An Argument for Learning Portfolios in Literature Classes

The spring semester begins next week, and I will return to my year-long project about my experience as visiting assistant professor. But I want to use this week to make an argument: if we want literary studies to remain a prominent feature of higher education, then we need to train our students to discuss their learning. And one way to do so is to incorporate learning portfolios into our syllabi.

Last weekend, while many of us were at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention, CNN published an article by Michael Bérubé, the current president of the MLA, entitled “What will you do with an English degree? Plenty.” An eloquent writer and a practical thinker, Bérubé has long been one of the field’s strongest defenders, and here he makes a case for the vocational benefits of the English major:

strange as it may sound, if you’re an employer who needs smart, creative workers, a 50-page honors project on a 19th century French poet might be just the thing you want to see from one of your job applicants. Not because you’re going to ask him or her to interpret any poetry on the job, but because you may be asking him or her, at some point, to deal with complex material that requires intense concentration – and to write a persuasive account of what it all means. And you may find that the humanities major with extensive college experience in dealing with complex material handles the challenge better – more comprehensively, more imaginatively – than the business or finance major who assumed that her degree was all she needed to earn a place in your company.

This is not a new argument: the belief that a humanities degree helps one to synthesize and present complex information is as old as the degree itself, and earlier this year places like the Washington Post and Open Culture ran stories about tech firms needing humanities students. There is empirical evidence to support the argument, too: Bérubé cites Josipa Roksa and Richard Arum’s Academically Adrift (2011), the much-discussed study of what, if anything, students learn in college. Sometimes lost in the popular press’s coverage of the book’s thesis — that students don’t learn much — was the point that students’ learning depends very much on major. Unlike students pursuing vocational degrees (business majors, for example), students with traditional arts and sciences majors in fact did quite well. And this includes English majors. The point Bérubé stresses is that (unsurprisingly) students learn more when they are required to read and write a lot. Which, of course, English classes require them to do.

It is crucial for leaders in the field, like Bérubé, to advocate for the importance of the English major. And I think we should shout from the rooftops studies like Academically Adrift, which empirically verify what we know and feel to be true. But ultimately, if we are going to maintain literature’s place in the academic curriculum, we need advocates beyond the academy. And our greatest allies in this should be our students. At the top of Bérubé’s article is a picture of Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he also mentions Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute. Both men hold master’s degrees in English, but the vast majority of our students (and indeed, students in every major) will not reach such high-profile positions. Pointing to such successes is great, but insufficient.

What I am proposing is that we train all of our students to discuss what they learn in our courses. This seems to me an application of skills we already teach: to borrow Bérubé’s language, dealing with complex material (their own learning) and writing a persuasive account of what it means.

The learning portfolio is one way to help students discuss their own learning. Two of my literature courses this spring incorporate learning portfolios, in substantially different ways. The first is an introductory course, consisting of non-majors and potential majors. The theme of the course is “school stories” (you’ll find a description of the syllabus here), and the primary goal is to introduce students to the fundamentals of literary analysis: as with most introductory literary courses, the major assignments include papers and participation. But I have included on the syllabus periodic short writing assignments (from a single paragraph to one page) asking students to discuss their learning habits. I begin by asking for something they learned last semester, and in the first few weeks I will ask about their schedules (when are they reading and writing) and their habits (how they are annotating the texts). As the semester progresses students will respond to my comments on their papers and ultimately tell me what they feel they have learned from the class.

Most students in this class may not be English majors, and the goal of the assignment is not to coerce or even convince them to change. In fact, I’m taking the risk that an English major will decide he is not getting much from the major and switch to business. But I’m willing to take that risk, and only in part because it is just as likely that a business major will discover that she really is benefiting from her literature class, and switch to English. I genuinely believe that humanities courses do teach the stills that will be most valuable in the twenty-first century. Cathy Davidson has noted that “fully 65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet,” and while she certainly believes in updating the English curriculum (e.g., abolishing term papers) she makes a convincing case that the best preparation for jobs that haven’t been invented is a liberal arts education, with a strong foundation in the humanities.

My other course is a junior-level Romanticism course for majors. Our focus is on a single literary period, and we’ll spend the majority of our time reading poetry, making good use of Chip Tucker’s prosody tool, For Better for Verse. Students will write weekly one-page papers, designed to build their close reading skills. The first half of the semester will focus on these close readings. The second half of the semester, though, we will turn to critical methods: I will provide summaries of some studies in Romanticism, with an emphasis on what assumptions the author holds (examples include Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, Mellor’s Romanticism and Gender, McGann’s “Rethinking Romanticism,” and Edmundson’s Why Read?). My goal is for students to begin considering what it means for them to be English majors: how do they want to be reading? What is important for them? The final assignment will ask students to choose a method, looking back to the one-page papers they’d written earlier. They will revise their earlier work, and reflect on what they’ve gained from the course.

Much research on teaching and learning attests to how these kinds of assignments benefit students: those who develop their metacognitive skills, monitoring and controlling their own learning, both perform better and better remember what they learn (for a summary, see chapter seven of Susan Ambrose et al.’s How Learning Works). This was my initial motivation for using learning portfolios in my classes, and I’ve been using some version of this assignment for years (we do need to address the problem of knowledge transfer if we wish our teaching to expand beyond our classes, but that is a very solvable problem).

Yet I am beginning to think it not just beneficial for students but politically imperative for us that we help our students to convey what they learn in our classes. Florida, my home state, has already begun introducing policies designed to incentivise students away from the humanities. But imagine if a generation of lawyers, teachers, politicians, and executives not only fondly recollected the courses they took as English majors, but also could clearly and persuasively explain how those courses helped them in their careers. Future citizens, former majors, can help us to make the case to future students, and convince them that an English major will help them in whatever yet-to-be invented careers they choose.

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