The Master of Arts (MA) in Communication, Culture, and Technology (CCT) program offered by Georgetown University is an interdisciplinary program that studies the impact of technology on society. The program has a flexible curriculum with two required courses – Introduction to CCT, and Fundamentals of Technology – and a broad range of electives in areas that include interactive design, digital law, journalism, video production, graphic design, and crisis communications. Students in the program have the option of taking Digital Presence & Strategic Persuasion, a course in which they learn how to create a digital communication portfolio. That course is taught by Dr. Jeanine Turner, a Professor in Georgetown’s CCT program who has an Affiliate appointment at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. In the interview below, Dr. Turner offers her expert insights on the elements of a digital portfolio, the portfolio creation process, and the importance of having an “outward-facing” portfolio.
About Jeanine Turner, Ph.D.: Jeanine Turner is a Professor at Georgetown University in the Communication, Culture, and Technology (CCT) program and an Affiliate Professor in Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. Her research and scholarship focus on the importance of presence in personal and organizational communication, and she has studied the impacts of instant messaging, computer-mediated bulletin boards, and telemedicine technology. Dr. Turner has been teaching in Georgetown’s MA in CCT program for 15 years. She holds a Ph.D. in Communication Studies from The Ohio State University and a Master of Arts (MA) in Organizational Communication from the University of Dayton. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Dayton, where she majored in Communication Management.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You have been teaching in the Master’s in CCT program at Georgetown University for several years and one of your courses is essentially an e-portfolio or digital portfolio course, correct?
[Dr. Turner] Yes. I’ve been at Georgetown for 25 years and for the last 15 years I have taught in this program, the CCT – Communication, Culture, and Technology (CCT) – master’s program. It’s an interdisciplinary graduate program. We have students coming into the program from many different disciplines: journalism; political science; communication; history; user experience. As a result, students come into the program with a range of different perspectives. The program has only two required courses, so students can craft their own learning experience.
The portfolio course serves as an opportunity for our students to reflect upon what they have learned in the program while also thinking ahead to what they plan to do after they have graduated. It is called “Digital Presence and Strategic Persuasion.” We have changed the name several times. It is not currently a required course. It’s a very intensive course, so it works better with a smaller class size. I’ve taught the class with 15 students and one semester I had 28 students in the course. It can work with a larger class size. But right now, I am the only one teaching the course and we do not have multiple sections, which means that it would be difficult to make it a required course. But it is always full, and we usually have a wait list for it. We try to prioritize students who are in the second semester of their graduating year and thus won’t have another opportunity to take the course.
When I was first teaching the course, students would come in thinking that they already knew how to create a portfolio or that they already knew how to create a website. More and more, with Squarespace and Tumblr and WordPress, you can put together a website in two hours and you can make it look professional. But in terms of the content, it won’t be a great site without spending time reflecting critically on the sections and developing the narrative.
I think we have students who are wondering whether they really need the portfolio course. I see it as an opportunity for each student to have an actual portfolio by the end of the course. A lot of students are seeing it that way as well. It’s an opportunity for reflection and real intentionality around where you have been, where you are going, and what your narrative is.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How would you characterize the portfolio that students in the class end up with and is there a difference at this point between a portfolio and a website?
[Dr. Turner] No difference. I mean, the portfolio is really just a collection of your work, particularly the work that you’re really interested in or the work that you feel defines who you are. In a lot of undergraduate programs that I am familiar with, the portfolio is seen as inward facing. In my class, for graduate students, I see the portfolio as outward facing. I see a benefit to both. I have taught a course in which we focused on what I would call an inward-facing portfolio, which is a portfolio that is primarily for the students to pull together all of their work and reflect on what they have done. It’s almost like a diary and collection space where all of a student’s best work is organized.
For the CCT program, I teach the students to think of it as an outward-facing portfolio. It’s important to think about the purpose of the portfolio. What you would put in a portfolio that is a digital reflection of your academic experiences is different from what you put in an outward-facing portfolio.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What are the primary components of the e-portfolio as you teach it?
[Dr. Turner] You have artifacts that comprise the papers, videos, documentaries, and whatever else you want to include. It could be pictures that you’ve taken or anything else that represents activities that you have been involved with. That’s a major part of the portfolio. Even if you are not a photographer, you have to think visually and figure out a way to present your materials. Everyone has an “about me” page that is a summary of who you are and what you are doing. There has to be a resumé. And then I always ask the students to do a video that walks a person through the portfolio. I think it’s become more and more important to have a video component.
