Collect, Select, Reflect: Assigning Research Eportfolios to Encourage Student Inquiry
Contributor: Jacob W. Craig
Affiliation: College of Charleston
Email: craigjw1 at cofc.edu
Published: 6 August 2016
In this webtext, I discuss the use of research eportfolios to encourage inquiry-based research practices in a special-topics first-year writing course: “ENC 1145: Writing about FSU.” In “Writing about FSU,” students completed a mapping project, a fieldnotes project, an electronic fieldnotes project, an annotated bibliography of secondary sources, and an annotated bibliography of archival sources. After completing each project, students collected those projects in the research eportfolio and wrote a short ethnography about the culture, event, place, or practice they researched in the first part of the course. While writing the ethnography, the research eportfolio functioned as a site for collection, selection, and reflection during research; a sourcebook of evidence to be used while drafting the ethnography; and a tool for projecting future research goals.
One of the projects I received was composed by a student name Maria, and throughout this discussion, I refer to Maria’s work in order to provide examples and to demonstrate how this assignment helps support student writing and research. To satisfy the assignments of the course, Maria chose to research and write about FSU’s Flying High Circus, a collegiate circus staffed by student performers. Because she was thorough in how she organized and presented her research, Maria’s portfolio is an interesting example of this assignment. Although part of what motivated her effort may have been her desire to do well on the project, Maria also believed she researched an important and positive part of Florida State University’s history and campus community.
Thus, while Maria surely was motivated by the oncoming assessment of her project, her writing suggests that she wanted her eportfolio to be an accurate representation of FSU’s Circus and her experience researching the Circus: its place, its community, and its history.
Throughout her eportfolio, Maria demonstrates an engaged and recursive research process, one that is not often seen in first-year writing classrooms. As Kathleen McCormick (2006) noted, students often do not see research assignments as the “engaging, exciting, and potentially empowering” learning experiences they can be (p. 211). Instead, students often default to the research processes they know: forming a thesis, finding the number of sources they are required to find, and writing up an argument based on what they have found. McCormick’s observation is not uncommon; this same observation forms the basis for a range of assignments designed to teach strategies for conducting inquiry-based research. Some of those assignments are outlined in Bruce Ballenger’s The Curious Researcher (2004): research notebooks; double-entry journals; notecards; and three different kinds of bibliographies – working, annotated, and evaluative. Another kind of assignment is the one discussed here: the research eportfolio – a digital collection of research materials accompanied by reflection.
Learning Goals of the Research Eportfolio
Like the bibliographies, journals, and notebooks discussed by Bruce Ballenger, the research eportfolio discussed here was assigned to familiarize students with inquiry-based research. More specifically, by completing these research eportfolios, students met three learning goals – each of which articulates an aspect of a more developed understanding of research and a more capacious set of research practices.
- To familiarize students with primary and secondary research materials, including journal articles, books, archives, archival materials, and social networks
- To familiarize students with inquiry-based research: research that addresses problems and questions posed by the student
- To familiarize students with a more recursive research process: one that involves reflecting back and projecting forward in order to address the problems and questions focusing the project
In the four-part discussion that follows, I relate my experiences assigning the research eportfolio in a research-focused, first-year writing course. First, I discuss the theories that inform the research eportfolio, and more specifically, I explain my theoretical rationale for redeveloping Sunstein and Chiseri-Strater’s (2012) print research portfolio into an eportfolio. Second, I provide a pre-writing activity and a peer review activity designed to support students’ research and the composition of their eportfolios. Third, to demonstrate how these eportfolios can support student research by meeting the three learning goals articulated above, I provide selections from Maria’s eportfolio and final research paper.
