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Portfolio Day: A Brief Ethnography

posted: 12.23.10 by archived

With a late Labor Day and no Reading Day, Portfolio Assessment Day falls this year on the first day of finals. Not as organized as many of my colleagues, I am up at 6 am that morning: printing out student essays e-mailed overnight, fighting with a jammed stapler, labeling the tabs of manila folders, checking that each portfolio contains the requisite four writing samples, and gathering together copies of my assignments and rosters for my three sections. Though by my count this is my fourteenth Portfolio Day, the last-minute details threaten to overwhelm me. Still, I am surprised and pleased, for the most part, with the glimpses I see of the work my students have managed to pull together.

Colleagues drift in, more or less on time, for our 9 am start, congregating in the appointed classroom. There are about eighteen of us, with a full-time to adjunct ratio of about 2 : 1 (though the department-wide ratio is closer to 1 : 4 full time to adjunct). Chairs have been marked with coded labels (HP1, HP2, HP3 for my three sections), with the matching stack of portfolios to be piled on the attached desk. Bagels and a box of coffee, plates of fruit and cookies, and a bag of miniature Snickers bars crowd the teacher’s desk at the front of the room. Sets of master lists and cross-lists have been taped to the chalkboard, showing what portfolio sets each person is assigned to read and which pairs of faculty will read each set. Faculty new to the project stand squinting at the blackboard, walk away for a second, then return to re-examine the charts, looking around for a more experienced person to double-check their understanding. It is a complicated procedure developed over more than ten years of the project’s existence.

By 9:30 am or so most everyone has scattered to offices (full-timers) or empty classrooms (adjuncts) with a stack of portfolios to read.  We read over the assignments for the class and then the folders of essays, trying to remember to read quickly over a paragraph or two, to check for thesis and topic sentences, and to slow down only for telltale signs of illogic, tangled syntax, and usage errors so significant that they “impede meaning” (one of a series of shorthand terms forged in norming sessions held semester after semester on the afternoon before the Big Day). As faculty members return portfolios and fetch new piles, they come together in hallways and exchange compliments: “I’m going to steal that assignment,” “What a good set of essays!”

By midday the meetings have begun, pairs gathering to discuss sets of essays, scoring each as Pass, Fail, or Pass with Distinction (PwD, in our jargon). Assessment sheets are filled out for failing portfolios, listing revision tasks for the two essays we will ask students to revise with the help of faculty tutors. The students will receive incompletes until the essays are revised and portfolios resubmitted the next semester, though they may go on to take the next writing class in the sequence.

It is an exhausting day some of us pretend to dread, but we are buoyed by adrenaline, caffeine, and sugar, and the pleasures of a break in routine as the isolation we feel in our individual classrooms is replaced for a day by a welcome sense of camaraderie. As the day wears on and some of us finish our reading, there is time for conversation about assignments, favorite texts, shared students. A new member of the group exclaims about the clarity of some of our assignments and criteria and how he needs to raise his game. Several of us laugh knowingly and explain that our assignments too have evolved as we have learned from others.

By the time I leave the building at 5:30 pm I’m surprised to see that it’s dark outside, but the stack of portfolios in my arms has a satisfying heft and I feel the clarity of closure.

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Categories: Assessment, Holly Pappas, Portfolios
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One Response to “Portfolio Day: A Brief Ethnography”

  1. Jeanne Grandchamp, Bristol Community College Says:

    THANK YOU for this beautifully worded tribute to the special day that Portfolio Assessment has become at our institution. I always dread it–AND look forward to it, as well. You capture the essence. I’m hoping we get to work Portfolio Assessment with you for many years to come.