LinkedIn has evolved over time into a platform that has more of a portfolio look. Initially, it was primarily a place for your resumé. Now you can include much more in your LinkedIn profile, including a video where you talk about yourself. I see LinkedIn as a primary mechanism through which you communicate with the business world. People find you first on LinkedIn and then they can link to your portfolio to learn more about you. I would think that on LinkedIn you’d want to feature two or three of the things that are in your portfolio. Your portfolio will have more. There are layers through which people get to know you. Your resumé is just an outline; your LinkedIn profile is richer and more detailed; and your portfolio goes even deeper than that.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Are there other social media platforms that you encourage students to integrate into a professional portfolio?
[Dr. Turner] If they curate their Instagram or Twitter accounts and they think carefully about who their audience is for those accounts, then yes. It’s fine to put all of that in there. The difficult part is to think about how you are presenting yourself and what you are presenting from the audience’s point of view. No one wants to read a lot of material. You’re lucky sometimes if a person spends five minutes reading your portfolio. So, you have to have these crumbs that a person can follow. For example, you might have a picture and a four-sentence description of a project with a link to a more involved infograph and then another link to the actual project. Not everyone is going to want to see or read the actual article or paper. But you want to make sure that it is all there. And that can include several different social media profiles.
This process of figuring out how to present yourself in a portfolio can be very challenging. We are all very me centered and it is difficult to step out of that frame of reference. Some students might be tempted to just provide a link to a long research paper or thesis and then the reader is supposed to open the link and wade through everything to figure out if it is something they need to know. No one is going to take the time to do this. Students need to provide summaries and previews that encourage readers to take a deeper look.
I should mention that I have all of my students do an infograph of their resumé. It’s a visual representation of their resumé with icons and pictures. It challenges them to think through how they would present their resumé if they weren’t able to use a lot of words. It helps them to start thinking more visually.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Is that something you emphasize for writers as well?
[Dr. Turner] If you are a writer, there are websites like WordPress that are tailored to that. I will say that a lot of students will find a website that they want to mirror, and it looks great because it’s a photographer’s website. If the student isn’t a photographer, then their website is never going to look like that. If you’re not a graphic designer and that’s not the type of work you are looking for, the audience is not going to expect your portfolio to be super designed. The audience just wants to be able to get to what they need to see and evaluate what you have done. That’s the key.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You mentioned WordPress as a good platform for writers. Are there other platforms that you recommend or require your students to explore?
[Dr. Turner] There are a bunch of user experience spaces where you can create a wireframe for your website. To be honest, I think that is overkill. I think you can create a map for your website on a piece of paper. I do think it is important to map out the informational architecture of a website or portfolio. You don’t need a digital platform for that, but there are a lot of wireframing sites out there that you can use.
In terms of platforms, I think Squarespace, Tumblr, Wix, and WordPress are the primary ones that our students are using. Those platforms work very well. If you are interested in user experience design or website design, then you are going to need your portfolio to demonstrate that you can create a website. Essentially, your website then becomes your primary artifact. It depends on who your audience is and what you need to convey to that audience.
[MastersinCommunications.com] The portfolio becomes a place to explain who you are and what skills you have, and a place where you demonstrate your ability to work with various digital tools. The portfolio has that dual purpose.
[Dr. Turner] Exactly. It’s the same with writing. If you want to be a content creator, you’re going to want to make sure that the writing in your portfolio, not just the writing samples, does not have all kinds of mistakes in it.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Are there other technical skills or tools that you emphasize in the portfolio course?
[Dr. Turner] That is completely up to each student. There are three questions we focus on answering in the class: Who are you?; Who is your audience?; and, How are you going to represent yourself? The students start by reflecting on what their values are. I use the book Designing Your Life (2016; Alfred A. Knopf) to help them answer the “Who are you?” question.
In the middle section of the class, they do ten informational interviews with people in their industry to get at the key skills people are looking for and answer the question “Who is your audience?” That helps the students think about the kind of navigation bars they might want to have on their website or how they might want to tag the work in the portfolio. And then they have to find two classes in which to get skill-based certificates. At Georgetown we have the Gelarden New Media Center where they can take a class in Adobe InDesign, or they can go to the Genius Bar at an Apple store and learn something, or you can take a class in Excel or LinkedIn Learning. I ask them to do two classes that facilitate their ability to build a portfolio and I am pretty loose about what those classes can be so long as they are adding a skill that can go into their portfolio.
So, I don’t require Adobe Photoshop, for example, because some of my students don’t really need to know how to use Photoshop and some of my students already know how to use Photoshop. If you want to learn it as part of your portfolio, you can take a class. However, if you’re a student who is interested in business and you’ve never learned how to use Excel, then that’s something you can do. I let the students decide what classes to take for that.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Can you go into greater depth about the outward-facing nature of a professional portfolio as you see it?
[Dr. Turner] In the course, we focus on the power of narrative and storytelling in the context of a portfolio. We also focus on personal branding and how you brand yourself. And we talk about persuasion and influence. All of that is centered around creating a portfolio that accurately represents who you are and what your skills and interests are.
