Portfolio for Disciplinary Commons

Josh Tenenberg
2005-06 Academic Year

Version 2 June 2006

URL: http://depts.washington.edu/comgrnd/portfolios/joshTenenberg/commonsPortfolio.html



The Disciplinary Commons was designed for teaching faculty within a single discipline within a specific geographic region to meet monthly, face-to-face to share share knowledge and improve the regional teaching and learning within the discipoine. Course portfolios were used as the central method for structuring both the sequence of topics throughout the year as well as the specific interactions during the meetings. Each participant in the Commons constructed a portfolio centered on a specific course that he or she taught during the academic year. The portfolio was constructed in monthly increments, which were shared, discussed, and critiqued at each monthly meeting. At the end of the academic year, the participants made their entire portfolios public to the wider community of teachers within the discipline.

The Commons was carried out in parallel in two different locations, both within the discipline of Computer Science. Sally Fincher, of the University of Kent at Canterbury led the Commons in the United Kingdom and I led the Commons in the Puget Sound region of Washington state in the United States. Sally and I worked together to develop the basic ideas, rationale, and structure of the Commons, though our region-specific instantiations also reflected our individual conceptions of the project as well as our responses to our individual contexts. This document serves as my course portfolio for the Commons.

A Defining Irony

Teaching in higher education is governed by a central irony. College teaching is perhaps unique among the major professions, in that its practitioners receive no formal education (in theory or methods) nor practical training or experience in the actual work of the profession (i.e. teaching!) prior to starting their lives within the profession. And, having started, they almost always practice behind closed doors, isolated from the very community of professional colleagues with whom they might (but usually do not) share collective cultural knowledge about how to become better teachers. The Disciplinary Commons project is an attempt to open the doors of the classroom, to not take this irony as a fixed fact of academic life, and to address our human needs to personally and professionally develop, to become better teachers within a community of other teachers.

Purpose and Audience: Hall of Mirrors

There are two primary audiences for this portfolio. The first includes the participants in the Disciplinary Commons in the US, and also my partner in this enterprise, Sally Fincher. In this respect it is directed toward the "protected" community of those directly involved. Deliberately and yet somewhat covertly I have been creating my own "portfolio" of the Commons project since the start of the academic year, in a fashion that mirrors what the participants in this project have been doing. Deliberately in that the creation of the same elements as my participants in lockstep with them has been a conscious plan. I have been making these public, and discussing them at each meeting (though occasionally only very briefly). Somewhat covertly, because I have not made obvious nor brought attention to what I have been doing. My hope is that by making this parallel construction overt, that it will deepen the experience for all participants, and lead to continuing interaction between us.

The second audience is other faculty development "brokers" (to use Wenger's term (1988)) who might want to adapt or extend this model, perhaps to other disciplines, within a different context, for different though related goals, and/or using a different structure. It is largely for this audience that I have attempted to provide some narrative coherence, as well as descriptive details, which will hopefully serve as a proxy for the participation (and hence knowledge and context) that we were were not able to share together.

My inspiration for mirroring the work of the participants is what Donald Schon (1987) calls hall of mirrors. What is meant by this in the context of the Commons is that the workshop itself could be viewed as a "course" which I was designing and teaching, and so my "portfolio" could serve both as a model and as a medium of interaction between myself and participants. Just as participants were describing objectives, context, content, and each of the other portfolio parts for their courses each month, I too was trying to articulate and disclose these same elements with respect to the Commons itself. The portfolio increments were artifact/annotation pairs, with the artifact being a descriptive document, for example course objectives, or samples of student work, and the annotation being an interpretive document, explaining the meaning, significance and/or rationale associated with the artifact.

So, for example, during the first session, centered on our Course Objectives, my artifact stated my objectives for the Commons, and my annotation stated why I thought these objectives were important.

