Erstwhile Contributing Editor Alessandra Link shares her reflections on the portfolio comprehensive exam process at University of Colorado, Boulder. Modeled off of tenure dossiers, portfolios provide students with material that they can take with them to the job market. The portfolio process, Link explains, also prompts increased student-faculty interaction., This uptick in conversation should help both parties hash out student goals and objectives for graduate work and beyond.
In the early fall of 2014, as countless college students trotted off to their first week of classes, I was holed up in my office, typing away. Typing, reading, thinking—these are the foundational pillars of graduate student (and scholarly) life. It just so happens that in 2014 I directed this work towards a new project: the graduate student portfolio.
I was the second student in the History Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU) to complete this new comprehensive exam process. As the Department’s second test subject I received considerable support from my advisors but was also saddled with attending concerns about what a “good” portfolio looked like, without the ability to seek counsel from senior graduate students familiar with the process. But the unnerving aspects of my portfolio experience were ultimately overshadowed by the program’s many virtues.
What is a portfolio?
At CU, the graduate student portfolio is modeled on tenure dossiers. Just as tenure files reflect the candidate’s unique interests and skills, so too should graduate student portfolios highlight the distinct talents of a particular student. What is perhaps most rewarding about the portfolio is its relative elasticity—students should display a command of major historiographical debates within their field, while also tailoring their portfolio projects to reflect the kind of work they’ll pursue after graduation. The portfolio system of comprehensive exams can and will prepare students for the academic job market, but it also provides opportunities for students seeking alt-ac positions to develop the requisite skills and experience.
All portfolios look different but generally include a mix of historiographical essays, research papers, syllabi, and book reviews. These assignments ask students to do many of the same tasks found in the traditional comprehensive exams system, including working through complex historiographical debates and honing your knowledge in a specific field(s) of study. But students also have the opportunity to submit supplemental material that showcases other skills. For those interested in Public History, supplemental material may include a series of slides from an event they curated, or a collection of posts from their blog. Transcripts of talks given or film from a relevant project are also fair game. The goal of most portfolios is to allow the student to create a curated selection of work that meets the department’s requirements, while also providing graduate students with a body of scholarship they can reference and take with them after graduation.
Take, for example, the syllabus component of many portfolios. At CU, portfolios include two annotated syllabi: one for the main survey the candidate may teach, and the second for a more focused topic of the student’s choice. Asking students to think through their courses early on not only helps them when they get the chance to teach as a graduate student, but also forces students to develop and defend their pedagogy—a skill that will become all the more necessary on the job market down the line.
What to expect when “portfolio-ing”:
The CU History Department also designed portfolios with an emphasis on revising and refining existing work, not just hurriedly producing new material. In fact, the portfolio offers students the opportunity to revisit and edit coursework that many of us complete in an end-of-the-semester rush. Sure, you’ll likely have to produce new material to fill in gaps in content, but a large portion of the portfolio should pull from your coursework. By incorporating existing scholarship into the portfolio, departments can cut the amount of time students spend languishing in the exams phase of the Ph.D., while giving them the opportunity to return to old papers or build on existing lines of inquiry.
Keep in mind that the portfolio process also increases faculty-student interaction during the exams phase of the program. While “portfolio-ing,” I was expected to work on specific projects with each committee member. On the whole, I suspect I interacted more with each professor than I would have under the old exam program. As a result, I learned a lot about the distinctive teaching, writing, and thinking styles of each committee member, which was useful as I began to consider how to define myself as a historian and educator.
This kind of regular contact with faculty can and should be rewarding, but it also requires a lot of discipline and planning. Some folks are better at this kind of time management and organization (herd those cats!) than others, which can drastically change a student’s experience with the portfolio. Students should take initiative: set deadlines with faculty members the semester before the portfolio is due and check in about roles and responsibilities throughout the process. Be prepared to prod some faculty to keep established deadlines or to schedule a meeting—completing your portfolio on time depends on it.
As much as I praise the portfolio’s flexibility, for many who are certain they don’t want to work in academic departments the portfolio is still somewhat narrow. There will always be assignments designed to feed the academic maw. For example, CU requires two syllabi, regardless of whether or not a student plans to teach in the future. It’s also unlikely that students could gain permission to cross the threshold into candidacy without writing lengthy historiographies and showcasing their research skills.
Yet, the portfolio does force graduate students and committee members to consult one another on the goals and needs of each student. Some sort of gatekeeping must remain. What is clear is that the portfolio system grants a degree of customization not easily found under traditional examination systems. I walked away from the portfolio a stronger writer and with a handful of well-crafted documents I’m proud of. I suspect we will see more programs switching to portfolios in the future and I, for one, consider it a good thing.