From Print to E
Defining the print analogy to this assignment, Sunstein and Chiseri-Strater discuss the research portfolio as a place for the writing student “to gather work, review it, and present the process of research to herself, her fellow researchers, and her instructor” (p. xix). Functionally, the research eportfolio and the research portfolio are comparable. So much so, I used Fieldworking as the textbook for this project. However, whereas the portfolio Sunstein and Chiseri-Strater described is print, my adaptation is digital. Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes (2014) have noted the impulse “to include the new information and communication technologies in the composing process and in our curriculum” or to “norm” new technologies as a common trope among writing instructors (p. 46). Here, the impulse to digitize is not only to include a new technology but also to offer students the opportunity to do the kinds of intellectual work afforded by digital media. The difference in medium gives students the opportunity to collect research in a wider range of environments (e.g. social media platforms), use multimedia to collect data (e.g. images and audio), and more pertinent to this discussion, utilize a wider range of resources to arrange and present their evidence.
As both a composing environment and as a site for the representation of student work, the print portfolio is limited by its materiality. More specifically, students’ opportunities for representation and communication are narrowed by the linear arrangement afforded by print.
In contrast to print portfolios, “web sensible” or multimodal eporfolios – a portfolio that “exploits” the digital medium – offer new opportunities for students (p. 746). The opportunity I emphasize here is the “ability to arrange and re-arrange (and re-arrange again)” through links, layouts, and navigational paths (Yancey, 2004b, p. 94). As many have demonstrated (e.g., Susan Delagrange, 2011), the possibilities and practices of arranging digital texts are generative. Digital arrangement motivates rhetorical invention: the process of discovering “different ways to begin writing and to explore writing situations; diverse ideas, arguments, appeals, and subject matters for reaching new understandings” (Lauer, 2004, p. 6). As Jeff Rice (2012) argued, “How a rhetoric puts ideas, people, places, and things into a relationship with another is how one, in general, invents” (p. 31).
Thus, for the purposes of encouraging students to focus their research around problems and questions, digital media afford a set of practices that complement the exploratory nature of inquiry. Specifically, by creating representations of research in digital media, students have the opportunity to discover and represent themes, ideas, and trends that emerge during the research process. Put differently, the medium frames the research process as hypertextual, inviting connections among the materials students generate and collect. As a matter of pedagogy and practice, helping students see and utilize these medium-specific opportunities for learning means developing a set of activities to help students consider the affordances of the medium and ways of utilizing those affordances. In the next part of this discussion, I offer a pre-writing activity and a peer review designed to help students discover and exploit the affordances of digital media.
Pre-Writing and Peer Review Activities
While students were drafting their first research projects, I introduced the research eportfolio assignment by discussing two drag-and-drop web creation and hosting services students might use to compose their portfolios: Wix and Weebly. For students in FSU’s English Department (undergraduate and graduate alike), Wix and Weebly are commonplace and well supported by FSU’s Digital Studio: a technology-equipped center that provides technical and rhetorical help to students. As platforms for composing, these services offer a capacious set of web design resources – font, colors, buttons, and widgets for embedding multiple media – in a drag-and-drop environment. Thus, after a relatively short amount of time exploring the platform, students can utilize the platform’s resources to create a sophisticated web-based texts without coding knowledge. Further, to support the composition of their research eportfolios, I assigned a pre-writing and a peer review activity. To pre-write, students composed web sequence diagrams: visual maps of their eportfolios that included connections among the portfolio’s pages via links and sketches of layouts. By asking students to compose web sequence diagrams, I prompted students to plan the arrangement of their research eportfolio in terms of the layout of individual pages and in terms of relationships among pages. Further, in peer review, students gave feedback on the content and the design of their peers’ eportfolios through three sets of questions. Through this peer review activity, students were given an opportunity to share their research with their peers, to reflect on the research process with their peers, and to see the ways that their peers have represented their own research.
As noted at the beginning of this discussion, Maria demonstrated more thoroughness and care in how she presented her research than other students, and for that reason, Maria’s research eportfolio is an exceptional example of this assignment. However, despite her attention to how she represented her data, the individual pieces of her eportfolio and her accompanying reflections are representative of the work students did. Thus, in discussing Maria’s eportfolio and the essay she composed using the research included in her eportfolio, I pay specific attention to those aspects that demonstrate her familiarity with the research concepts and research practices I emphasized in the learning goals provided above.
