• July 29, 2014

Should Graduate Students Create E-Portfolios?

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

A year ago, I noticed that more and more fellowship applications asked whether I had a Web site for my dissertation project. I doubt that my negative response to that question explained the regretful letters of rejection I received last spring. But the question and the thin envelopes did get me wondering about how we, as graduate students, craft our online presence.

Too often, I think we do very little of the crafting.

I Googled myself for the first time a few weeks ago. None of the hits I got surprised me, except for the realization that I had posted none of them. Sure, I had written the published pieces and presented the conference papers that came up in my search, but I had no hand in creating how, or where, my work had been displayed online. As a result, my Web presence amounted to an assortment of singular products with my name on them, rather than a comprehensive picture of me—a smattering of digital trees instead of a cyber forest.

When I went looking to see how other graduate students created a virtual likeness, I found more of the same.

We post about ourselves in the blogosphere more than anywhere else. I had to rein myself in from spending too much time lurking around innumerable graduate-student blogs about everything from math and physics, to graphic art and Romantic literature. Bloggers share all sorts of useful information, like reading lists, thesis ideas, study tips for comps, and loads of advice about how to survive the graduate-school experience. The advice includes everything from reading fluff, to not reading at all, to drinking heavily. Many of us offer snippets of daily life on our blogs, such as, "skipped class to go to the movies" and "stayed up until 2 writing another paper." My favorite assessment of the graduate-school experience came from a law-school blog: "Three years of hell to become the devil."

By and large, in doling out useful or playful insights, graduate-student bloggers are speaking to a closed circle and using pseudonyms. In other words, we aren't crafting professional, Web-based identities.

Should we be? With that question in mind, I began talking with graduate students and faculty members.

I recalled a workshop on career building for graduate students, offered by one of my professors, who evaluated a few online teaching portfolios created by graduate students. The idea was to explore what such documents ought to include and how best to organize them. I have found very few such portfolios online, especially compared with the number of graduate-student blogs.

In contrast, hundreds of sites are available about teaching portfolios, including the how and why of creating one. The vast majority of those sites assume that the final product will be a digital file, which someone on the job market could then send to a search committee.

One of the most interesting approaches to online teaching portfolios is Penn State's graduate certificate program in Teaching with Technology. By the end of the program, graduates produce an online portfolio that is not only meant to demonstrate their experience using technology in the classroom, but also functions as a fairly complete, self-created, professional online profile.

English was one of the first departments to participate in the program at Penn State. Stuart Selber, an associate professor of English and science, technology, and society at the university, folds the portfolio program into one of his seminars. He admitted that few graduate students pursue the certificate because it's a lot of work for no academic credit. But those who do seek the certificate reap the benefits. Selber explained that a "Web site has to envision a mass audience, not a particular search committee." The program forces students to drop field-specific jargon, to reflect on the whole of their academic backgrounds, to include links to personal pages, and to represent themselves more broadly than they do when submitting individual job applications.

Web-based portfolios (using platforms like WordPress) allow graduate students to "showcase teaching experience in ways that are more interesting or accessible than a print portfolio," said Michael Faris, one of Selber's Ph.D. students. And an "e-portfolio" demonstrates a familiarity with new technology that is essential to many fields and de rigueur to undergraduate audiences.

Faris, who is working on a dissertation on technology, social networking, and privacy, said that crafting your own virtual identity lets you "mold a digital dossier rather than allow everything else—like Facebook, or that high-school sports story, or a post someone else put up about you—to say something about you." All that stuff is going to be out there on the Web anyway, but if you configure your e-portfolio well, it will rise to the top of your Google hits.

I spoke with about a dozen other graduate students who maintain similar online portfolios. Almost to a person, their e-portfolios include a CV, teaching philosophy statement, some videos of them teaching, student evaluations, transcripts, a biographical page, an explanation of their thesis or dissertation topic (maybe even an excerpt or two), as well as links to things like their favorite academic blogs, online articles on pedagogy, or upcoming conferences in their field.

All of the students I spoke with said their online presence was a great social-networking tool. It helped them meet people who were in their disciplines but outside their universities.

My friend Laura recently completed an online master's degree in education through the University of Texas. One of her major projects was building an e-portfolio that she felt gave her an edge in finding the kind of overseas teaching job she desired. The online format, she said, offered a wider range of ways to display her academic wares than traditional portfolio formats. It also emphasized her techno-fluency, and made it easy for potential employers to assess her personal and professional merits.

I asked Chris Pastore, a newly hired visiting lecturer in my department, about his online portfolio, because a senior professor on the search committee that hired him had praised it. Chris built his site as one of his final projects while earning a master's in teaching philosophy at the same time he was completing his Ph.D. in history. The learning curve for Web design, he said, was fairly steep yet painless. None of the jobs he applied for in the last year asked for a teaching portfolio, but he was able to showcase his electronic version by simply dropping his URL in his cover letters to potential employers.

While it appears concise and well organized, his e-portfolio also allowed him to include far more material than the traditional, 20-page print portfolio sent to search committees. And, Chris said, search-committee members could all read the information simultaneously, rather than having it linger on one person's desk indefinitely.

Most faculty members I consulted admitted that they are quick to scope out the personal Web sites of job candidates. Graduates who maintain e-portfolios confirmed that when they've tracked their hits, most of the hits are from the places where they've applied for jobs or fellowships.

I'm not aware of any academic jobs that require candidates to have e-portfolios—yet. Most of what's possible to put together on a site is possible in PDF form, too. So, when coursework, comps, conference presentations, and dissertation deadlines loom, why do it?

It's more than a question of careerism. I used Wix.com as my platform because I like the simplicity of its construction tools, and when I ran into trouble, I was able to talk with live, and very helpful, people. Plus, I could afford the graduate-student-friendly price of free for the beginner's package. I don't aspire to be a Web designer, but creating a simple Web page encouraged me to think a bit harder about how I will make the most of online course supplements for the classes I teach. The process of crafting my teaching portfolio and developing an online version challenged me to clarify my intellectual concerns, to sift through my thoughts about teaching, and to hone my research ideas and conclusions, as well as to become a bit more tech savvy.

So the next time you can afford a few minutes to see what your friends are up to, skip checking your Facebook account. Stalk your virtual self instead. See if the things you find are what you want prospective employers to know about you and judge you by. Because they will be looking, whether or not you are satisfied with what your search reveals.

David Brooks is an A.B.D. doctoral student in history at the University of Montana. If you would like to contribute a First Person essay to the series on graduate-school work and life, please e-mail your ideas and essays to denise.magner@chronicle.com.

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