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Answers to Common Questions about the Academic Portfolio

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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More and more institutions-public and private, large and small-are nurturing and rewarding academic performance through portfolios. Some colleges and universities use them to improve performance. Others use them in tenure and promotion decisions. Still others use portfolios for both improving performance and personnel decisions



The posting below answers some common questions about academic portfolios. It is from Chapter 6, Answers to Common Questions, in the book, The Academic Portfolio: Practical Guide to Documenting Teaching, Research, and Service. by Peter Seldin and J. Elizabeth Miller. Published by Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint. 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA Copyright © 2009 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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Answers to Common Questions About the Academic Portfolio


In recent years, we have discussed the academic portfolio concept at dozens of colleges and universities of differing sizes, shapes, and missions. We have talked with countless faculty groups and administrators about the portfolio and its place in evaluation of academic performance. And we have served as mentors to numerous professors across disciplines as they prepared their portfolios.

In the course of this activity, certain questions were raised by professors or administrators with much greater frequency than others. This chapter is devoted to answering those questions.

Is the Academic Portfolio Concept in Use Today?

In truth, it has gone well beyond the point of theoretical possibility. More and more institutions-public and private, large and small-are nurturing and rewarding academic performance through portfolios. Some colleges and universities use them to improve performance. Others use them in tenure and promotion decisions. Still others use portfolios for both improving performance and personnel decisions.

Can an Impressive Portfolio Gloss Over Terrible Teaching, Research and Scholarship, or Service Performance?

That is a contradiction in terms because the weak performer cannot document effective performance. The evidence is just not there. An elegant cover, fancy graph, and attractive typeface cannot disguise weak performance. The portfolio is an evidence-based document. Every claim made must be supported by hard evidence. For example, a professor who claims that student evaluations rate his overall teaching performance as \"outstanding\" must provide numerical rating data that bear out this claim. A professor who claims to have published an article in a top-tier journal must provide a copy of that published article.

How Much Time Does It Take to Prepare a Portfolio?

Most faculty members construct the portfolio in fifteen to twenty hours spread over several days. Most of that time is spent thinking, planning, and gathering the documentation for the appendixes. Updating the material is made easy and can be accomplished in a single day if the professor maintains a file of everything relating to teaching, research and scholarship, and service so that all of the evidence needed for a portfolio update is in one location. A gentle caution: When new material is added to the portfolio, older, less relevant material is removed. The size of the portfolio remains about the same.

How Long Is the Typical Academic Portfolio?

The typical portfolio is fourteen to nineteen pages, followed by a series of appendixes that document the claims made in the narrative. Often a three-ring binder holds the portfolio, and tabs identify the different appendixes. Just as information in the narrative should be selective, so should the appendixes consist of judiciously chosen evidence. If the appendixes contain nonprint materials or items that do not fit within the portfolio cover-such as books, videotapes, or CDs-the professor may briefly discuss these materials and make them available for inspection on request.

How Does the Academic Portfolio Differ from the Usual Faculty Report to Administrators at the End of Each Academic Year?

First, the portfolio empowers faculty to include the documents and materials that, in their judgment, best reflect their performance in teaching, research and scholarship, and service. It is not limited to items posed by administrators. Second, the portfolio is based on collaboration and mentoring rather than being prepared by faculty in isolation. Third, in preparing the portfolio, professors engage in structured reflection about why they do what they do as academic professionals, and for many faculty-almost as a product-it produces an improvement in performance. Fourth, professors describe the nature and significance of their work in clear, simple language, and that is of enormous help to members of tenure and promotion committees, especially those not in the professor's discipline.

Why Do Portfolio Models and Mentors Need to Be Available to Professors as They Prepare Their Own Portfolios?

The models enable them to see how others-in a variety of disciplines-have combined documents and materials into a cohesive whole. Some institutions have found it helpful to make available locally developed portfolio models of exemplary, satisfactory, and unsatisfactory quality. At the same time, since most faculty come to the academic portfolio with no previous experience with the concept, the resources of a mentor with wide knowledge of the ways to document teaching, research and scholarship, and service should be made available to them.

Can a Portfolio Be Prepared by a Professor Working Alone?

An isolated approach to portfolio preparation has limited potential to contribute to tenure and promotion decisions or to improve performance. Why? Because portfolio entries prepared by a professor working alone provide none of the controls or collaboration of evidence that may be needed to sustain personnel decisions. It also enlists none of the collegial or supervisory support needed in a program of performance improvement. In practice, the portfolio is best prepared in collaboration with another person, who serves as portfolio mentor. A department chair, a colleague, or a faculty development specialist can talk to the professor about such guiding questions as why she is preparing the portfolio, what sources of evidence she will include, why she needs balance among the portfolio sections, and what the portfolio must include in order to be in line with current department and institution mission and goals. In short, the portfolio mentor helps the professor separate the wheat from the chaff.