Familiarization with Primary and Secondary Research Materials
Like many other students, Maria replicated the assignment sequence in her eportfolio: creating specific pages housing single projects (Figure 3) and multiple projects (Figure 4). It is worth noting, too, that all of these pages are linked in at least two ways: from the main interface (Figure 1) and from the note on the home screen curating the contents of her eportfolio.
Maria is more attentive to the presentation of her research than other students; for example, no other student categorized their fieldwork project into separate kinds of data. However, in terms of the learning goals of the course, the variety of materials Maria collected in her eportfolio and cited in her final paper is representative of other student work. In her final paper, Maria cited a journal article, The FSU Flying Circus Facebook group, multiple websites, interviews she conducted, and a collection of archival materials housed in FSU’s Special Collections. Thus, the nature of the assignments themselves helped Maria to meet the first learning goal associated with this project: to familiarize students with primary and secondary research materials. To complete each stage of her research (a map, fieldnotes, two annotated bibliographies, and research in social networks), Maria found or created the research materials specified by the assignment. Further, like other students, Maria emphasized the diversity of her materials in her eportfolio through the arrangement of her eportfolio (Figures 1, 3, and 4).
Beyond meeting one of the course goals outlined at the beginning of this discussion – familiarization with primary and secondary research materials – the methods Maria used to gather her data also played a prominent role in her research paper. Throughout her paper, she mentions her research methods seven times. In each case, her statements serve as transitions within her discussion and evidence that contributes to her authority as researcher. For example, before beginning a description of the performers’ acts, Maria discusses how she selected which acts to emphasize in her ethnography: “I was able to observe three, two-hour practices, where I had the opportunity to walk around the ring, observe and talk to some of the performers about their individual acts.” The frequency of statements like this in her research paper suggests that Maria derived authority from her experiences gathering the data needed to complete the eportfolio, and her authority as a researcher contributed to her confidence as a writer.
Familiarization with Inquiry-Based Research
As noted earlier in this discussion, I developed and assigned the research eportfolio to familiarize students with inquiry-based research: research framed by the problems and questions students pose and subsequently answer. In both Maria’s eportfolio and in her final paper, she describes the moment that she found the subject of her research project. Her research began while on the outside of the Circus complex, and more specifically, her research interest was a response to the representation of the Circus complex on the FSU campus map. While reflecting on the composition of her first project, a map of the research field, Maria describes her initial interest in the Circus as her topic of research.
Later, in the introduction to her eportfolio, Maria elaborates on her experience by drawing comparisons between representations of the Circus complex, the football field, and the baseball field.
Although Maria’s research began by observing a contradiction between the uniqueness of the physical structure and the underwhelming presentation of that structure on FSU’s campus map, her research was not limited to the outside of the circus complex. Maria recounts her process of moving increasingly closer to her subject repeatedly throughout her eportfolio and in her ethnography. One of the most compelling representations of Maria’s research story comes in the form of a video. Partially a photo slideshow depicting the circus tent and partially a collection of performers demonstrating their acts, Maria’s “Fieldwork Gallery” is representative of both the circus – its tent, its performers, and it acts – and her early experiences researching the circus. More specifically, the video’s chronology mirrors Maria’s own experience conducting this research.
The video begins with two street-side views of the circus: one of the main office and one of the tent. Then, the video moves into the circus interior with a panoramic view of the tent’s interior followed by images of the rafters, audience seating, a posted set of safety rules for performers, and videos of performers demonstrating their acts with title screens naming the acts: cloud swing, acrobatic jump rope, and the flying trapeze, to name just a few. Maria articulates a connection between her experience researching the circus and her “Fieldwork Gallery” video in the introduction to her research eportfolio. Here, she uses the phrase “the different performances” as a link to the page containing her video.
