The University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Master of Arts in Professional and Technical Writing offers students three concentration options in Technical Writing, Nonfiction, and Editing and Publishing, which enable students to tailor their course of study to their specific interests and goals. In addition, this program offers students the option of completing either a master’s thesis or a professional portfolio for their culminating experience. Students who choose the portfolio option work with a faculty member to gather and reflect upon key artifacts from their academic and professional careers, and to present these artifacts in a digital format that is easily accessible for potential employers. As the Graduate Coordinator for UALR’s Department of Rhetoric and Writing, Dr. Heidi Harris advises students in the M.A. program, and in this interview, she provides key insights on what makes an impactful professional portfolio.
About Heidi Harris, Ph.D.: Heidi Harris is the Graduate Coordinator for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Department of Rhetoric and Writing. As Graduate Coordinator, Dr. Harris oversees the M.A. in Professional and Technical Writing, as well as the Graduate Certificates in Online Writing Instruction and in Business and Professional Writing. Dr. Harris oversees graduate student recruitment, admissions, and advising for the Department, serving as students’ first point of contact from the beginning of their enrollment on through post-graduation. Dr. Harris also teaches graduate classes in online writing instruction as an Associate Professor.
Dr. Harris earned her B.A. in English from College of the Ozarks, and her M.A. in Writing from Missouri State University. She also received her M.A. in Creative Writing and her Ph.D. in English with a focus on Rhetoric and Composition, both from Ball State University. Her research focuses on online writing program development, online writing instruction, and online faculty mentorship and professional development.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In your opinion, what are the key elements of a masterful digital communication portfolio for 1) the academia-focused student and 2) the industry-focused student, and how do the ideal portfolio elements differ between these two student groups? Over the course of your career as Program Advisor for UALR’s MA in Professional and Technical Writing, what were some aspects of the standout portfolios that have come across your (digital) desk?
[Dr. Heidi Harris] As with all elements of communication, the online portfolio depends on your understanding of audience. Who will be viewing your portfolio? What will they need to understand in order to make a decision about the quality of your work? Often, portfolios can have multiple or conflicting audiences: they might be the culmination of a master’s program (thus, appealing to faculty) and also showcase work for future employers.
In our Masters in Professional and Technical Writing, students have the option of creating a portfolio as their final project (after 42 hours of course work). Students choosing the portfolio option want to create a portfolio that they can use on the job market. However, the portfolio in our program also needs to identify how the student met the learning outcomes for our MA program. So how can students balance these two audiences with one portfolio?
We encourage the students who choose our portfolio option to create a portfolio that demonstrates their best work while simultaneously explaining WHY that work is their best work and how that work exemplifies the program’s learning outcomes. Students write a reflection for their portfolios and present the portfolios to a committee of three professors. The reflection and presentation give students an opportunity to demonstrate how the portfolios meet departmental requirements. We design our program around those skills we see are prevalent in industry based on our alumni feedback.
In short, a successful online portfolio is organized in a manner that demonstrates not only that a student can produce effective communication for an audience, but also WHY that communication is effective.
An example: one of our MA graduates worked in the PR industry and led a team of writers before defending her portfolio. Her portfolio explained how she operationalized concepts from technical writing and composition theory classes to teach her team how to write for various audiences. Her portfolio was successful because she was able to operationalize her learning from academic courses in the workforce. The portfolio connected academia and industry to demonstrate the graduate’s ability to communicate effectively in both worlds.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What are the most common challenges and questions students have when completing a digital portfolio, what advice do you give them to help them overcome these challenges?
[Dr. Heidi Harris] Our students’ most common challenges when creating digital portfolios are remembering what they did in their earliest terms and being able to recover that information. If a part-time student began our MA program 5 years ago, she might not remember why or how the earlier work she produced related to our program outcomes and/or the work she would need to demonstrate practical skills.
We encourage all students to take a minute at the end of a term to take notes on what they learned that semester and to organize their files into a format they can easily retrieve when they are working with their faculty chair to complete their portfolio. For students who stop out of the degree and come back a few years later to finish their portfolio, we encourage them to focus on both their academic work AND any professional work they have completed while they were on a break.
In short, we ask students to constantly make connections between their course work and their jobs, businesses, volunteer opportunities, or civic lives and to articulate those connections in their final portfolios.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Aside from technology platforms, such as Wix and Squarespace, are there any digital media technologies that you highly recommend students and working professionals familiarize themselves with as part of the portfolio creation process?
[Dr. Heidi Harris] Our principle is that the audience is more important than the tool. Wix might be an excellent way to showcase a highly visual portfolio, but Google Sites might be equally adequate for demonstrating writing skills.
Our primary focus is helping students understand how their content and their audience can impact their choice of web editors. Can students embed a document on a web editor? Do they understand how to effectively use templates in various web-editing programs?
Our students work with a committee for whom they defend their portfolios, and the job of the committee is to navigate the best way for students to use the available tools for their particular audiences. That is a strange answer, perhaps, but we have seen portfolios that have been hand coded, have used Wix or WordPress, or have been done in Google Sites. All of them have been fantastic, depending on how the students were able to use design effectively, demonstrate their ability to design and write, and to reach out to their primary audience.
[MastersinCommunications.com] As the digital portfolio is, for many students, the starting point in their creation of their personal brand, what advice do you have for students regarding how they can continue to hone and expand their portfolio in the future? How often should students revisit and revise their portfolio? What role can social media and blogging have in a student’s overall portfolio and personal brand?
[Dr. Heidi Harris] Excellent question.
In our editing and publishing concentration, we work with students to develop their “brand” across social media platforms. They purchase and host domain names. They develop hashtags and Twitter accounts that communicate their brand. Our alumni who have created unique brands return as guest lecturers for our classes.
In short, we work with students where they are and help them progress to where they need to be. One of our alumni, Cara Brookins, has an excellent social media brand, and she comes back to our classes to talk about establishing her brand. Other MA students and alumni have created work through niche hobbies (yoga, bass playing, farming, true crime podcasting).
A successful portfolio truly reflects the work they have done in the program to create their personal brand. We work with students to demonstrate who they are, what they can do, and how those factors connect to the workforce.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For individuals who are not a part of a graduate program in communication but who want to increase their marketability, how can they emulate the process of building a portfolio that your students experience?
[Dr. Heidi Harris] Writing comes in many forms. Students might freelance or complete internships as part of their MA program coursework. Maybe they have create a website for their church, synagogue, or mosque to promote a special event. They might work on a social media campaign that gets parents interested in supporting the arts at their local school.
I talked to a person last night with a love of hunting and fishing. He wanted to know how he could start writing for publications that addressed hunting and fishing. I recommended that he start noticing how the writers in his favorite publications wrote for their audience. Were they funny? Were they serious? Did they include step-by-step guides for working with a particular piece of gear? Writing professionally begins with understanding how key publications reach their audience. Then, novice writers can practice using the tone, format, and style of those examples to focus on writing for that particular audience.
If a person wants to develop a portfolio of work to change careers, my best advice would be to identify the publications that speak to them, read everything they can in those publications, and then reach out to those venues to elicit interest in writing for those publications.
At the entry level, I recommend writing a few sample pieces to demonstrate different types of writing. Include a sample blog post. Write a script for a podcast. Write an article for a trade publication specializing in an area of interest.
Practice makes perfect. Be willing to write and submit your work, spend time reading others who have written for these publications, and be open to feedback and rejection.
Thank you, Dr. Heidi Harris, for your advice for current and prospective students regarding how they can build and optimize their professional portfolio and online personal brand!