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.

What’s wrong with the Food Network?

Through various readings, I stumbled across this “guest blogging” entry by Tony Bourdain about the Food Network. Generally, the Food Network is one of my favorite “hey, let’s veg out and watch TV” kind of channels, but I also agree that the Food Network has relatively recently been in decline. Anyway, what Bourdain says here in his oh so gruff way strikes me as pretty much on the money. If you are a Food TV fan, read and enjoy.

Where not to stay

I am a fan of TripAdvior’s reviews for various things– hotels in particular– so I was amused to stumble across this morning their blog, specifically this entry about the worse hotels ever. Just browse through some of the descriptions of peoples’ stays; they tend to be peppered with phrases along the lines of “this must be what hell is like.” Of course, you also get these four star ratings mixed in there too, which just goes to show you that some people will be happy staying anywhere.

The war table

I’m sitting in a coffee shop near campus in Ann Arbor (the specific place is one that I don’t usually go to– I was seeking variety today), and the table right next to me must be the designated war discussion table. Two people were talking about it for a while about a half-hour ago, two men, one older than the other. I suspect the older one was a professor or graduate student who was a bona-fide expert on the Middle East because he sure seemed to know what he was talking about.

Those two got up and left, and now two different people are sitting at the same table talking about the same war. A couple college aged folks, a man and a woman, and the man is doing most of the talking. He does not appear to be an expert, but he’s rather earnest.

At this point, I kind of feel like I need to hang around and see if a third couple comes along and sits at that table and starts talking about Iraq.

Portable Apps and an email solution?

I just stumbled across this while trying to look for something else: PortableApps.com, which appears to be a collection of open source applications that you can run off of a USB drive or an iPod or some other similar device, and then just take the device. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of stuff there for the Mac. Fortunately, I found in a discussion forum a link to FreeSMUG Portable Apps, which is “Free OpenSource Software Mac User Group,” and there I found a link to Thunderbird portable.

And that got me to thinking about my email.

See, I’ve got a couple of problems with my email that have been irritating me lately. First off, EMU’s email system sucks and it just seems to be getting worse. But second, I have a hard time figuring out what email is on what computer. One solution to this problem is to simply use Gmail and leave it all online. This is an increasingly attractive solution, but there is something to be said for having all of your mail in one place.

So maybe Thunderbird portable on my iPod?

If nothing else, there’s a ton of other apps here that are interesting and useful.

Teachers lack "Media Literacy Skills"

Via the NCTE In-Box comes this EducationNews.org article, “Survey of Educators Finds Lack of Focus on 21st Century Media Literacy Skills.” Here are the opening paragraphs:

Washington, DC – More than 60 percent of educators said that their schools are not putting enough emphasis on media literacy, and 80 percent said they have to learn about how to teach media literacy on their own, according to a survey conducted by Grunwald Associates.

The survey, commissioned by Cable in the Classroom (CIC), clearly shows that media literacy is an urgent – and unmet – priority among educators in schools today. While young people spend more and more time using all forms of media in and out of the classroom, teaching them how to be thoughtful about their media use, to recognize the overt and hidden messages in media and to consider the consequences of their own actions online is simply not a priority in most schools.

“We explicitly teach children how to understand, analyze and communicate using words on paper, and rightly so. Yet we get our news and information more from TV and the internet than from the newspaper. We communicate through email and text messaging and social networking more than writing letters. We should be teaching children how to ‘read’ and ‘write’ in all forms of media,� said Frank Gallagher, director of Education and Media Literacy at CIC.

The results of the CIC Educator Survey, Media Literacy: A Vital and Underserved Need in Schools, can be found online at
http://i.ciconline.org/docs/CICmedialitreport11-2006.pdf

This certainly fits neatly into some things I’m up to my neck in right now: my online graduate class, which has some secondary school teachers in it and where (basically) I’m trying to convey some of these “21st century skills,” and the annual English Department conference, which I’m co-chairing and which is focusing this year on “multimedia in the English classroom.” Funny how these things all sink up some time.

Weather Babies, part 2

A couple weeks ago, I complained about what I referred to as the “weather babies” of the Ypsi School District (and all the other districts in the area) that canceled school just because of a little ice. Well, the weather babies have struck again. School was canceled today due to the cold, and, as I found out via an automated phone call just about 20 minutes ago, it will be canceled tomorrow, too.

Babies.

Look, I don’t want to get all “when-I-was-a-kid-we-walked-through-snow-up-to-our necks” on everyone, but the idea of canceling school just because it’s cold, well, I think that’s silly. I mean, school is an indoor activity, people!

But I also fully admit that much of this attitude comes from my hearty Iowa upbringing. It is always colder in my hometown of Cedar Falls, sometimes considerably colder. It doesn’t happen often, but every other year or so, it doesn’t get above zero in Cedar Falls for about a week (and it is fairly common for it to stay below freezing in my northern Iowa homeland for 40 days or longer in the dead of winter). Do they cancel school? Hell no! Not unless things have changed a lot. Snow, ice, tornadoes– those are reasons to cancel school. Too cold? Put on a freakin’ sweater.

So c’mon, SE Michigan weather babies (because it seems that every school district in this part of the state has already canceled classes for tomorrow), toughen up a bit! It ain’t that bad.

Oh, and a PS: at least the Ypsi school district decided to call at 10:20 instead of at their usual 5 am. Unless they decide to call tomorrow morning too….