I have hyperlinks to these incrementally-generated portfolio elements throughout this document, that were presented each month at the Commons sessions. The URL for each of these documents has http://depts.washington.edu/comgrnd/sessions/ in its prefix, and the intent is that these particular hyperlinked documents be considered essential parts of the portfolio, not peripheral. Additionally, I summarize, comment upon, and occasionally elaborate on these portfolio parts that already exist.

The purpose of this portfolio then is to model, to reflect, to disclose. These practices that I "teach" -- the very practices that the Commons participants engaged in -- are the ones that I use and believe in. They are an inextricable part of me.


As just mentioned, I stated my objectives for the Commons at our first meeting, as my artifact / annotation pair. In essence, my goals are to bring together faculty members in Computer Science from the same region to document, reflect upon, and talk about the teaching and learning in their classrooms. This is because I see teaching (just as I see so many other things) as engaged social practice. It is active, involving our whole beings, it is "craftwork", and, if we are lucky, it is practiced in a community of other craftworkers.

University-level teaching is the only profession that I know of where the qualifying education involves no practice or theory in the profession itself. The presumption is that depth of knowledge within a discipline constitutes the necessary and sufficient conditions (though it is neither) to teach at a university. And this relies primarily on an implicit model of "content delivery" from teacher to student. What makes matters worse is that teachers do much of their practice alone, isolated from the very peers who could help offset the lack of teaching knowledge.

An alternative viewpoint -- and the one on which this workshop is based -- is that the teacher constructs craft knowledge through active practice in the situated context of classroom and university. And through reflection and externalization of this craft knowledge within a group of other practitioners in the discipline, practitioners can develop as teachers through sociocultural knowledge co-construction.


Context more than anything else is what defined this project -- certainly within the US instantiation, and is what led to the objectives. I sketched some important contextual factors at the October meeting, though these are probably meaningful (at best) to those who already share much of this context.

The most important aspect of context influencing the Commons concerned a history of interaction between the faculty of University of Washington, Tacoma's Institute of Technology and Community and Technical Colleges (CTC's) in the South Puget Sound region of Washington state. This relationship was something of a shotgun marriage, at least initially, primarily for two reasons. First, UW Tacoma offers only upper-level and master-level degree programs, and so depends heavily upon the regional community colleges for incoming students. Second, the formation of the Institute of Technology at UWT in 2001 by the Washington state legislature brought with it a set of obligations for interaction between the Institute and the CTC's that would be part of the student "pipeline". Since that time, Computer Science teachers from the CTC's and the Institute have met quarterly, and have initiated two collaborative projects. The first is called "Teaching Fellows", where community college faculty are released from teaching obligations at their home institution and spend one quarter in residence at the Institute, co-teaching one (and sometimes more) courses. The other collaborative effort was an offering of an Object-Oriented Programming course (TCSS 143), where lectures were "delivered" via television (ITV) from the Institute to four participating community colleges.

Although the Fellows is generally considered successful and the ITV effort is not (as reflected in the hallway conversation and the discussion at subsequent quarterly meetings), they both share some common characteristics. On the positive side, both involve faculty from a variety of institutions, meeting face-to-face (sometimes only occasionally, as in the case of ITV). And they involve a shared endeavor of interest to all parties. But on the negative side, both are characterized by the unequal relationship between the faculty at each institution: UWT faculty clearly are in positions of relative dominance. Second, the knowledge that was shared was to a great extent unidirectional. The assumption is that the Institute has the technical knowledge that it pushes outward in order to improve the technical knowledge of CTC faculty, which in turn leads to improved teaching and learning, and hence a better pipeline of students. That the structural aspects of these joint efforts would embed the established power relationships between community colleges and the university should be unsurprising. What is a testament to the integrity and sincere desire for communication and mutual development of many of the faculty who participated -- at all institutions - is that despite these structural impediments there developed friendship, mutual respect, and camaraderie among participants.


I stated some of my underlying assumptions on which the Commons project was based during the January meeting. But this left tacit most of my rationale for designing this project as I did. I try to make this rationale explicit in this section.

