Rethinking Genres of Reflection: Student Portfolio Cover Letters and the Narrative of Progress

Article excerpt

Composition Studies, Volume 31, Number 1, Spring 2003

The portfolio cover letter, whether it takes the form of a letter, essay, or self-assessment questionnaire, has proven to be at least as important to composition instructors as the rest of the materials collected in their students' writing portfolios (Conway 83). Like many other scholars, such as Kerry Weinbaum, I appreciate these reflective documents for the insights that they provide into students' writing practices, and for the syntheses of teaching and learning that they offer (Camp and Levine 197). But I enjoy these cover letters on a more visceral level as well-they affirm my faith in my students. For example, Jing,1 a student in one of my first-year composition courses, reflects on her quarter's work with pride, characterizing her experiences with writing as a progression from struggle and difficulty to relative security and comfort: "I was neither confidant of my ability to express myself [in] English nor confidant of my writing. I was a bad writer. I was disorganized and did not have any direction when I write. But after I finished [the course], I feel so much better about my English writing skill."

As her instructor, I appreciate and am gratified by Jing's statements-she takes ownership of her writing, honestly evaluates her skills, and indicates her growth as a writer. I want to honor her sense of accomplishment and give real credit to her struggles and successes. Jing's comments testify to the benefits of a portfolio classroom: the processes of developing and reflecting on her skills throughout the quarter have marked a transition for Jing, a movement into a space that, although far from error-free, feels better and more comfortable to her. In response to the implicit requirements of the assignment, Jing has made wise rhetorical choices-her assertions of confidence are moving; her emphasis on the distance her writing has come is appropriate. Indeed, Jing's emphasis on her own progress and growth as a writer is a rhetorical move that I have begun to recognize and label the narrative of progress. Students in many of my composition classes, and in those of my colleagues, have consistently relied on this kind of narrative to enact and perform their transformations from novices into authors.

As a mode of reflection, the portfolio cover essay has developed into a genre that requires a rhetorical maneuver such as the narrative of progress. Asking students to participate in their own evaluation-by requiring them to comment on their best work for the quarter-has fostered the development of discursive strategies for demonstrating growth and improvement. As strategies like the narrative of progress become typical of their respective genres, they also become sites of inquiry for genre analysts working from Carolyn Miller's redefinition of genres as social actions (25). Thus, the portfolio cover essay tells us a great deal not only about our students and their writing habits, but also about the rhetorical and behavioral demands of our own pedagogical practices. An analysis of both our assignments and our students' responses to them suggests, in contrast to our post-process goals, that we currently value the display of personal growth and individual achievement in isolation from the discursive and social practices of larger communities. In other words, the development of the narrative of progress as a response strategy brings into sharp relief the limitations of our current reflective practices: while we encourage students to take an active and thoughtful role in assessing their own work, we paradoxically allow them to remain isolated from the social-interactional nature of that work. In the end, students like Jing leave our classes with an overall sense of improvement but without a sense of how that improvement reflects (or does not reflect) the rhetorical demands and pressures of, in this case, the academic community. Thus, our reflective assignments are quickly refigured as self-reflective assignments, as occasions to consider highly personal and individual qualities and achievements, rather than as occasions to struggle with the relationships-both textual and rhetorical-that constitute writing for a particular community. …