Saturday, May 24, 2008

Portfolio's Complaint

Kathleen Yancey gave the second keynote at the Computers and Writing Conference about a topic that I've been thinking about seriously during the past month, as my university contemplates designing and adopting a new "e-portfolio system." On my campus, I've been arguing that there are a lot of tricky issues with portfolios that involve negotiating public and private audiences and complementing the social networking software that already shapes much of our students informal -- and yet intensely engrossing and meaningful -- writing. Furthermore, if it takes off, many students might want access to these materials after graduation, so universities may need to think about "life-long learning" and access to university online communities and computer networks for many years to come.

In "Inventing the Self, Co-Inventing the University: Electronic Portfolios, New Composings, and the 21st Century University," Yancey took the famed trope of David Bartholomae about "inventing the university" and combined it with interesting case studies about the self-fashioning taking place in successful programs that use electronic portfolios, such as LaGuardia College, Louisiana State, and Wolverhampton in the U.K. Yancey argued that "stickiness" could be an important factor, particularly since engaging students in reflection and reiteration seems to be linked to positive numerical indicators such as higher scores on writing examinations and better rates of retention and completion. In trying to schematize a general pattern of the textual process and product with traditional elements, such as "deliver," "arrange," and "invent," Yancey cited N. Katherine Hayles in arguing for a transformative type of composition.

Yancey asserted that such portfolios should be "a place to do work" and not an "archive or showcase." To illustrate her point, she noted that the medical establishment has long understood that portfolios are a critical part of professional development activities. According to Inside Higher Ed, even the GRE will be adding what they call "non-cognitive qualities," such as "knowledge and creativity, communication skills, team work, resilience, planning and organization, and ethics and integrity. " And Oregon State has embraced the online Insight Resume as a predictive tool for graduating high school seniors.

However, Yancey also expressed concerns that too often writing portfolios are linked to the wrong kinds of assessment activities, particularly in the current political climate in which a shrinking pool of FIPSE money is tied to overgrown versions of the flawed "No Child Left Behind" policy of the Bush Administration. Yet Yancey voiced her own high hopes for VALUE: Valid Assement of Learning in Undergraduate Education but cautioned against "online assessment systems that pass as e-portfolios," particularly if they lack opportunities for students to remix content and experiment with cultural memes. (Of course, regular readers may know that I'm no fan of Margaret Spellings either, so I was certainly sympathetic to this political portion of her talk.)

As she concluded, she indicated anxieties about how software choices may also -- perhaps unintentionally -- shape the results of students' communicative efforts. For example, certain kinds of proprietary software packages give users little control over the visual, which Yancey said was "important for personal presentation." She also warned that some software solutions also facilitate a troubling occupation with data mining rather than education.

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