This workshop is based on my belief (grounded most firmly in the work of Dewey (1916)) that education has as its goal the full human development of the individual, and that this human development is the basis for a democratic society. As Feenberg states "The goal of a good society should be to enable human beings to realize their potentialities to the fullest" (2002, p19). Within the context of faculty development, I begin with the assumption that teachers (and by extension, their students) are moral, creative, autonomous agents with responsibility for making choices about how to teach and learn. Such choices are always made in response to the specifics of the context-dependent, lived events of teacher's daily lives (McLellan, 1996), and are carried out within communities of other practitioners embedded within and interacting with larger institutional and organizational social arrangements (Wenger, 1998). The argument related to "Hall of Mirrors" suggests that our lives and those of our students are inextricably linked, that the freedoms that we ourselves win -- freedoms to think, to creatively bring our wisdom to bear on the problems of life -- might equally be won by our students. But this will require deliberateness and planfulness on our part. This emphasis on participant autonomy, on shared practice, and on individual and collective development meant that my role was not as "content expert" within the discipline (though in my other professional roles, having this content expertise is important). Rather, my role was to facilitate reflective practice, encourage autonomy, and model mutual critique and peer review.

As citizens of modern, industrial societies, and particularly as teachers of students who will be working with technology, the models and metaphors that we share in conceptualizing the teaching enterprise will shape our collective thinking and hence the developmental trajectories of our students and ourselves. And we should particularly pay attention to how these models and metaphors are embedded in the discourse concerning students within our region.

The dominating discourse concerning the students that the CTC's and the Institute share describes students as objects of control within an industrial order. Students are "product" that flow through an educational "pipeline." Students are acted upon, instrumentalities toward someone else's ends. They are work units in an assembly line. And in becoming so, they are removed from the contexts that give their lives richness and meaning. "Workers on the assembly line are not essentially members of a community, nor are they merely a source of muscle power as a slave might be: insofar as possible, they are components of the machinery" (Feenberg, 2002, p179).

This view of education, particularly technical education, of the person-as-part has a long history in the United States (reviewed in (Kantor, 1986)). The Massachusetts commissioner of education, David Snedden, stated in an article in the New Republic in 1915 "Vocational education is, irreducibly and without unnecessary mystification, education for the pursuit of an occupation" (p. 41, quoted in (Braundy, 2004). This reflects larger concerns involving not just the technological worker, but the role of citizens in a technologically advanced civilization. "We are engaged ... in the transformation of the entire world, ourselves, included, into `standing reserves,' raw materials to be moblibized in technical processes" (Heidegger, 1977) quoted in (Feenberg, 2002).

This implies that we as teachers are instrumentalities of the techno-industrial machine, but one level "up": part-producing parts. And this metaphor of industrial production structures our conceptualizations of "the problem" that community college and university faculty face. The problem is low production (i.e. of technically-trained graduates), which in turn determines our relationship to one another: together we comprise the pipeline, we meet only at the joints (small and thin interfaces), and our only collective task is to make sure that these interfaces are fit closely and seamlessly together to minimize leakage. Or to use another metaphor, we are the learning factory, and we have to ensure the quality of our product, passed along the educational assembly line.

Lest we think ourselves as teachers somehow immunized from an instrumental role in a technological world order, the historian of science and technology, David Noble, provides a cautionary perspective. In Digital Diploma Mills, Noble discusses distance education as part of a larger effort to commodify education into portable, competitively marketed "learning units" that can be aggresively marketed to student-clients, thus deskilling most of the professoriate (Noble 2001, Noble 2002). "The commodification of education requires ... the disintegration and distillation of the educational experience into discrete, reified, and ultimately saleable things or packages of things" (2002).

I recoil against these perspectives of ourselves and our students, both inhumane and anti-democratic. Parts provide function; it would be absurd, inconceivable for parts to reflect upon the machine that makes them, or the system of which they are a part. Irrational to imagine parts wishing to refashion the system in which they function. And yet such a reflective practice (Schon 1987, Dewey 1910), is perhaps our main means for reconceptualizing ourselves and the system in which we exist.

