Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The Silly (Portfolio) Season

Yes, they're what's on everyone's mind, it seems. Certainly on mine. Between the huge pile on my living room floor and the arguments they caused yesterday at my department meeting, I can't get away from them. But yet, I still love them.

I hold to the belief that they are the best way to evaluate student writing even if, in my department's desire for something they can call "outcomes assessment" (and yes, I said "they" and not "we," since in this area, I feel very much apart), portfolios have become a different animal from what I always thought they should be. My department's portfolio does not require students to submit rough drafts and includes a mandatory in-class essay in response to a text which is written over two class periods. Every portfolio is read by another instructor, who assigns it an adisory grade of pass or not pass for basic composition and high pass, pass, low pass or not pass for composition. The instructor of record then decides upon the student's final grade.

Thus, portfolios are primarily a method for evaluation, not development and growth, which is how I always understood them. There is a page length requirement, an MLA documentation requirement, and the in-class essay requirement. The student does get to choose most of the pages which make up the bulk of the portfolio, but within those pages, he/she is supposed to be sure to demonstrate certain things: knowledge and control of thesis, essay structure, development and support, grammatical proficiency, integration of texts, etc.

When we sit down to read and evaluate each other's portfolios, certain problems always arise. Because we cannot agree amongst ourselves about such things, we argue about whether a strong voice trumps grammatical errors, whether a weak in-class essay is balanced out by strong revised essays, whether missing MLA documentation really matters in an otherwise brilliant and obviously unplagiarized portfolio. These could be fruitful discussions, but they haven't been. Instead, people have often just dug in their heels. The upside is that in the end the outside reader's evaluation is only advisory, but some department members have even questioned whether that should be changed and the other reader's assessment should be binding (at which point I fantasize about being Lucy Lui in Kill Bill Vol. 1 and jumping on the table with a very sharp sword).

It's an imperfect process, and one which for me, frankly, violates many of my beliefs about portfolios in particular and the effective teaching of writing in general. I understand how portfolios became the humane answer to institutionally or state-required assessment (See Elbow and Belanoff in Kathleen Blake Yancey's Situating Portfolios, for example), but there is a very real danger in destroying everything wonderful about them in the process. I wonder, in fact, if our attempts to kill the assessment bird and the teaching bird with this one stone have been wise, and if portfolios would be better used as the teaching tool they were created to be and assessment were left to other methods.


At 2:28 AM, Blogger jocalo said...

We're in the midst of establishing a portfolio assessment process for our BW course at De Anza, so I read your post and Rosa's with great interest. I'll be calling attention to them on our department listserv.

The good thing about portfolios is they value multiple pieces and kinds of writing. The departmental hassle arises, I think, because few departments (none I know of) really share understandings about the goals of writing courses and the purpose of such courses in the curriculum. Absent agreed purposes, then assessment will really become a proxy for arguing about purposes--and, for some, teaching values.

I don't use a portfolio in FYC. But I do ask for a great deal of writing of many kinds. I've elaborated that point today at http://faculty.deanza.fhda.edu/jocalo

I suspect the big divide right now in most departments lies between those who see composition as strictly focused on writing for academic purposes versus those who see composition as preparation for a range of professional and personal needs. I'm in the second group.

At 2:15 PM, Blogger sharon said...

Wow....this gets me going on so many levels..... What seems frustrating to me is that the process of letting students work on a piece over time, the support of risky writing (and yep...that's so important to me) has been hijacked by the need to show a product. While I get the need for assessment, and it is unrealistic to say that assessment has no place in writing courses, the portfolio looks like it has been altered by department politics.

The impulse to turn the advisory grade into a manditory grade looks like a gross power grab to me. The subtext of this impulse is "you aren't grading right, so I'm going to keep you in line". Norming sessions are wonderful, and I always find them valuable, but to grade someone else's class completely negates the professionalism of the classroom instructor. Would your colleagues be open to looking at four or five portfolios in a periodic norming session, rather than providing advisory grades for all these folks? The practical side of me also sees that this is a ton of additional grading..... and are the returns worth the expense of time?

At 7:08 PM, Blogger Rosa G. said...

We have norming sessions during the semester, and I enjoy them because we get together and read portfolios as a group and discuss the grade we'd give it, but we aren't officially grading a stack of another's portfolios. Also, I think that in order to avoid drowning in portfolios at the end of the semester, our faculty hand over only their most problematic portfolios for a second opinion from a peer.
I'm thinking about making the portfolios --I mean, presenting the portfolios as a kind of book about oneself--maybe borrowing Jocalo's Autobiography of a Writer assignment and modifying it. Now that I've spent a semester doing, I need to spend break thinking.

CLC, the vision of you jumping on a table in the middle of a faculty meeting cracks me up.

At 12:00 AM, Blogger clc said...

Sharon, I am committed to fighting to an inch of my life all attempts to move us towards mandatory outside reader assessments for the very reasons you mentioned. As long as evaluations remain advisory, I can live with them and find them useful (they can spark good conversations). I think there is real fear operating here. We just recently had our regional assessment, and all we heard from the visiting team was "outcomes assessment" over and over. People are really afraid that if we don't do this ourselves, some outside agency will force it on us. I have been hearing about "them" coming for years, and I don't believe it, but I think most of my colleagues do.

And yes, the workload is an issue. We have talked about only reading problematic portfolios, but when the process is working well (it has, at times), there is something to be said for seeing a wide range of portfolios, strong and weak.


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