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“Questions about the Texts of Our Students’ Lives”

Presentation by Kathleen Blake Yancey

We have perhaps Trent Batson – or serendipity – to thank for this bookend from Kathleen Blake Yancey, Florida State University, whose presentation returned tangentially to Darren Cambridge’s opening theme.  My guess is that it’s Trent and by no accident this session opened with a hearty applause for his work in putting the AAEEBL conference together.   Kathleen’s session offered some real resolutions to the aggregative-integrative/individualist-collectivist tensions raised in Darren’s opening bookend, alongside new lines of inquiry at the interface of ePortfolios, cognitive-cultural change and communication as narrative self-presentation.

Kathleen draws from a wealth of experience in working with students – she kicked off with an aside on how much she enjoys spending time with students and their work.  So I liked her right away and knew I wanted to get and keep one of those mid-center mid-row seats.  As an English professor, this experience with students has been embedded in an experience with the paper portfolio.  What do we learn from paper portfolios, she asked?  These are the raw materials through which we connect assessment with learning.  And, in the next breath she became sociological:  if a portfolio is a text, the context is the framework from which it emerges.

Portfolios are embedded in four important contexts:  college assessment, a discipline, the vernacular, and the interface.  These four contexts provided the spine for her remarks on ePortfolios in the 21st century.  And these nodes represent a change from the earlier work.  At the beginning of the ePortfolio movement, she noted, the mantra was: Collect, Select, Reflect – Process, Connection, Assessment.  Process was an outcome that precipitated making connections and assessment.

In the 21st century the conversation we are in a different place, partly as a result of experience and research on teaching and learning – how people think and learn – and partly as a trickle-down diffusion of 20th century epistemology.  Either way, the vanguard scholarship of teaching and learning is now focused on communities of practice, media, interactivity, reiteration, identity, spaces and layers.

Two sets of activities have emerged as keys in the newer dialogue: archive and curate//aggregate and search.   Are we in Darren’s aggregate-individualist cell here, with more elaborate bolstering of consciousness of as aggregated curio integrated through reflection?

On the practical level, if ePortfolio pioneers envisioned portfolios as isolated texts in multiple contexts, portfolios as new sites for school work, portfolios-in-use for program assessment (program evaluation) with real word samples, and portfolios as repositories of reflections, today SoTL researchers are zeroing in on Portfolio+ Text + Context.  The question becomes which context and how the context impacts the text – this is a core sociology of knowledge problem.

Kathleen underscored through repetition the four nodes axial to this discourse — the spine — and then provided details on each – save the interface:

  • Outcomes
  • Disciplinary Knowledge
  • Vernacular
  • Interface

Outcomes:

These are embedded in a network of associations.   And the audience has changed.  Using a quote from Clay Shirky (also the author of Here Comes Everybody), Kathleen found a great quote articulating his shift as a student at Yale from writing for the professor to writing to elicit conversation.

Disciplinary Contexts

This was perhaps the most engaging and forward thinking part of the presentation, as Kathleen “stumbled upon” with pedagogical examples the most vexing and unresolved problems in 20th century epistemology:  the Platonic “categories” are dead.  Post-analytic Jacques Lacan writes about the question we learn to avoid on the school bench…  What is a text, where did it come from and who is its author?  As the physicist knows, what we know and perceive depends upon language within a disciplinary frame and our level of access to its refined technologies.  Academics and professionals think through a discipline.  Kathleen’s phrase was “using tacit practice as a platform for expertise.”  What are the component parts of a performance? Can these be uncovered through reflection? At the end, during the brief question and answer session she returned to these ideas, referring to “discipline-specific thought patterns.”  Worth probing here – at the level of the classroom – are questions regarding integrative learning, English writing and relationships between discipline-specific language and styles that require the speaker-hearer/reader-writer to step back and write as the “objective reporter/analyst.”

Kathleen’s next example came from Medical Education at Leeds:

A reflective account of any activity is in two parts – description and reflection.  The writer first describes a situation, which often includes how he or she felt in the context.  Therefore the writer must discuss the situation critically considering other interpretations of what was happening at the time, her thoughts on other actions she might have taken and the relationship to any reading or knowledge base that may be available.  Kathleen noted that this kind of reflection and the implementation of portfolios will require a shift in the culture of medicine.

Reflective practice requires a different mind-set from a standard scientific approach.  The reflective process is open and fractal with multiple specific outcomes that are closed and compartmentalized.  Thus, the successful implementation and use of ePortfolios in the Leeds School of Medicine, as an exemplar, will require the establishment and careful nurturing of a culture that supports and values the portfolio as an integral part of the educational experience.   The use of electronic portfolios for formative and summative assessments and as a learning tool will require educators to make adjustments, Kathleen argue.  These cannot be simply overlaid on the curriculum.

Vernacular Context

The vernacular context has so many possibilities and the hour was coming to an end.  Kathleen described a student whose “composing process” involves watching The Price is Right, playing online Scrabble, and coming up with an idea just in the nick of time.  She asks, “How does that describe composing at all?”

The Web Portfolio is multifaceted map of undergraduate studies.  Students combine and recombine what they learn.  The portfolio as a text is situated in and emerges from diverse contexts, some planned, some not.  Each planned context raises a set of questions impacting other planned contexts.  The vernacular as lived experience is incorporated even when it’s not invited.

We were out of time before we knew it.  Makes you want to read her work….

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