Blogfolios: Remediation of Ethos as Dwelling Place in the ePortfolio

Writing ePortfolio Corner

Cynthia Davidson

A home has doors to let people and goods and resources in and out, windows to let the air in and out.  There must be adequate access.  This brings to mind a story about my friend who builds houses and hotels; he spent the month in the Bahamas working on a convention center.  He made such beautiful doors that he was asked to stay an additional week to “fix” all the other doors that other workers made, even though they worked just fine. He is apparently a master doormaker, an artist of doors.
That’s about aesthetics, not access, and the hotel owners wanted beautiful doors in a stylish building as well as access.  A door can have both.  The main thing is that there is access; it needs to swing open properly so visitors can engage with the space..  And it needs a lock, probably, to keep out those who are not welcome or at least to slow them down, make them think about where they are before they run roughshod. In your home, at some point you’ll want to invite someone over to see what’s important to you there,  have a cup of tea (or a beer), and discuss stories related to those valuable things.  That’s what audience is about; it’s as real and practical as it comes, whether the dwelling place is physical or virtual.  Through the design, access, and functionality of the places we create, we present our selves  to those who visit them.  We invent our ethos.  We situate it.
In Nicholas I. Cordova’s “Invention, Ethos, and New Media in the Rhetoric Classroom,” Cordova describes ethos as a dwelling place  (Multimodal Literacies and Emerging Genres, ed. Tracy Bowen and Carl Whithaus, 143-163).  One might say that Cordova remediates philosopher Martin Heideigger’s remediation of ethos, using the term from Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s book of the same name (2000).  Online communication forums (CMC) also remediate situated ethos. Similarly to the way that CMC remediates the embodied subject (as is shown so dramatically in Julian Dibbell’s “A Rape in Cyberspace”), it remediates the rhetorical subject. In both cases, the subject becomes less transparent, in the way that modern art makes its media apparent to the viewer, rather than configuring it as a window to representation. In both cases, the embodied subjects have deliberately chosen elements to represent themselves online (such as their avatars, their constructed profiles and actions in the multi-user dungeon, the documentation that contributes to their reputation in a USENET group–for the last, see Judith Donath’s “Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community”). Constructed identities push the older, “natural” to the forefront of observation as those older identities become more visible and scrutinizable.
Cordova’s “reaffirmation of rhetoric as architectonic practice of lifeworlds” which “emphasizes the centrality of ethos as dwelling terrain from which a liberatory praxis of design can be launched, one ‘crucial for reading Available Designs and for Designing social futures’ (NLG 1996, 81)” is an interesting assertion to weigh in on a discussion of ePortfolios because, at their best, this is what they are.  The ePortfolio rocks when it is a dwelling place for the ethos of its creator, when it is more than a place where things are stuck, stored, or listed.
The five relations of Cordova’s multimodal literacy pedagogy are fragmentation and modularity; articulation; circulation and dissemination; convergence; and interface (153-155).  An ePortfolio is by its very physical structure modular and fragmentary, and circulation and dissemination are also features of its accessibility.  Convergence, too, is a feature, as it is a place for making connections between the fragments and modules.  Interface is what holds it together and facilitates access, both practically and aesthetically.  Articulation is what gets said and displayed via any of the other four relations.
But sometimes it doesn’t seem like it works that well.  Sometimes the fragmentation and modularity are simply that, and there is no grand convergence, and the interface is flawed or not terribly impressive.  This can be really problematic when the ePortfolio is seen as pretty much a solo performance, but less of an issue when the dwelling place has regular visitors.  For that, the idea of blogfolios discussed by Geoffrey Middlebrook and Jerry Chih-Yuan Sun in “Showcase Hybridity:  A Case for Blogfolios,” chapter 7 of Katharine V. Wills and Rich Rice’s ePortfolio Performance Support Systems: Constructing, Presenting, and Assessing Portfolios, is where I have found myself turning, both as a teacher using ePortfolios and an ePortfolio user.  The authors write, “Through an examination of educational blogging and blogfolios, followed by an assessment of challenges and outcomes, we take the position that if wisely put into effect, hybrid platforms represent a rich and flexible resource waiting to be wielded for the personal, intellectual, and vocational benefit of students” (124).  I am finding this to be, as they put it a few sentences later, a “sticky” concept as I have my students blog through their ePortfolios, either by blogging directly from the ePortfolio module or by linking a blog from another platform to the ePortfolio.  I have blogged before, and in the early weeks of the semester, I decided that while my students wrote weekly blog posts in response to readings and discussions on digital rhetoric, networks, and culture, I would also blog weekly in response to the class.  I decided to move the blog into the ePortfolio that I had constructed for the class, containing the course objectives, readings and links, and general syllabus, along with links to their blogs.
Today when I log into my ePortfolio account, I am greeted by a newsfeed-like home page that lets me know if the conversations on portfolios that I’ve been associated with have updated.  Last year, this would have been pretty slow, even though my personal portfolio has almost 20,000 hits.  People don’t comment on it.  I think they look at it and might even admire it at times but treat it more like a painting than something to interact with.  If it weren’t for the hit counter, I would have no idea that anyone ever looked at it.  I don’t update that portfolio every week because it feels more like a museum than a home, to be honest–a museum dedicated to me.  I enjoy the fact that I made it and that it is there, but even I don’t quite feel at home there sometimes….