We can replace these industrial models and metaphors of education with those consistent with a Deweyian view of human development. Noble characterizes education as essentially involving a coming into being through conscious awareness of oneself and one's relationship with others (2002):

Education is a process that necessarily entails an interpersonal (not merely interactive) relationship between people -- student and teacher (and student and student) that aims at individual and collective self-knowledge. ... Education is a process of becoming for all parties, based upon mutual recognition and validation and centering upon the formation and evolution of identity. The actual content of the educational experience is defined by this relationship between people and the chief determinant of quality education is the establishment and enrichment of this relationship.
This allows us as teachers to supplant shop-floor discourse with a new language so as to characterize our relationships to one another: colleague, partner, collaborator, critic, friend.

As to the specifics of how this translates into a concrete course of action, the predominant influence concerns my experience in co-organizing the Bootstrapping Research in Computer Science Education project. This project had as its goals the improvement of the state of Computer Science education research via the development of skills (in the design, conduct and management of research) of Computer Science educators, and the establishment of research relationships that extend beyond the duration of the project. The main mechanism for achieving these goals was through a pair of intensive 5-day workshops among a cohort of 20 Computer Science faculty members on year apart, with joint work on a shared research study spanning the year between workshops. What this workshop demonstrated was the power of bringing people together face-to-face to engage in collaborative learning on projects of mutual interest. I thus hoped to replicate some of the feel of the Bootstrapping project if not part of the structure.

In the next section, I describe how the context in which the workshops developed and my philosophical assumptions led to particular structural design elements of the workshop.


Specific Content

An overview of the content of the project is given in the Sessions Overview document. This provides outlines for each monthly session (with each "topic" entry being a hyperlink to the corresponding session outline), links to the portfolio increments that participants were to prepare each month (detailed in the Portfolio Deliverables document), and a set of associated readings for each month.

Design Elements

In order to link the context and objectives to the content of the workshop, it will be necessary to point out what I call the key design elements of the workshop. These design elements reflect the deliberate choices that in sum characterized the workshop and determined its content at a detailed level.


To a great extent, many of the design elements above are both content and method. The course portfolio is a case in point: not only did participants construct portfolio increments each month, but they brought the increments to the monthly meetings for sharing and discussing. A few additional explicitly "method" elements are worth comment.

Peer Review

This project received continuous peer review in two distinct forms. I mean "peer review" not in the sense of a research paper being blind (or double blind) peer reviewed as part of the selection process necessary for publication. Rather, I mean peer review in the sense in which one might send a research paper to colleagues for commentary and critique prior to the selection review. This is also the sense in which the peer observations were carried out among pairs of participants, as well as the paired peer reviews of portfolios.

The first form of review, as mentioned above, was a monthly debriefing of the Commons sessions by the session host (i.e. one of the participants). The session outline is used to structure the debriefing. Each session topic is discussed, starting from the first topic of the session, and moving sequentially through the topics in the order in which they occurred in the session. The debriefer and I each discussed our impressions of how well the activity/discussion associated with each topic achieved its purpose with respect to the session and to the project as a whole. After all topics were discussed, I asked the debriefer "do you have any other comments you would like to make about the session or the project as a whole?" I found this to be a "sanity check" on the sessions, and it helped me to address any concerns that a participant raised at the next meeting.

The second form of review was the debriefing and planning phone meetings that Sally Fincher and I would have before and after each of our sessions. This allowed us the opportunity to articulate some of our reasoning behind particular components of the meetings, and also to see how differences in context led to differences in the approach that we might take to the same topic.

Evidence for Meeting Objectives

The remarks here are preliminary, as Sally Fincher and I will do an extensive evaluation of this project during the 2006-07 academic year. We will be using a variety of data including the final portfolios, surveys and interviews of our participants. These remarks therefore primarily raise questions rather than answer them.

