Completely Bogus Inside Higher Ed Article on Portfolios

It’s been one of those weeks/months around here, let me tell ya. I’m way too behind on grading, I’m way too behind with my reading and commenting on my online classes (which I think are actually going pretty good right now), I’m swamped with administrative work, etc., etc., etc., and, just to pile on myself, I haven’t really been able to keep my pledge of at least “touching” my Blogs as Writerly Spaces project every day.

All of which is to say I haven’t had a lot of time to post to my blog lately, and I probably don’t have time to do it now.

But I had to write something in response to the Inside Higher Ed article “The Disappointment of Portfolio-Based Teaching” by Shari “not her real name and the ‘Nomad Scholar'” Wilson. This is easily the most ill-informed and plain stupid rants about teaching I have ever read.

Where to begin? Well, for starters, let me just say a few things about “where I’m at” when it comes to the whole portfolio/grading thing:

  • The places where I’ve taught/wpa-ed first year composition for the last 13 or so years have all had very different relationships with portfolios. At BGSU, where I earned my Ph.D., the General Studies Writing program had a very regimented, rubric-driven, program assessment-based system. It “worked,” but it is also arguably pretty out of step with contemporary ways of teaching writing. At Southern Oregon, where I had my first tenure-track job and my first taste of WPA-ing, there was essentially no assessment system– folks were more or less on their own, though they were encouraged to do something like a portfolio. And at EMU, we have something kind of in-between: we strongly encourage a portfolio-based assessment and all of the GAs and most of the other instructors do this, but it isn’t exactly forced on folks. What I’m getting at is this: a) portfolio grading has in some sense seemed a pretty “normal” (i.e. “not innovative”) way of teaching to me; b) the definition of what exactly is a “portfolio” and what it’s for is very very slippery; and c) like any other pedagogical tool, your mileage with portfolio assessment will vary.
  • My writing pedagogy at all levels is mostly about writing a lot and revising, something that seems to me pretty suited to portfolios. But to me, revision is as much about choice of what not to revise. We’ll get to that in a bit.
  • I actually am all for giving grades on individual writings that make up a portfolio, which I admit puts me at odds with many folks in my field. I think to not tell students along the way what grade they are getting and just waiting until the end with the final portfolio is just playing a game of “I’ve got a secret.” But that’s a tangent I don’t want to go down just yet.
  • I also have no problem at all with incorporating some stuff into writing classes at all levels stuff that is less than “touchy-feely” or “new-agey.” I count things that have to do with grammar, form, citation, etc., etc. Perhaps another tangent not worth exploring now. Anyway, I guess what I’m getting at here is I don’t see teaching with portfolios as some kind of fuzzy thing where students can demonstrate how they are each an unique and delicate snow flake.

Alright, enough preamble. Let’s go through Wilson’s article.

Before I get to the meat of the piece (and I’m sorry for going on as long as I have here but this really ticked me off for some reason), let’s be clear: Wilson mentions no scholarship on teaching with portfolios. None. Not an iota. So to the extent that this essay is worth anything at all, it’s basically this: “I tried to use portfolios to teach writing based on things I heard from others; they didn’t ‘work’ for me; so I decided to write a rant that got published in a national publication that more or less says portfolios in general are bad.” I wonder if anyone would dare to write a similar rant teaching method for something other than writing– literature (“I tried to teach novels, students didn’t read them, so it doesn’t work”), biology (“I tried to teach students in a lab, they were bored, so it doesn’t work”)– and I wonder if it would get published?

My wonders aside, Wilson opens the piece by talking about her background in the visual arts and the way that she used her portfolio as a tool for getting professional work in graphic design and advertising. Then she talks about using portfolios to teach graphic design at community colleges. “Although they (meaning the students) loved the idea of being able to discard their less effective pieces, I often wondered if I was accurately assessing their work.” Then she talks about how she was encouraged to use “a portfolio system” to teach writing, one where she thought students could participate in their own education, “could showcase their best work and have a chance to reflect on writing as a process rather than as a simple outcome.”

So, for starters, Wilson seems to be playing with at least three different types of portfolios: one that represents the best work an experienced designer shows to potential employers to get professional work; one about teaching which is based completely on the visual and where students are allowed to “discard” work that wasn’t successful; and one that seems to have been vaguely recommended to her for teaching first year comp and that was about reflection. Um, okay… what then is she talking about here when she says “portfolio?”

