College Education and the Postmodern Condition
Interestingly, Faigley (1995) notes in Fragments of Rationality, that composition as a discipline came into contemporaneous birth with the socio-historic, philosophic, and aesthetic movement known as postmodernism. Yet shared birthdays does not entail, in general and depending on whom one speaks with, of course, commonality or mutual goals. On the contrary, though, eportfolios are greatly indebted to modern notions of identity; and narrative, which is of paramount importance, tells us that both eportfolios--and writing studies--have made serious investments in the idea of a relatively stable self that gravitates towards growth and revelation; all while postmodernism continues a systematic critique of identity, continuity, unity, and teleology, preferring the term subjectivity as a starting point from which to write about fractured selves in a chaotic world.
Of course, this contrarian portrait is quite reductive, and current eportfolio scholarship demonstrates a willingness to confront critiques of postmodernism and the question of writerly identity. Still, if we allow Maxine Hairston (1990) to speak for early eportfolios, then this portrait is not so far-fetched. Consider what she says about composition teachers dealing with contemporary theory and publishing:
I have been reading—or mostly just skimming—College English with increasing irritation in the last several months, and finally I just have to protest. I find the magazine dominated by name-dropping, unreadable, fashionably radical articles that I feel have little to do with the concerns of most college English teachers. I can't believe they serve the audience that NCTE is supposed to serve. I'm also very concerned about the image of the profession I think the magazine would convey to the public if they read it (thank goodness they don't!): that of low-risk Marxists who write very badly, are politically naive, and seem more concerned about converting their students from capitalism than in helping them to enjoy writing and reading. That isn't the image I want to present to the public, and I don't think it is one that serves our best interests. (pp. 694-5)
Her equation between postmodern thinkers and a poor-man’s Marxism reveals much of the divide between the purpose of eportfolios and the essence of postmodernism.
Given the purpose of eportfolios, to help students reflect on and recognize their educational growth, this contrarian portrait becomes a tool if we think of postmodernism not in terms of the aesthetic or philosophical movements, but the sociohistorical movement Faigley calls postmodernity:
Similar to the critiques of postmodern theory, discourses on postmodernity often speak of the fragmentation of the subject, the loss of faith in science and progress, and a rising awareness of irrationality and chaos, but they attribute these effects to major economic and cultural shifts. (emphasis added, 1995, p. 9)
While Hairston seems to argue against aesthetic and philosophical postmodernism in particular, Faigley wonders about the relationship of writer subjectivity situated in postmodernity. What happens if this question is transplanted to a localized setting such as the university, such as a student navigating the university?
The hierarchical, pyramidal structure of the university does not readily lend itself to interdisciplinary connections for students. An information technology student, for example, seems to work solely in his or her discipline with the established parameters of disciplinary thought processes and without outside influence. This student finds it difficult and perhaps cannot bridge the divide between his or herself and those studying mechanical engineering, unless through extracurricular events specifically designed to join the disciplines together. Students in English find it difficult to communicate or think together with psychology students. If art students and music students find it difficult to establish a creative community, then how much more trouble must biologists and historians endure to establish a gathering of the minds?
Yet there have been concerted efforts to establish interdisciplinary thinking. Our university has managed, like so many others, to set up cross-disciplinary communities. The American Communities Program at California State University, Los Angeles, for example, recently gathered to analyze the binary concept of utopia/dystopia, bringing together scholars from such diverse fields as sociology, anthropology, history, and English. However, how do students make sense of such diverse fields, especially when they must consider fields that are hardly similar and mostly different, fields such as business, biology, criminal justice, communications, nursing, foreign languages, political science, philosophy, kinesiology, urban studies, and so on? After a roundtable discussion or lecture, students have little more left to do but return to their departmentalized majors, all the while waiting for the next lecture, all the while working to graduate and work, not to make intellectual explorations.
As William Riley Parker (1967) has bemoaned some forty-five years ago, the university sets up each academic discipline as an isolated study area, as a unit contained within itself, operating “provincially” and living solely for its own ends and purposes, as if existing in a vacuum. It is this post-Fordist fragmentation, then, that Faigley (1995) addresses in his analysis of postmodernism and writing instruction. And one of the answers to this fragmentation lies in Faigley’s description of Lyotard’s postmodern thought: “Lyotard’s theory of postmodern knowledge not only grants space for agency but also insists that subjects are like nodes in networks of discourses that combat the entropy of the overall system by constantly innovating” (p. 218). It’s that entropy that Parker identifies, claiming “To live intellectually in one's own time is as provincial and misleading as to live in one's own culture” (p. 339). What eportfolios do, then, if afford students the opportunity to reignite Lyotard's nodes,to revivicate the switches, to make connections not only between courses, but between educational encounters, seminars, conferences, and the broader educational mission of an institution. The mere narrative act of reflection gives students the platform to build intercurricular connections sustained by a metanarrative that the curriculum may not afford.
This webtext’s broader call is for structural reformation in the university that not only permits but makes interdisciplinary conversations natural via eportfolios. Meanwhile, other activities exist that we can apply to speak across the wall and to help students draw connections between compartmentalized disciplines, and eportfolios is one such activity. eportfolios specifically empower students to make interdisciplinary connections and to act as nodes accessing information and knowledge from various sources and transmitting these to one location. This location in cyberspace becomes a site for personal narrative, metareflection, and a sort of bildungsroman, a collection, synthesis, and an interpretation of acquired knowledge and the student’s educational development, a progress report indicating how he or she have met or not yet met the educational goals and standards, a bridge to life after the university.
The next section, Existing Structures, discusses the portfolio and collaborative structures in place at our institution, before the eportfolio pilot.