A 'Practical Guide' to the Academic Portfolio

November 11, 2008

It's not a new thing for professors to document their teaching, research and service. That's how people get hired and earn tenure and promotions. But many more colleges are adopting a portfolio system in which professors create more of a full portfolio than a series of lists and dates. This movement is changing both the way individuals are evaluated and the way institutions assess themselves. A new book, The Academic Portfolio: A Practical Guide to Documenting Teaching, Research and Service (Jossey-Bass), explores this trend, provides a specific portfolio model, and includes 18 portfolios based in different disciplines. The authors of the book are Peter Seldin, distinguished professor of management emeritus at Pace University, and J. Elizabeth Miller, associate professor of family and child studies at Northern Illinois University. They responded to e-mail questions about their book.

Q: How is today’s academic portfolio different from the packages of material previously prepared for jobs and tenure?

A: Faculty are being held accountable – as never before – for how well they do their jobs. Until now, the focus has been on the “what” not the “why” or the “how.” Thoughtful reflection and context were not built into the evaluation system. These failings limit the understanding of the full range of a professor’s work in teaching, research/scholarship, and service. Evaluators do not inherently understand a professor’s teaching philosophy and methodology. Or the nature of their research / scholarship, the significance of their selected publications, the context of their work, their most noteworthy accomplishments, their role on institutional committees. And they don’t know how a professor’s teaching, research, and service fits with the institutional or department mission.

The best way to get at the individuality and complexity of faculty work is the academic portfolio. Based on structured reflection, it provides context, significance, most noteworthy accomplishments, and integration of information on teaching, research, and service to form a depthful cohesive whole.

The academic portfolio is the result of extensive research. More than 200 faculty members, department chairs, and deans from across disciplines and institutions provided specific suggestions and recommendations as to its content. The result is a comprehensive template that can easily be adapted to individual faculty and department needs.

Q: What do you see as the major advantages of a more ambitious portfolio?

A: The current faculty evaluation system is not geared to assisting review committees to understand the rich quality of faculty work and its significance. True, committees probably have student ratings and a curriculum vitae that lists publications, honors, presentations and research grants. But student rating numbers and lists of scholarly achievements don’t describe one’s professional priorities and strengths. They don’t present a rationale for choices made, expectations realized, circumstances that promoted or inhibited success. And, importantly, they don’t describe the significance of one’s work or the context in which it was done.

The academic portfolio provides all of those things that current packages of material are lacking. Importantly, it is based on depthful reflection and provides the “why” and the “how” not just the “what.” Instead of submitting boxes of support material (which are unlikely to be read), faculty preparing an academic portfolio prepare documents and materials which are limited to 19 typed pages plus a tabbed appendix in which supportive evidence is housed.

At the same time, portfolios are flexible enough to provide the stimulus and structure for self-reflection about areas of faculty performance in need of improvement. It is in the very process of reflecting on their work and creating the portfolio that the professor is stimulated to: 1) reconsider policies and activities; 2) rethink strategies and methodologies; 3) revise priorities; and 4) plan for the future.

Q: What mistakes do you see as most common when people are preparing portfolios?

A: Some faculty fail to explain the nature of their research in plain simple language and fall back on jargon that is unclear to readers, especially those who are outside their discipline. Other faculty forget to show the significance of their work and the context in which it was done. Still others struggle to meet established length requirements for the narrative and the appendices. And a few make claims that are not supported by sufficient evidence or provide evidence that is not current or from the recent past.

Q: How do portfolios relate to the assessment movement?

A: The academic portfolio is, first and foremost, an evidence-based document. Statements made about one’s teaching, research, and service must be supported by data, briefly in the narrative, and with full documentation in the appendix. This process enables both the writer and any reviewers to use the portfolio as one of the best methods for faculty assessments.

A good academic portfolio overlaps with many of the principles of “best practice” of assessment. In addition to providing supportive documentation, a good academic portfolio should demonstrate how a faculty member’s work is connected to the mission of the university, college, and department. It should evidence reflection. By documenting achievements and setting new goals, it demonstrates continuous quality improvement. Multiple methods and sources should be used to document teaching, research, and service excellence. Thus, a good portfolio, like good assessment strategies, may be used both for formative purposes and for summative purposes.

Q: What advice would you offer academics as they think about putting together a portfolio?

A: These guiding questions as prompts should help as academics prepare their portfolios.

  • What is your purpose in creating the portfolio?
  • Who are your primary readers?
  • What evidence will they expect to see?
  • What types of evidence will be most convincing to those readers?
  • What weight will review committee members give to teaching? To research/scholarship? To service? What criteria will be used?
  • Will reviewers expect to see actual copies of publications?
  • Will they expect to see testimonial letters from internal or external reviewers?
  • Which are the “valued” publications in my discipline? The “valued” professional conferences?

A final note: The academic portfolio has gone well beyond the point of theoretical possibility. Today, it is being adopted or pilot tested by a rapidly increasingly number of colleges and universities. Significantly, they are institutions of every size and mission.

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