At the midway point in the project, for the session on Student Learning, I had mirrored participants' exploration of empirical evidence for achievement of course learning goals with a discussion on evidence of participant achievement of Commons goals. My raw data included the portfolio increments participants had generated to date, my reflective notes following each meeting, my debriefing notes with participants and with Sally Fincher.

Based on this, I believed that people were engaged in meaningful conversations on teaching within our classrooms. Everyone contributed to discussion at each of the meetings, and each person had the opportunity to have their portfolio increment discussed in some form. Attendance was virtually 100% at each meeting with rare exception. And, despite my leaving most meetings feeling that there was not enough time for discussion, informal feedback and debriefings indicated that participants were finding the sessions helpful in learning about the teaching and learning occuring in one another's classrooms as well as reflecting on their own teaching.

What was less clear was the extent to which participants were willing to critically challenge one another's teaching choices as a means to deepen individual and collective understanding. For instance, I wondered why there were not more explicit "why" questions during the plenary sessions regarding particular teaching choices made by individuals, as there had been when Qi Wang and I mutually critiqued one another's portfolios during the previous year when we ran a 2-person pilot of the Commons. I was concerned that people might be pseudo-agreeing as a way to avoid direct challenges: "It was not until we had worked with the teachers for 18 months that we and the teachers could be said to constitute a community of practice with a joint enterprise. Prior to this, interactions among the teachers during the work sessions that we conducted with them frequently involved what Grossman, Wineburg, and Woolworth (2000) term pseudo-agreements that serve to mask differences in viewpoints" (Cobb et al., 2003).

Subsequent to the mid-point session, a few artifacts related to goal achievement particularly stand out. The first of these is the summary of our discussion on What We Value based on our examinations of the grading that we each do in our courses (though note that this artifact is only accesible to the participants). I found people's comments particularly insightful about their goals and philosophies. It validates the stance that a useful way for interrogating our own beliefs about teaching and learning is empirically and indirectly, by looking at the ways in which these beliefs are already embedded in the interactions and documents that we have created.

Another important artifact is the Peer observation debrief during our debrief of our paired observations. I was struck by the way in which the experience of being observed - so often done in a high-stakes and sharply judgemental fasion - could be reconfigured into a mechanism for collaborative inquiry. As one participant stated "The observation form we used was really helpful. Our school should use it. It makes the process feel collaborative, like the other person is there to help you improve." The comments also reflected an understanding that this form of critical collaboration involves skills quite different from expertise within the discipline.

The final artifact of significance is the talk that we co-wrote and presented at the Pacific Northwest Higher Education Teaching & Learning Conference. The format that we used to co-write the talk slides in a distributed fashion worked remarkably well: agree at our meeting on a talk outline, different people commit to addressing one of the points on the outline, and one person merges the individual contributions and provided design coherence. I thought that the talk itself also went well. It provided me with a perspective on different people's understandings of the impact of the project. I found the debriefing afterward to be particular important - no longer did it seem that we were pseudo-agreeing. Rather, we mixed both praise and criticism for the purposes of mutual improvement. Finally, everyone's attendance at the conference was symbolically important: it symbolized in a single event people's commitment to the project throughout the entire year, it provided a focus for joint creation, and it served to provide collective closure on the project above and beyone individual completion of portfolios.


Thanks first to the participants in this project - it has been a wonderful journey. Thanks as well to Sally Fincher, not only for her initial idea ot use course portfolios, but for her heroic efforts in securing funding so that she could run a Commons in the UK concurrently, thus providing us the opportunity to collaborate closely. Thanks go to the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges for their ongoing support of this project, financial and otherwise, and particularly to Julie Jacob with the State Board, without whom this project would never have been realized. Thanks as well go to Larry Crum and Orlando Baiocchi, the Directors of the UWT Institute of Technology who both provided material support and wholehearted encouragement.


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