Strangely perhaps, I do feel more at home in the course ePortfolio in which I blog, in an entirely different way.  For one thing, the Writing 614: Digital Rhetorics ePortfolio is not a museum to me, but a dwelling place in which I flit around doing stuff, all the time.  I much, much prefer the weekly blogging to lecturing on readings or reviewing discussions. The students’ posts are linked to it, and I can speak to them through the blog as well as through the other aspects of this portfolio.  And because there is more interaction, I find myself somewhat less concerned with the aesthetic quality of each ePortfolio they maintain, although that is a part of interface and one of Cordova’s five important relations of multimodality.  However, one needs to remember that interface is not just about making a pretty or impressive-looking portfolio, any more than a spotless and well-stocked art gallery is a better home than your house.  Think about that for a minute.
I like to share these frameworks, justifications, and general musings with my students when I offer them opportunities to house their identities online, although it isn’t always necessary to use a standard language with terminology such as ethos or architectronics. A multimodal approach to writing is, quite simply, an approach to creating what Cordova called “lifeworlds” or ways of being.  I would say ways of being online, but that would be misleading, too.  The online aspect is that place where being is mediated in these specific situations, such as ePortfolio, but writing and rhetoric scholars like Jody Shipka have been persuasively shaping the idea that multimodality does not have to be digital   (“Including, but Not Limited to, the Digital:  Composing Multimodal Texts” in  Multimodal Literacies and Emerging Genres 73-89). Shipka describes Katie’s project, a response to an assignment called “A History of This Space,” in which Katie created a physical trash can featuring all the real products and by-products of her failed writing processes.  Shipka’s assignments require analytical review and justification for every choice made during the completion of the assignment, which in some cases (as with Brandy Keller’s  “Poke the Pony”) culminated in a single-spaced paper over 25 pages long (which someone printed out, brought to class, and passed around to a thoroughly awed group).  One student in my class, Libby Newhouse, wrote the following summary/observation in her blog:
…Jody Shipka reminds us to broaden our conception of multimodality beyond digital texts. She shows us that even in writing a traditional analysis paper, students often rely on multimodal practices (creating outlines, planning diagrams, writing notes, etc.) to accomplish their tasks (75). Rather than seeing writing pedagogy in terms of teaching distinct skills that are seen as static and useful to all kinds of writing, Shipka argues in favor of training students in “flexibility, adaptation, variation, and metacommunicative awareness,” which will help students realize connections between contexts and forms and the different effects that different types of writing possess (76). These skills are what helped Katie navigate her way through a difficult composition process and make effective use of multimodal forms to create a finished product that made a powerful impact. The different elements of Katie’s final product (notes, to-do lists, print outs from the class discussion board, and a letter explicating her frustrations with the project to future students), all arranged as  crumpled up and disposed ideas in a trash can, demonstrate Katie’s understanding of the importance of integrating multimodal forms to create a coherent and dynamic text. The trashcan is especially powerful here as it creates coherence of all the different strands of Katie’s failed attempts and serves as an example of visual rhetoric that is more evocative than had she created some sort of portfolio or some other means of compilation. Katie’s project also serves to remind us that multimodality is an important skill that is not limited to the digital, as well as the importance of providing students with opportunities to demonstrate the critical skill of being able to represent and communicate their understanding to others.
As I reread Libby’s words, I can’t help but feel a profound sense of convergence between these non-digital and digital senses of multimodal, for another student in the same class, Allison Anziano,  found Shipka’s website,, and found several additional examples of assignments that her students had done as well as Shipka’s own online persona as presented through the site.  Allison felt that the the persona Shipka there presented was one of creative chaos, of a contained messiness–not that different an approach than Katie’s container, both rich spaces for meaning.  The website is Shipka’s professional ePortfolio, including a photography and video showcase of the professor’s work, and a “tour” of student work.
So I would like to suggest that we consider the full range of modalities as we construct our online presences, through ePortfolios or in other virtual spaces.  There also may be times when we need to re-embrace paper and earlier media, but let us do so consciously and as a choice, rather than unconsciously because that is the way we’ve always done it or the only way we know how.  As mentioned above, in my class we talked about how one of Shipka’s students, Brandy Keller,  created “Poke the Pony,”  a “children’s book” that was accompanied by a 27-page paper that justified all the choices that the author made in presenting that multimodal text about the etymology of the word “poke.”  “She had a reason for everything that went into the book,” one student marveled, with admiration–and perhaps with just a tiny bit of revulsion at the amount of painstaking work involved.  But that was the willing price that this writer paid for dwelling fully within that single concept.  The writer had established her ethos to live within that word.  So may we use the media at our disposal to create a viable dwelling place for ourselves online where we may interact with valuable others and their valuable information.
Works Cited
Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin.  Remediation:  Understanding New Media.  MIT Press:  2000. Print.
Cordova, Nathaniel I. ” Invention, Ethos, and New Media in the Rhetoric Classroom.”  Multimodal Literacies and Emerging Genres.  Chapter 6. 143-163. Print.
Donath, Judith S. “Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community.”Communities in Cyberspace.  Ed. Marc A. Smith and Peter Kollock.  London/NY: Routledge, 1999.  29-59. Print.  Also available on the web.  11/2/2013.
Keller, Brandy.  “Poke the Pony.”  Remediate This.  8/14/13.  Web.  11/22013.
Newhouse, Libby.  “Multimodal Composition.  WRT 614–Libby Newhouse.  10/30/13.  Web.  11/5/13.
Shipka, Jody.  “Including, but Not Limited to, the Digital:  Composing Multimodal Texts.”  Multimodal Literacies and Emerging Genres.  Chapter 3. 73-89. Print.
Shipka, Jody. Remediate This.  8/14/13.  Web.  11/2/2013.
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5 Responses to Blogfolios: Remediation of Ethos as Dwelling Place in the ePortfolio

