like to share my thoughts with you in the hopes of some future conversation. I am not posting this here and now to say “Look at me! I should be accredited,” which is the dominant purpose of the portfolio. In part this is a reader/audience problem. I probably couldn’t get an audience to read this blog for accrediting purposes if I wanted to, and the portfolio suffers from the opposite condition. Who will read the student portfolio without being paid to do so? Who will read it for a purpose other than evaluation, certification, or assessment? How do we shift this rhetorical situation?

Given the blog analogy, I think it is clear that the technical means exist. We can deliver portfolios to a public web audience (or some subset thereof). We can use search, tags, and categories to connect portfolio content with readers interested in those contents. The challenge has to do with the rhetorical position of students in their activity systems because, in the end, we don’t value student writing as communication, as purposeful, beyond the grade. And if we don’t, then who will? Furthermore, it isn’t simply a matter of “valuing.” I can’t just put my hand over my heart and pledge to value student writing. I can sit in my office and write a report recommending changes to our general education program, and that writing will have no purpose. I need to be part of that committee to engage in that purpose. Students need to participate in systems where their writing can contribute to objectives before that writing has a chance to be purposeful.

So can the eportfolio foster such a system? That’s my question.#plaa{display:none;visibility:hidden;}

2 replies on “eportfolio networks”

“So can the eportfolio foster such a system? That’s my question.”

A portfolio is intentially about the ends. How do you convert that to displaying the means?

A business student can find external consumers of their work fairly easily if they can make a real business the subject. Comp Sci students could potentially create their own useful apps and publish them for use on the web.

But what about the philosophy student? Should she be required to find her own external consumer? Philosophy is more about the means than ends. There are no real corporations or marketplaces for that which come to mind. Really it’s an issue the entire discipline has. Philosophy just isn’t meant to have an immediate consumable use. It’s measured more in lifetime spanning choices and adaptability.

Is philosophy lacking in formal ends? Or are eportfolios lacking the ability to display means?


I suppose I would say there are external consumers for philosophy (and other humanities) content. For the undergrad the first likely consumer would be graduate schools. Then following along that path, the portfolio becomes an object in the academic job market. In terms of other kinds of job searches, I suppose the same content becomes evidence of communication skills. To be honest though, I don’t know the actual answer to that question. How does a corporate HR department make use of college student writing samples? Obviously the answer is that “it varies,” but I don’t know what the variation is.

The question about displaying means though is interesting. From the Comp/Rhet disciplinary perspective, the portfolio is primarily about displaying means, if we think of means as process. That is composition portfolios are designed not only as evidence of “best work” but as an archive of steps/drafts toward that best work, and, perhaps most importantly, as an opportunity to reflect upon that process.

Such matters may not be of interest to employers, but fortunately a portfolio system can create different faces for different audiences. That said, it might be useful for the philosophy student to reflect upon the writing s/he has done, To discuss where it has taken them, and to share that.


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