Let’s move on.

So then, after two years of experience using portfolios, she decides there are a lot of problems.

“First, all of my students were anxious about not knowing their in-class grade until the end of the course….With the portfolio system, however, a large portion (sometimes as much as 75 percent) of a student’s final class grade was based on their final portfolio — which was often comprised of four to six essays. This, of course, was turned in at the end of the semester. Students often took their final and walked away from the campus without any clear idea of how they were doing in their portfolio-based class. Faculty then graded the portfolio, figured the students’ final grades, and often turned final grades into the registrar’s office without administrative review. Students had no way of knowing how they did until their final grades were posted by the campus. The number of students requesting grade review often escalates with this system — if only because the students feel powerless and confused by this form of ‘blind review.'”

Okay, now this suggests to me that whatever she means by her “portfolio system” is a bad system. If students have no clue about their grade until end of the course, if it really is a “blind review,” then that means the teachers are probably not doing enough to give students feedback on their writing as the term goes along, despite the fact that Wilson claims she really did give them all the feedback they needed. Or perhaps, in the name of this diatribe, she exaggerates a bit?

Anyway, fine, Wilson decided to make some changes: “After fielding over 50 phone calls and e-mail messages from students in a state of panic about their grades two weeks before their final portfolio was due, I decided to make a change. The next semester, I initiated what I called ‘advisory grades.'” Like I said before, I actually do not have a problem at all with giving grades, so this seems like a fine strategy to me. But again, I doubt this panic. I mean, I’ve been teaching for almost 19 years now, and I don’t think I’ve fielded 50 “panicked” email messages/phone calls from students about their grades in total.

Adding grades does have its problems though:

Although this reduced the number of grade reviews that I suffered, it added an additional “step� in what was supposed to be a seamless venture. It also created a loophole. Students who approved of their “advisory grade� simply did not revise that assignment for the final portfolio. This, of course, negated one tremendous advantage of using the portfolio system — the encouragement to revise.

Wait, did she say it “reduced the number of grade reviews that she suffered?! This just flat-out sounds like a bad teacher to me. I mean, if she has to actually “reduce” the number of grade reviews and if she views students asking for review of their grade as a “suffering” being inflicted on her, well, that’s a problem.

But then, beyond that, if the only encouragement to revise is to just get a better grade– that is, if there is nothing in Wilson’s pedagogy that at gives students the opportunity/motivation to revise their writing because they (the students) actually care about their own writing and not just the grade– then that too strikes me as a problem.

Then Wilson goes on to present what I believe she thinks is a “catch 22” with portfolios:

Another concern was the responsibility of choice that we were now relegating to undergraduates. Some students saw the instruction to “pick the best four out of six� for inclusion in the portfolio as a way to avoid the most difficult and challenging work in my core classes. If my syllabus did not specifically state that all six assignments must be done, they would often only complete four. In this case, the all-important objective for students to evaluate and assess their work was now eliminated.

Okay, wait: the portfolio that Wilson used for her professional design work certainly did not include all of the work she ever did. The portfolio she used in her graphic design classes encouraged students to throw out their worse work. And she somehow sees it as a problem that her writing students won’t revise every last piece of work they complete in their first year comp classes?!? What writer, professional or otherwise, revises every last piece of their writing?

She goes on with the loopholes:

Even when I began stipulating that all six assignments were required, a fair number of underachievers would produce what I would consider a “token effort� for two out of the six assignments. For example, if I asked for a 10-page paper, these students would produce a one- or two-page rough draft, confident that they were going to exclude this assignment from the final portfolio.

SIX essay assignments? Many that are 10 pages long?! That’s just crazy, especially if she’s teaching first year comp and if she’s just saying to these students “write a 10 page paper about ‘x'” (and, given the way she’s talking about portfolios in this piece, I cannot believe she spends a lot of time with the writing process here). I mean, it seems to me that Wilson’s students are actually doing something pretty smart in order to keep their sanity and to allow them to focus on the writing projects they really want to revise: they are picking and choosing the assignments they want to work on and that give them the best chance to get the best grade.