Must the Mentor Be from the Same Discipline as the Professor Who Is Preparing the Portfolio?

The process of collaboration is not discipline specific. True, a mentor from the same discipline can provide special insights and understandings as well as departmental expectations and practices. But a mentor from a different discipline can often help clarify the institution's viewpoint, the \"big picture.\" That can be a significant help since portfolios submitted for personnel decisions are read by faculty and administrators from other disciplines.

Because the Role of the Mentor Is So Crucial, How Are Mentors Recruited?

Once faculty have been taught about the portfolio and coached by trained mentors from outside the institution, a core group of faculty emerges as experienced leaders who can help others in developing their portfolios. A faculty development administrator may facilitate the process by educating both faculty and administrators about academic portfolios, sponsoring in-house workshops, helping faculty members connect with mentors, and setting up a library of reading materials, forms, and sample portfolios. The cost is nominal, and the payoff is better performance in teaching, research and scholarship, and service.

Who Owns the Portfolio?

Without question, the portfolio is owned by the professor who prepared it. Decisions about what goes into the portfolio are generally cooperative ones between the mentor and the professor. But the last word, the final decision on what to include, its ultimate use, and retention of the final document all rest with the professor.

Should Administrators Develop the Portfolio Program and Then Tell Faculty to Prepare Portfolios?

Absolutely not. Imposing a portfolio program on faculty is almost certain to lead to strenuous faculty resistance. Far better is to involve faculty in both developing and running the program. It makes no difference if portfolios are used for tenure and promotion decisions or for improving performance; either way, the program must be faculty driven.

The Portfolio Concept Is Undoubtedly Useful For Junior Faculty, But Why Should Senior Faculty Want to Write One?

All academics stand to benefit from writing a portfolio. At institutions where post-tenure review is required, the portfolio can play a major role in describing and documenting a professor's ongoing commitment to academic excellence and professional integrity. Portfolios can be instrumental in determining salary increases, merit pay, awards, grants fellowships, and release time.

Moreover, because improvement in performance is a primary motive for engaging in the reflection and documentation that comprise a portfolio, senior faculty can prepare portfolios to sharpen their teaching, research and scholarship, and service skills or set the stage for experimentation and innovation.

Are the Time and Energy Required to Prepare a Portfolio Really Worth the Benefits?

In the view of the writers, and in the views of virtually every one of the scores of faculty members we have personally mentored as they prepared their portfolios, the answer is a resounding yes. It usually takes no more than a few days to prepare, and the benefits are considerable. The portfolio allows professors to describe their strengths and accomplishments for the record, a clear advantage when evaluation committees examine the record in making promotion and tenure decisions. But the portfolio does more than that. Many faculty members report that the very process of collecting and sorting documents and materials that reflect their performance serves as a springboard for self-improvement and a reexamination of priorities.

What Guidelines Would You Suggest for Getting Started with Portfolios?

Perhaps the best way to get started is for a group of faculty to develop general standards of good teaching, research and scholarship, and service. Guiding the group should be the emphasis on the institution's strategic plan, and the need to develop an institutionwide evaluation system with common elements and procedures, yet have enough flexibility to accommodate diverse approaches to teaching, research and scholarship, and service. The following guidelines should be helpful in doing so:

  • Start small.
  • Involve the institution's (or department's) most respected faculty members from the start.
  • Rely on faculty volunteers, and don't force anyone to participate.
  • Obtain top-level administrative support for the portfolio concept and an institutional commitment to provide the necessary resources to launch the program successfully.
  • Field-test the portfolio process.
  • Keep everyone-faculty and administrators-fully informed about what is going on every step of the way.
  • Permit room for individual differences in portfolios. Styles of teaching, research and scholarship, and service differ. So do disciplines.

It is important to allow a year, even two years, for the process of acceptance and implementation. During this period, draft documents should be carefully prepared, freely discussed, and modified as needed. And keep in mind that all details of the program need not be in place before implementation. Start the program incrementally, and be flexible to modification as it develops. Remember that the quest for perfection is endless. Don't stall the program in an endless search for the perfect approach. The goal is improvement, not perfection.

President John F. Kennedy was fond of telling a story about the French marshal Louis Lyautey. When the marshal announced that he wished to plant a tree, his gardener responded that the tree would not reach full growth for a hundred years. \"In that case,\" replied Lyautey, \"we have no time to lose. We must start to plant this afternoon.\" Colleges and universities thinking of using academic portfolios for improvement in performance or personnel decisions have no time to lose. They must get started now.