Green Squiggly Lines:

Electronic Portfolios: Macro-level Reading, Responding, and Evaluating

In the beginning of her ethnographic study of Hugh Burns's computer-mediated composition class at the University of Texas at Austin, Joan Tornow (1997) succinctly summarizes the problems of scientific observation and description for researchers in writing studies. She writes,

one physics experiment, in particular, has become well known across the disciplines. This is the pivotal experiment that shows that, at the sub-atomic level, our world is not composed of finite and observable particles as Newton thought. Rather, our world is composed of subatomic entities which may appear as either particles or waves-depending on what the observer is looking for. This finding has shaken the foundations of 'objective quantitative research' by demonstrating that the notion of the researcher observing reality 'out there' is illusory. Observer and observed are intrinsically linked. (p. 4)

Looking back at Syverson's system through Tornow's lens highlights the difficulties of balancing between a position of scientific positivism and social constructivism. Syverson's attempt to limit the socially contingent aspects of writing evaluation in order to justify an assessment system relies on a notion of an individual's observation as accurate and valid. Her insistence that no writing situation is "so culturally, historically, and socially contingent" that it cannot be compared to another situation raises questions about the Online Learning Record's ability to adapt to other environments. That is, the Online Learning Record's form is maintained across disciplines and across different students. The students do not have a say in how the Online Learning Record is structured. Like students working with the "K" portfolio at Kalamazoo College or Alverno College's multi-year portfolio, students using the Online Learning Record fill in the forms created by a teacher or the university. These descriptive evaluations, then, must be seen as contingent. The observer and the observed, as Tornow notes, are connected. This statement does not mean descriptive observations and evaluations are invalid, but it does mean that they are localized and contingent.