  1. Roger says:

    I love the closing salvo of being purposeful in what media we choose. That in itself is a decision that foregrounds ethos, and it does suggest a “place” that we want for a home for our various and varied texts. Thoughtful post, Cynthia.

  2. Shyam Sharma says:

    Reading your post reminds me of linguist and literary critic Roman Jakobson’s idea of “poetic function” (built on Jan Mukarovsky’s notion of foregrounding), which is essentially a genre theory for describing and distinguishing any discourse, especially in relation to the literary. Jakobson and his fellow Prague School scholars suggested that we view the different genres of discourse/language as the result of foregrounding different functions in a message/text. If the context factor is foregrounded, the text is referentially significant; if the contact factor is foregrounded, the text is phatically/socially significant; and if the addressee/audience is foregrounded, the text is conatively significant. Literature foregrounds the message itself, for its own sake, as it were.

    When you identified the different types of doors–and I think different types of portfolios, analogically–and also when you suggest that the shape/design of the latter reflect the owner’s ethos, I thought that it may make sense to help students think about portfolios as having different genres. For example, the portfolio that students create early on could be seen as a genre that simply showcases their work without considering the audience too much; for some time, students continue to add their best academic showpieces on the site without explicitly thinking about purpose, etc. But at some point, they start thinking about the social functions of their portfolios, creating a new kind of genre; they update and create a new kind of portfolio by updating/redesigning it with a new audience/s in mind. When students are about to graduate, they switch to a new genre, keeping potential employers or graduate admission committees in mind.

    So, like the identity and ethos of an individual, the content (what is included/excluded), design, language, tone, etc of a portfolio needs to be adapted– even though a baseline personality and its original ethos may continue to shape an eportfolio as it evolves.

  3. Cynthia Davidson says:

    Shyam–I like the idea of a baseline personality/ethos. That seems to me to be the mysterious “X” factor that makes an eportfolio really great, as opposed to just good or useful.

    I think what is probably needed is an analytical study of “great” eportfolios, or, if people are reluctant to find any great, very good ones that change and are sustained over time.

    I think blogs probably go through similar stages to the ones you’ve described. One of my undergraduate students is looking at medical blogs. There’s one “Kevin M.D.” that was begun by a young doctor who wanted to explore how physicians could successfully navigate social media, as it was being discouraged as too risky, etc. He ended up having a world-famous blog with a great deal of financial backing and multiple authors all over the globe. His blog changed from a small dwelling to a huge one, so to speak.

    • Shyam Sharma says:

      Cynthia, I have a feeling that we are developing a great theory of portfolios here, replete with cool terminology: X factor, baseline ethos, rhetorical foregrounding of different discourse/media functions, and so on.

  4. Cynthia Davidson says:

    In response to your comments on Jakobson’s theories, I think I found a good connection. We analyzed a teaching eportfolio that was public on the web. It was a portfolio from a teacher who was preservice, and very declarative of the new teacher’s skills, without a lot of demonstration of how those skills had developed over time. Granted, the teacher is between a rock and a hard place if we’re asking her to show something she hasn’t had time to develop. But the discussion ensued about how new teachers feel like they really can’t afford to show growth through trial and error (which would be most genuine) in a teaching eportfolio; they feel like they need to present what they think the employer/school wants to see. It sounds, in fact, an awful lot like the stereotype of the student who is more concerned with what the “teacher wants to hear” than what they are really learning. The stakes are very high for these teachers. The eportfolio declared, I am a good, conscientious teacher…hire me. Yet as readers, we are so often drawn to subtext and what is not declared or justified by a speaker or writer. This may be in large part to training in literary criticism. The owner of that eportfolio foregrounded the addressee (the school who might hire her), not us. We’re viewing it with context foregrounded, I think, according to Jakobson, while she was writing it conatively.

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