By Phoebe Ayers, MLIS day
I need to get one thing out in the open: I am a big fan of the portfolio. The portfolio that I am referring to, of course, is the one that MLIS students who aren't writing a thesis have to complete in order to graduate. The portfolio is the iSchool's way of not only getting around the required final exam for all UW graduate students, but also of confirming that you actually did something meaningful in the two years or more you were here. It consists of five required areas, which by one's second year as a MLIS student become a sort of mantra, heard muttered in the halls by harried looking individuals ("tech, teaching, leadership... or do I have leadership already?")
The portfolio process is ideal for someone like me, who can't make up her mind what she wants to do, is interested in a lot of different areas, and who wants to take on a fairly traditional generalist career. Although I still have two and a half quarters to go, the areas of my portfolio and the skills required by the jobs that I am starting to look at generally seem to line up. Most academic librarian jobs require bibliographic instruction skills, for instance, and voila, there's a teaching component of the portfolio I have to finish anyway. Website design skills required to get a job at 7-11 nowadays? Well, there's the site I completed for the tech portion. And so on.
Of course, the portfolio is not ideal for everyone. The people that the portfolio doesn't suit either have to go through the fight of completing a thesis (something that has been a struggle for years in this school, as indicated by this month's "Blast from the Past") or negotiate with their advisor to do creative projects that work for them. The portfolio is quite flexible, however, and portfolio projects are, indeed, everywhere - at work, in student groups, in numerous emails from student services, and spouting from the mouths of professors everywhere. Seemingly anything can be twisted around to become a shining portfolio project; seemingly every organization in Seattle needs their library organized, their website re-designed, or their users analyzed.
But, in fact, not everything is an ideal portfolio project. Things requiring a great deal of continuity over time or a great deal of maintenance, for instance, are not generally good portfolio projects, unless one is very dedicated or starts early. Frustratingly, this means that any type of original research that one might want to do that actually involves people will likely not be completed or published in one's time here, in part because of the lengthy human subjects review (which is not something the iSchool controls in any way), and in part because most people are not ready to start research until their second year. Furthermore, the master's program is oriented towards practical, service-based projects instead of research, which favors the individual who wants to go be a working librarian but is a disservice to anyone thinking of going on to get a Ph.D. or entering another research-based field.
Other examples of less than ideal portfolio opportunities are projects that involve the school at large. Building a database of internship opportunities for people in this program, for instance, while desperately needed and in other ways an ideal portfolio project, is not a good project because, without strong administrative support, who is going to keep it up after you leave? Because of this situation, the following process often results: a project is suggested by some idealistic student to the staff of the school; it is suggested back that this would be a good portfolio project; it is then realized by the student in question that by the time they got the skills to do said project and complete it they would have graduated, and anyway they already have a job, a full course load, and perhaps family commitments. Furthermore, they have no way of finding anyone to take it on after they leave, so as far as they can tell that lovely database (or whatever) would just fall into the ether after they left. So, being sensible people and not wanting to waste effort, the project just doesn't get started, and the potential beneficiaries of the project are left, again, with no database of internships (or whatever) which really would be quite useful. Then, when the next class of students asks why there is no database, they are told that students must take charge of their own education.
The main thing, perhaps, is just to realize that this process occurs from the get-go, which would save everyone a lot of talk, wasted effort, and frustration. Students can do a lot, and everyone I know is willing to take charge of their education, but changing institutional culture is not a portfolio project. What would be helpful is some administrative support for the long-term continuation of iSchool-based projects. Many of us would love to work on projects that would benefit the school over the long term - whether it's building websites or databases or organizing the school archives - but none of us want to see our efforts go to waste because there is no one to follow up with our efforts. A straightforward statement by the school of how much they are willing to support such projects (and what they are willing to do themselves, on paid staff time, which is a wholly different issue) would be helpful in allowing students to estimating what they can do. Perhaps a portfolio project needs to be made out of gauging the long-term viability of portfolio projects and tracking the ones that need continuity from class to class. Or perhaps, this is something the school should do itself to support its hardworking students.