Toward Transparency in Teaching: Publishing a Course Portfolio

T. Mills Kelly, November 2001

Editor's Note: The following essay appears in conjunction with the launch of the web pages devoted to an AHA project—funded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching—aimed at presenting an online resource for teaching that focuses on history course portfolios.

During the 1999–2000 academic year I devoted a large part of my research energy to an attempt to understand better what happens when we introduce hypermedia into an introductory history survey course. How do new media change student understanding of course content? Do hypermedia improve or detract from students' ability to acquire a greater facility with historical methods? Might using hypermedia in a survey course give students new or different insights into something we like to call "historical thinking"?

All of these questions had been vexing me for some time and with support from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching I was able to focus my efforts on one course—Western Civilization—that I taught at Texas Tech University, my former employer. The results of my project have now been mounted on the AHA web site alongside the work of Temple University historian Bill Cutler as part of the Association's portfolio project funded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.1

When I began the project, my intent was to disseminate any interesting results in conventional ways—articles in journals, conference papers—and I have done that.2 In addition, my experiences as a Carnegie fellow introduced me to the emerging scholarly genre that currently goes under the name Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.3 Those who promote and participate in this genre insist that if our work is ever to be considered "scholarship" then it has to meet all the standards we apply to scholarship in our own fields. Some of the most important characteristics of scholarship are that it is research-based, that it is peer reviewed, and that it is disseminated to an audience that has the opportunity to comment upon it or build upon it.

In addition to the more common products of research on what happens in the classroom, such as journal articles or conference papers, many engaged in the scholarship of teaching and learning are using course portfolios as a means for obtaining critical comment on their research in its early stages, presenting their work to a wider audience, and ultimately publishing some sort of final product that enters the literature in their field. Course portfolios now come in a variety of shapes and sizes and to date there is no agreement on just what a portfolio ought to include or exclude, nor on the best means for disseminating the portfolio. There is even debate on whether it ought to be disseminated beyond the confines of one's department or campus, although one cannot reasonably claim that a portfolio is a form of scholarship and still seek to limit its distribution only to a small circle of colleagues.4

In my own case, once I decided to create a portfolio as one strategy for presenting my research to a broader audience, it was only natural it should be a hypermedia document. After all, my research was all about hypermedia, so to create something in print seemed contradictory. Because there is no consensus about what a portfolio ought to include and what it ought to look like, I was free to shape mine as I saw fit. That's the good news. The bad news is that I had to make all my own decisions about my portfolio's content and its presentation—I had no style sheet to work from.

A second dilemma I faced was how much information to include in the portfolio. Historians are a skeptical tribe, often more interested in what we do not find in the archive than in what we actually find. For this reason, I knew that if my colleagues were going to consider my research worthy of further consideration, I would have to provide them with as much of my research as possible without cramming several hundred pages of text into the site. Hypermedia are a big help where this problem is concerned, because it is possible for the reader to move easily within various portions of a site pursuing his or her own line of inquiry. Visitors to my portfolio can read it either as a linear text or as a hypertext and can view everything—from samples of my students' essays to my student and peer evaluations and my own conclusions about the research.

Perhaps the most daunting issue I faced during the creation of this course portfolio was the question of transparency. My decision to open up my classroom to the scrutiny of an audience of anyone with a web browser entailed certain risks. Teaching is normally a very private activity, closed off from our peers by the four walls of our classrooms, but also often jealously guarded behind the walls of academic freedom. A portfolio like mine tears down those walls and invites the entire world to pass judgment on my teaching. For my own reasons and in my own professional context, I found complete transparency desirable. Because this level of disclosure is not feasible in all professional situations, I do not propose that all portfolios should be as extensive as mine or that they must be on the web.

Some of the most intense debates I have had with colleagues, both here and in Europe, about the portfolio have centered on the issue of transparency. Reactions have ranged from outright anger, to skepticism, to approval. In almost every case, the more emotional the response, the more likely it is that the person responding is in a department where transparency about one's teaching can be dangerous to his or her future prospects. Every single one of the dozens and dozens of historians with whom I have discussed the portfolio has touched on this subject, with almost every one expressing at least some anxiety about the level of disclosure. The consistency of their responses to my work leads me to ask, what sort of environment have we created in our departments where transparent teaching can produce so much anxiety?

If the scholarship of teaching and learning is to ever take root in history departments, this seemingly widespread anxiety about transparent teaching will need to be addressed. The scholarship of teaching and learning centers on scholars in the disciplines—as opposed to educational researchers—trying to make sense of what is happening (or not happening) in their classrooms. If what happens in those classrooms cannot be opened up for critical evaluation, in the same way that we open our scholarship up to critical evaluation, then we cannot expect to make much progress on the questions that often vex us the most in our daily lives. After all, even at "research" departments, faculty devote a substantial portion, if not the majority of their week, to teaching and teaching-related activities, and most of our commiseration at conferences and over lunch is about what is or isn't happening in our classrooms. Thus, I would submit that we must find new ways to talk about teaching and the course portfolio offers one such vehicle for beginning conversations that are research-based rather than based upon charming anecdotes.

For anyone interested in creating a course portfolio, I would offer the advice that there is truly no right or wrong way to engage in this enterprise. I have read portfolios that are no more than 6 or 7 pages and others that run well beyond 100 pages in length. Some are narratives of a semester, while others eschew narrative for close analysis of a particular problem or set of data. What distinguishes a course portfolio from a teaching portfolio, however, is that while a teaching portfolio is a means for representing the range of one's teaching practice, a course portfolio is a vehicle for representing the results of a scholarly investigation of teaching and learning. Hold yourself to the same standards of research that you would expect in your regular research and the portfolio you create will be something you can show others with pride.

—T. Mills Kelly is an assistant professor in the department of history and art history at George Mason University, where he is also coordinator of the Western Civilization program and director for educational projects in the Center for History and New Media. He is currently writing a monograph on the origins of radical nationalism in East Central Europe.

Notes

1. Details at http://www.theaha.org/teaching/aahe/aahecover.html

2. The results of this project appeared in the Journal of the Association for History and Computing III/2 (August 2000), http://mcel.pacificu.edu/JAHC/JAHCIII2/ARTICLES/kelly/kelly.html

3. On the development of the scholarship of teaching and learning in history see, Lendol Calder, William Cutler, and T. Mills Kelly, "History Lessons: Historians and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning," in Mary Huber and Sherry Moreale eds., Disciplinary Styles in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (American Association for Higher Education, forthcoming December 2001).

4. See Pat Hutchings, ed. The Course Portfolio: How Faculty Can Examine Their Teaching to Advance Practice and Improve Student Learning. (American Association for Higher Education: 1998).