This chronological arrangement of her research experience – moving from the outside to the inside into the spectacle – shows up elsewhere in her eportfolio. In the reflection that accompanies her video, Maria elaborates on her experience completing this project and the importance of this project in helping her define her research interest.
Her movement from outside the tent to inside the tent and finally within the community of performers and administrators shows up again in the opening to her research paper.
This sequence of events – this arrangement – is important to Maria and to her project because it highlights both her research process and her feelings about the FSU Circus. Through these narratives, Maria represents those qualities of the circus that captured her attention as a topic for research: the spectacle of the tent followed by the characteristics of the community.
However, Maria’s research did not stop with her field observations of student performers. While completing the next phase of her project, researching online communities, Maria describes a moment that continued to sustain her interest. Specifically, in the “Electronic Communities” section of her eportfolio, Maria first locates the relationship between past and present performers through the images contributed by current performers (Figure 6) and alumni (Figure 7) in the FSU Circus’s Facebook page. In the introduction to her eportfolio, Maria calls finding contemporary and historical images side-by-side on the FSU Circus Facebook page her “serendipity moment for this research project,” because she could see how FSU’s circus “impacted their lives in a positive way.”
Prompted by this insight, Maria begins thinking about the performers – past and present – as one group of people who share a common experience, and she begins looking for ways to define that common experience. For example, in her subsequent projects (two annotated bibliographies and a reflection), Maria discusses the usefulness of the Facebook group as way of seeing past and present performers as one group.
After completing the social media project, Maria continued to research circus acts more generally and through a historical perspective by collecting materials archived by FSU and by researching published histories of the modern circus. In her final paper, Maria used these local and global historical perspectives to help contextualize the activities she witnessed during her field observations: the swinging trapeze act, the double trapeze act, and the style of circus FSU practices. For example, when discussing the swinging trapeze act, Maria provides historical context for the act: its origins, the costume used in the act, and its reputation. Then, she discusses FSU’s version of the trapeze: how it is performed; equipment used; local practices (e.g., “typically performed by females”); and the FSU artist’s personal challenges in performing the act. By juxtaposing the past and the present, Maria finds a way to situate local practices in global histories and contemporary practices in local traditions. These rich connections between the past and present, the local and global, suggest some of the benefits of inquiry-based research. Although Maria began her project with a general observation about how FSU’s Flying High Circus is represented on the campus map, she eventually developed a rich set of connections that allowed her to understand FSU’s circus through multiple, overlapping perspectives.
Familiarization with a Recursive Research Process
While the sequence of the projects in the course oriented students to inquiry-based research, reflection helped support that inquiry by familiarizing students with a more recursive research process. After completing each phase of their research, students were asked to post their research to their eportfolio with an accompanying reflection. In these reflections, students were asked to respond to three questions.
- Having completed this phase of your research, what did you learn?
- How does this research support, contradict, or contribute to the research you’ve already completed?
- What do you want to know about your research subject next?
In Maria’s responses to these questions, she uses these questions as opportunities to find connections between her projects and to pose new questions. In other words, by answering these questions, Maria starts to synthesize the data she has acquired and to articulate new directions for her research. For example, in reflecting on her findings after looking at The Flying Circus’ Facebook group, Maria describes what she learned by looking at the Facebook page and how this new data elaborates the data she gathered during her fieldwork project.
By looking at the photographs where the students are helping to put the tent up, I learned that the hard work I observed during my fieldwork is even harder. This is something I did not get to see during my fieldwork, and it is somewhat an important piece that supports my assumptions about the hard work and dedication this group of people puts into the entire process. It confirms my assumptions of how much this program impacts students’ lives. I completely agree with the comment made on one of the pictures, where the students are helping with the tent set up, by Dave Hufford, “Lots of character building. . . excellent.”
