Like many of us, I’ve been mulling over the question of how we might increase the number of majors in our programs as well as the non-majors in our classrooms. Our departmental discussions have followed paths similar to what characterizes many current national discussions, as well, which have further raised the question, why major in English at all? Or, for that matter, why major in any of the humanities? More immediately, my experience introducing ePortfolios into my own courses has sharpened such questions even further for me: How might we increase the number of students using ePortfolios? Or, for that matter, why introduce ePortfolios into any of our literature courses?
I explain the benefits of ePortfolios to my students in terms of how they will eventually be able to showcase their skills and their accomplishments more effectively. In developing strategies to that end, we focus on two aspects of the showcase: students can improve the ways in which they present their work, and they can also improve the actual work itself. These are not mutually exclusive, of course. We can improve the ways in which we tell our story at the same time as we can also improve the story that we have to tell. An ePortfolio that does only one without the other will not be as effective as it otherwise might.
As some voices within the national conversations make clear, one significant attraction of the major in English is the classroom experience itself, the opportunity to read and talk about literature. The enduring popularity of reading groups and book clubs illustrates the lure that such opportunities offer, whether to prospective majors or to people long after they have left their undergraduate literature courses behind. But of course participating in a reading group is not a career path, and so our majors also wish to know: what has the program in Literature and Cultural Studies prepared me to do after graduation?
While my work with our majors tends to focus on those in the LCS program, I suspect that our undergraduates in the other two tracks have similar concerns. And a complete answer to those concerns needs to consider not just our individual courses but also our whole curricula. Our emphasis has tended to be on the courses themselves, on the quality of the learning experience within those individual courses. In similar fashion, pedagogy-oriented faculty-development efforts have tended – here at UC as well as in teaching/learning centers nationally – to focus on the individual course, the extent to which the classroom approach, the assignments, and the evaluation of those assignments are all aligned towards the learning outcomes for that course. This alignment provides a crucial structure towards the quality of the undergraduate experience, and that quality, in turn, plays a large role in our ability to recruit new students, whether majors or non-majors. We can improve the ways in which we tell our story by focusing on such highlights and strengths.
If we are to improve the story that we have to tell, however, we also need to put more emphasis on our curricula by designing individual courses so that, in purposeful and integrated ways, they build upon earlier courses and also build towards later courses. There is, obviously, a trade-off here: we would no longer enjoy the same level of autonomy in designing and teaching our courses as is currently the case. In return, however, we would gain significantly more than any individual course, or collection of courses, can accomplish in isolation. If the curriculum helps students to integrate their academic experiences from one individual course and classroom to the next, they also have a better chance to develop higher-order intellectual skills. Those will be the skills that serve our students well once they move on into their various career paths, but they will also put better-prepared students into our classrooms while those students are still moving through our programs.
In mentioning ePortfolios, then, I’m not suggesting that we should all be integrating them into our courses. (I am, after all, retiring at the end of this current semester.) Rather, and in a number of frustrating and humbling ways, my experience with ePortfolios has brought home to me the very limited and transitory nature of the work that I do within my own courses. Those of my students who create ePortfolios, with very few exceptions, tend not to continue maintaining them after the course is over. And the exceptions tend to be the students in the RPW track who are also developing ePortfolios in their other courses here.
My experience here corresponds with what I’m hearing from national conversations, as well, and has implications for our departmental discussions: unless we integrate our courses throughout our curricula more thoroughly and purposefully, we will continue to limit the story that we have to tell about our programs, the enrollment levels in our programs and our courses, and our own level of satisfaction with students who don’t seem to have the academic preparedness to do as well in our classes as we would wish.