Mess and Process


Dr. Elizabeth Davis’s third Hack and Yack Series post.  Enjoy!

One of my duties as the Coordinator of the Writing Certificate Program at the University of Georgia is teaching a one-hour course for certificate students in which they compose the eportfolio that serves as their capstone project for the certificate. The required “Eportfolio Workshop” is the end point for the nineteen hours of coursework in writing intensive courses that students in the program take in order to earn the certificate. Though they can take the course more than once, generally most students take it during their last or next-to-last semester before graduation, after they have taken many of their certificate courses. Because of this, they are in the position of looking back at the work they did in courses that may have come several semesters earlier in their academic career and, because of the interdisciplinary nature of the program, their writing intensive coursework may be diverse, comprising courses from multiple departments and fields.

It is no surprise, therefore, that many students feel quite daunted at the beginning of the workshop course when I suggest that a successful portfolio should not only present polished work, but also demonstrate unity and coherence. Sure, the larger purpose of the portfolio is to showcase the skills they have developed through focused attention to writing in their certificate courses, but, because reflection is the key to portfolio practice, a portfolio keeper must find ways to connect the dots between the individual artifacts in a portfolio and make them meaningful in demonstrating learning. Susan Kahn reminds us, in the Winter 2014 special issue of Peer Review on eportfolios that, from the start, portfolios were inextricably tied to reflective practice: “[They] were meant to cultivate habits of metacognition, reflective practice, and self-critique among students.” Reflection provides the thread that weaves the strands into a whole.

In reviewing capstone portfolios from the last several years, I am struck by how many writers, in their introductory reflections, note that the process of reviewing work from multiple courses generates revelations, showing that they came back to a particular topic or theme over and over again, even though they hadn’t noticed that fact at the time. The process of inventorying their work and of placing projects into a designated folder of potential artifacts causes similarities to become visible for the first time. Such awareness often suggests the organization scheme that they ultimately use for presenting their work.

In many ways, these eportfolios-in-progress become like Delagrange’s conception of the “hypermedia-as-Wunderkammer” in that they become “objects-to-think-with” that bring together the “disjointed and disconnected pieces” of the students’ undergraduate careers into a whole that is “made sensible” (Technologies of Wonder 122). I like this idea of creating texts that are meant to generate further thought and exploration and am inspired by the work being done in the eportfolio community on how eports support and sustain lifelong and lifewide learning and their potential for developing what Darren Cambridge in Eportfolios for Lifelong Learning and Assessment (2010) terms a “networked style of learning” that values emergence, connection, collection, revision, and invention (174-5).

Image by PKMousie / Flickr > CC BY-NC-SA

Approaches to (and technologies for) eportfolio keeping that emphasize on-going accretion, tagging, categorizing, and reflection-in-action capture, according to Cambridge, the “inherent messiness of learning and performance” (183) that better represents the research and writing and learning process. By making that messiness visible, we may see that the answers or connections we have made are contingent and contextual and, thus, only temporary and subject to further revision. Digital technologies that foster connection – social media, blogs, wikis and other types of collaboratively constructed texts – seem ripe not only for eportfolio construction, but also for the creation of a new kind of “research paper” that is itself a network of individual and collaborative exploration and presentation. A text that is a process, rather than a product.

In my final post, I will talk a bit about how this line of thinking has helped me conceptualize and structure an approach to research that I will be using this semester. It is an experiment that I hope will draw on the kind of networked, hypermediated, arrangement-oriented ideas I have been discussing in this series.


  • Elizabeth Davis

    Elizabeth Davis is the Coordinator of the Writing Certificate Program at the University of Georgia. She teaches and conducts research on writing for digital media and electronic portfolios.

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