By looking at the photographs of the auditions, as I didn’t get the opportunity to observe this part of the process, I was able to gain a visual and much better understanding of what Chad Mathews, the Director of the program, explained about it. I learned that there is one-on-one interviews with the potential performers, where the administrators of the program can learn about each one of them and sense the personality traits he was talking about during my email interview. The photographs also reaffirm my assumption that physical strength is truly required to qualify as performer
Further, as noted previously, this project is where Maria began to make connections between the past and present, a moment she recounts again in the reflection accompanying her social media research.
Later in her reflection, Maria establishes this attention to the past and to circuses more generally as questions focusing her research as she moves forward.
Is the atmosphere I observed in the FSU Circus, during my fieldwork and online, comparable to other circuses, or is it different because the performers at the FSU Circus do it as a volunteer activity (for fun) and the performers from the other circuses do it as a way to make a living?
How FSU Circus relates to the history of the circus in general?
How long has the circus tradition been around and how it was born?
Maria answered these questions in her subsequent projects through primary and secondary research on histories of circuses and the history of FSU’s Flying High Circus. Thus, while the sequence of the projects themselves provided a general research path for Maria to follow, these reflections gave Maria an opportunity to develop her research focus over time by locating connections among her datasets, synthesizing her data, and posing new questions to be answered later in the semester.
By providing Maria’s eportfolio and researched essay, I have demonstrated how a research eportfolio can support student research and students' writing in two ways. First, by assigning writing and research as distinct but related activities, students are given the support and the opportunity to conduct research that more closely resembles academic research. Specifically, because these assignments familiarized students with a wide range of research materials, with inquiry-based research, and with recursive research processes, students practiced research that encourages the kinds of connections and serendipitous moments evidenced by Maria’s work. Second, by asking students to compose an eportfolio and by making the composition of the eportfolio a central part of the course, students have the support and encouragement to develop their research focus over time and to communicate their developing focus for themselves and others. For Maria, inquiry-based research involving multiple materials and a recursive research process culminated in a nuanced discussion about a research topic that engaged and excited her.
Although Maria might have constructed the majority of her eportfolio using digital media more conventionally understood (for example, links, collages, videos), she collected and annotated the artifacts of much of her research into PDF files. Specifically, while she included two photo slideshow videos presenting the photos she took when doing her fieldwork and the photos she found in the archive, her eportfolio links to nine PDF files. To display these files, Maria uploaded her PDFs into Wix and linked to them through stock images (Figures 1, 3-4). Because Maria chose to represent much of her research as uploaded PDFs, a significant amount of Maria’s portfolio would seem to function as “print uploaded,” a category of digital texts Yancey (2004b) described as those texts that “embody the values we associate with print: a claim; a single arrangement; support, typically developed in an explicit and linear style; a conclusion” (pp. 90-91). However, despite the use of the PDF format, Maria’s documents are not exactly “print uploaded,” because they do not explicitly make a claim or support a single conclusion (p. 91). Rather, in the reflections that preface these artifacts, Maria describes how these artifacts alter her questions and contribute to her previously gathered evidence. Although each of these documents contain a single arrangement, they function more like exhibits of artifacts curated under headings (for example, "HOW PERFORMERS ARE SELECTED – AUDITIONS") than linear arguments. In other words, although these documents are uploaded PDFs, they encourage reading practices traditionally associated with digital media: “attention to space and canvas, context (and context as part of textual meaning), and sorting potential” (p. 95).
Maria allows the reader (including herself as reader) to make meaning by reading across her categories of artifacts (for example, "HOW PERFORMERS ARE SELECTED") and by reading within each category to make connections between artifacts. Further, in addition to these PDFs and even within some of her PDFs, Maria also used links, images, and video to present her research. Thus, because Maria’s portfolio is a combination of PDFs and other media more commonly associated with digital production, Maria’s portfolio suggests that digital arrangement may resemble print, and given connections Maria was able to generate among the data she collected and compiled into these PDFs, such approaches can foster invention.
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