But Wilson just goes on and on here, digging her hole deeper as she goes:

The next semester I initiated a punitive attendance policy. I hated treating my undergraduates like high school students, but it was clear that the weakest students did not understand the value of a day’s lesson that did not immediately translate into grade points. I also indicated in my syllabus that anything less than a full-length paper would be returned without credit. In response, my less motivated students then turned in what would look like a pre-write — something so unformed that it could not be considered college-level work. My evaluation of these assignments was wasted time; I knew that these students would never return to these rough pieces to work through initial difficulties to master these concepts. And through the magic of the portfolio process, the poor grade that these works received was eliminated.

First off, I don’t think having an attendance policy in college necessarily means you’re treating students like high schoolers. I have attendance policies in every class I teach, including graduate courses. Second, that the “weakest students” couldn’t “immediately translate” their grade suggests to me what I said earlier: Wilson isn’t telling her students enough about what she thinks of their writing. Third, as if teaching was a contest between Wilson and her students, she starts demanding that students submit drafts for their portfolios that are more or less finished work, which defeats the value of revision in portfolio assessment, because God forbid that students do something with their writing portfolio later on in the term to improve their grades.

I could go on (Wilson does for quite a while), but I’ll harp on just one more passage:

My expectation that students would revise all six assignments and then ask for help in choosing the best work for their portfolio was quickly revealed as a pipe dream. Even my honors students knew the value of their time. Better to spend time pursuing more grade points on the four works that “counted� than waste time on all six. Yet the idea that the students and I were going to view their work holistically was what had sold me on the use of portfolio systems. And my experience seemed to suggest that other than a few overachieving students, I was the only one doing any form of “global review.�

As an active writer, I can’t help but find the writing process interesting. I loved the idea of encouraging my own students to reflect on their own writing process. Maybe I secretly hoped that one undergraduate out of a hundred would suddenly see the beauty in this creative venture and change their major to English literature, rhetoric, or journalism.

Translation: “I had these expectations about using portfolios that even I have to admit were unrealistic. My students were not willing revise all six of the ten or so page essays I assigned in a single term. None of them became professional writers as result of my freshman-level class at a community college. Therefore, portfolios don’t work.”

Absolutely ridiculous.

5 thoughts on “Completely Bogus Inside Higher Ed Article on Portfolios”

  1. Excellent response! The piece in Inside Higher Ed made me simultaneously furious and just too tired to try to respond to all of the errors and omissions and misconceptions. But you took care of that!

    I especially liked the analogy–“I tried to teach novels, did it badly without looking at what anyone had done before or really thinking about it, it didn’t go well, therefore novels are a waste of time.” Sheesh!

  2. Steven,

    Great response. You wrote many of the things that I was too mad and short on time to write myself. I have no idea why Inside Higher Ed keeps publishing Wilson’s articles, especially since this latest piece is not the first that sucks. The editors need to take some responsibility for publishing such ill-informed work. The article aso really highlights the need for effective training of comp. instructors, since it’s clear that Wilson isn’t well-trained in the field.

  3. Rant? Diatribe? Are we reading the same essay?

    Wilson is not a compositionalist, but a creative writer teaching comp at a community college. I read this as an informal account of her experience using portfolio grading. Her tone seems more puzzled than pissed–I doubt she is emotionally invested enough in the subject to make a rant or diatribe.

    Unlike yourself, perhaps?

    I hope I’m not being too snarky–I found your “where I’m at” interesting….

  4. Oh, I would describe my post as a rant/diatribe, no question about it.

    What so pisses me off about Wilson– and really, this is *Inside Higher Ed’s* fault ultimately since they published it– is that she is so ridiculously ill-informed, and yet she’s getting a platform in a national publication to say this stupid stuff. And you’ve got to realize that folks in my field (composition and rhetoric) get this sort of treatment all the time. We’re a field/discipline with a body of scholarship (conferences, journals, books, etc., etc.) that frequently enough gets ignored completely by people like Wilson.

    You say she’s “puzzled;” I say she’s ignorant.

    BTW, I don’t see where it says she’s teaching creative writing. But if that’s what she’s teaching, her “puzzlement/ignorance” about writing portfolios is even more profound. No creative writer (and I should point out I used to be involved more in that end of things– I have an MFA in Fiction Writing) would revise EVERYTHING, and if you’re teaching a creative writing class and you set it up to be all about the grade, well, that’s pretty dumb. Even more dumb than if you were teaching a more traditional first year comp class, IMO.

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