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Jan 16, 2018

How to build a killer T&P portfolio

You know that annoying student who wants you to tell him, how exactly he has to write a paper, and what to write in every section, exactly? Well, don’t be that student. T&P committees evaluate, among other things, your ability to organize a portfolio/dossier/file, or whatever else it is called at your institution. At Sac State, it is WPAF, don’t even ask.

The most important thing first: Do not ever use plastic sleeves; those are legendary annoying to reviewers, expensive for you and utterly unimpressive. They also make your binder too fat, force you to go into the second and third volume, and no one likes carrying these things around. Just punch the three holes for God’s sake!

The CV is really the most important part of the portfolio. It is amazing how many people make mistakes constructing the basic document. Just a few tips: number your publications and presentations if you have more than five. It is always better to disclose the status of your publications – peer-reviewed, editor reviewed, the Scopus quartile, the acceptance rate, or another indicator of the journal’s status. Consider using more modern indicators like H-index (you will need a Google Scholar profile for that; it is more generous than the alternatives). If you got a grant, include the amount, and if you were a PI, co-PI, or a team member. In short, don’t make people guess. If they start guessing, they also start checking, and are more likely to disagree with you. A clear CV will keep your committee away from Google.

One common error is turning your T&P binder into the graveyard of evidence. The worst kind of advice one can get is “collect everything.” Such a strategy misunderstands the nature of evidence. We need evidence of quality, not evidence of fact. You do not need to prove things have happened; you need to show samples of your best work. If you served on a committee, there is no need to bug the committee chair to give you a thank you letter. We trust you about the fact, and lying is so risky that almost no one would attempt it. Hand-made student thank you cards may be cute, if you have one or two, and if they are truly interesting. Printed out e-mails always look like you’re anxious, desperate, and insensitive to your readers. Instead, tell us something specific, for example, you were the lead author on a policy document, and include it. Or you were in charge of such and such project. That would be impressive. You were not just sitting there for a year, approving the minutes, you actually accomplished something! It is the same thing with conference programs – we trust you went so no need to include a 10-page program with your name highlighted in its glory. However, did you have an awesome presentation and would like to share? Not twenty similar presentations, just give me one that shows how you have aced the genre. If you put in a syllabus, we do not know whether it is your masterpiece, or you simply inherited it from the previous generations, with slight modifications. If you actually invented something, how would we know? A sentence like “Major revision, ¾ new assignments, and all new assessments” would go a long way.

An important part of any dossier is the narrative, or section narratives. What works best is if you provide a strategy, a vision, a coherent agenda of some sort, a list of priorities, or other way to conceptualize your work. For example, my scholarship is going to focus on these one or two themes, and my home scholarly society is so and so, and I have a long-term plan, and here is how much I moved toward it. And who said that the narrative should be 3 pages of small font, single-spaced, with NO bullets, NO tables, NO charts? Remember Alice in Wonderland: ‘and what is the use of a book, without pictures or conversations?' No, the opposite is true, bullets, subheadings, tables, charts, bolded words and sentences, everything that makes it easier to skim. Yes, it ain’t a novel, you cannot expect your readers to savor every word of it.

Summarize! Think of composing your file as writing a paper – how to make it logical, present the data well, and make it visually appealing and easy to read. Tables, again go a long way, for example: semester, course title, mean student evaluations, perhaps even standard deviations, and comments (“this is a required stats course everyone hates”). Such a table makes the entire history of your teaching obvious. Don’t make reviewers hunt for data; it is better to present it in one place, then explain. If you had a dip in student evals, tell us why and what’s the plan. In teaching, the ability to grow is on par with constant excellence.

However, in some cases people do not say enough. Where we deal with specifics of your subfield, do not simply assume people know what your journal and conferences mean. For example, in some organizations pre-conference workshops are just blah, while in others they are more like lifetime achievement awards. In computer science proceedings is everything, while everywhere else they are easy. In some societies, proceedings go through a separate, rigorous peer-review process and professional editing, whole in others they are just an archive of raw stuff. In arts, exhibits are the same as publications, and there is a complex signaling system about the status of the show. Books are great in humanities, but not so huge in social sciences. In more professional fields, publications for practitioners are weighed very differently than in academic fields. Peer-review status is normally a quality check, but there are exceptions, but if you get into New Yorker, well it is a different story.

Most people have no idea how to judge professional social media publications, such as blogs, or online newsletters. If you give the readership numbers, provide some baseline for a typical publication of the kind, and include a couple of samples. The same thing with awards and honors – you may think they are obvious, but ask around, and realize that no one outside of your small group have heard of them. In short, providing context about your field is critical. As one wise editor once told me, never underestimate your readers’ intelligence and never overestimate their factual knowledge.

In the end, the art of putting it together is not that consequential; it is definitely not worth obsessing about. The truth will shine through regardless. Senior faculty and administrators who look at the portfolios tend to be sophisticated, experienced, and well-meaning. No one is out there to get you. Your job is to make your stuff as clear and concise as possible, and the least annoying to get through.

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