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Reading Sophomore Portfolios

This morning was the first of three that I’ll spend sitting in a room with 35 or so faculty members reading portfolio after portfolio.* Or rather, the faculty read through portfolio after portfolio while I gave up on ever reading that quickly and just got through as many as I could. And now my legs are sore from being tense all morning…. nerves and all. It’s rather intimidating to join a group of faculty and participate as a novice in an activity they do all the time, and to know that every portfolio you read will be read again by one of them, and to wonder how you can possibly say something constructive to a student in a couple of sentences especially when you’re struggling to come up with a cohesive sense of why you think they should pass or not, and to sit there wishing you’d brought a dictionary because spelling just isn’t your thing and there’s no spell-check built into these pens and sheets of paper and you’re critiquing writing, for goodness sake, so the students are likely to be really ticked off if the person evaluating their writing can’t even spell…

And so, my legs are sore.

So why did I volunteer for this? I mean, I’d done it once before. I knew I’d sit there with pen poised over the blue evaluation form and dread having to write to the student who’s academic career will be shaped in some small part by what I write. I knew I’d read at half the speed of my fellow portfolio readers. I knew all these things, but I also knew that if I chickened out, I’d kick myself. This is, after all, one of the only times I get to see the results of the work I do with students. Even more than that, it’s one of the only ways I’d ever get to read enough of my students’ work to get a sense of the patterns of successes and failures in underclassmen’s writing, use of outside sources, and argument structure. It’s also a rare opportunity to learn about faculty standards as they’re applying those standards. And you know, it’s a beautiful thing to watch experts glance over a random sample of writing and pull out patterns of writing indicative of the student’s writing ability over all.

So, as we all sat there norming our reading by evaluating some sample portfolios as a group, I also began the process of recalibrating my expectations for student work at the Sophomore level and listening for clues about what might be expected at the Junior level. For example, I learned again what a difficult project it is for college students to learn what a conclusion really is in a paper, and how to manage it effectively. I saw students learning to negotiate tone and voice and just how, exactly, to manage other people’s words in with your own.

And so I’ll be going back tomorrow and the next day as we plow through another 400 or so portfolios together. I’m not looking forward to the aching legs by the end of the week, but I am looking forward to coming through the experience with a better sense of what students can do by their second year in college. As I said to one of my co-workers, I hate reading the portfolios, but once I’m finished I love having done it.

* More info on the portfolio.

2 thoughts on “Reading Sophomore Portfolios

  1. I don’t envy you. That’s a lot of reading to do. But I bet it does give you a good insight into students’ capabilities. I once reviewed grant proposals for LSTA. Talk about a lot of reading! And the pressure! It was hard work, but I was glad to have had the opportunity to try it. Funny, they never asked me to do it again…..

  2. Ugh. Reviewing grant proposals sounds like even more pressure, though. I get to pass the vast majority of the portfolios I read, but with a grant you only get to award the prize to one proposal. Pressure!

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