We talk about writing, specifically business writing, and the students write executive summaries of the interviews I mentioned earlier. In doing that, they are learning how to write a business memo that is clear and concise. A lot of academics don’t spend much time with business writing, so I think it’s important to get into that.
Another thing I should mention is that they have to do a video exercise in which they tell their story. This ties into the outward-facing narrative and it also gets them thinking about how to tell a story from a visual standpoint. What they end up with is a two- to three-minute story about themselves and we do that a number of times during the semester so that they can get better and better at using video to tell their story and they also develop a better understanding of their story.
Finally, we talk about the power of networking and the importance of developing a network.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How does that tie into the portfolio?
[Dr. Turner] We address networking when they are doing their informational interviews with people in the industry. I want them to understand that their network determines who is going to see their portfolio and who isn’t. You have to think about your LinkedIn and about the contacts you have made in the industry. And I encourage them to follow up the interviews with an email or some other type of contact as a way of cultivating a professional network.
That network wouldn’t matter so much if you were doing a more inward-facing portfolio. But it does matter if your portfolio is outward-facing.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Are you finding that there is any standardization in terms of portfolio presentation?
[Dr. Turner] In terms of consistency across portfolios, I think they all tend to have an “about me” section and they all have a resumé that is easy to find. Other than that, I don’t think there is anything specific that is in every portfolio.
It used to be that you didn’t want there to be a lot of scrolling on the screen for a portfolio. So, everything was a link. But now people seem to be more comfortable with scrolling and you see more of that in portfolios. I do think that it is important to emphasize that increasingly a portfolio has to be mobile ready. You may have a great website for your portfolio, but if you don’t pick a design that can be viewed well on a phone or other mobile device, that’s a disadvantage. You notice really quickly when a website doesn’t look right on a phone. You just have to be aware of that and pick a template or design that will look good on a phone. Most of them are optimized for mobile.
[MastersinCommunications.com] The technology has gotten much easier to navigate…
[Dr. Turner] So much easier. But that can create problems. I have students who will spend so much time looking at templates and trying to pick the right website design. They get stuck on how the portfolio looks, which is important, but the hardest part is developing the actual content. That’s what takes the most time.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You’re echoing what others have said regarding the content of the portfolio vs. the design and how the look of a portfolio is less important than the materials that provide information on who you are and what you can do.
[Dr. Turner] Absolutely. Unless you’re a photographer, a videographer, or a graphic designer, I’m not sure that how the portfolio looks matters that much. I think in many cases, the process of putting together the portfolio and thinking about what goes into the portfolio is the most important part of creating a portfolio for a lot of students. After students have gone through that process, they are in a better position to communicate about themselves.
Bottom line, in a lot of cases people are looking at your LinkedIn profile, they’re seeing your resumé, they see that you have a portfolio, and they might click on it and look at it for two minutes. At that point they may want to talk to you, and you need to be ready to answer questions about your interests, your abilities, and the skills you have. So, while the students are creating an outward-facing portfolio, I think the portfolio can be an important mechanism for getting to know yourself as well.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Are all the materials in the portfolio drawn from work the students have done in the program, or can they also include work from outside of school?
[Dr. Turner] Anything can go into the portfolio. It’s funny, I have students who tell me that they don’t have any experience to put in their portfolio. They’ve just had two years of a master’s program and they’ve done case studies, in-depth analyses, and other projects. But they’re just thinking of that as academic work, even though some of the work you do in a master’s program is more in-depth than work you might do in the professional world. Some people will create a portfolio and not have anything they did while they were in graduate school. That’s a mistake. A paper that a student does for a class analyzing an organization can be very valuable in a portfolio. You just have to communicate what you learned and what you did in that project.
A lot of the guidance I end up giving students has to do with explaining the process behind the work they have done in the program so that they can include that work in the portfolio. You can create infographs that explain the process visually and then have that connect to the paper. That helps to communicate to the person reading the portfolio that the student has certain skills while also giving that person a sense of what students learn in a master’s program.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Speaking of infographics, are there particular applications that you recommend for creating visualizations?
[Dr. Turner] Piktochart is great. A lot of students have used that. And Canva is another one that is easy to learn and use. Those are great for making iconic infographs that allow you to show something visually and you don’t have to be a graphic designer to figure out how to use either one of them.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For someone who is considering a master’s degree program and is thinking about getting a head start on the portfolio creation process, what advice or guidance would you offer?
[Dr. Turner] I think the first step is to get your resumé together. If you don’t have a resumé already, then start creating one. If you already have a resumé, then start thinking carefully about the key things you have learned in specific jobs and what you would use to demonstrate those skills.
Sometimes people start out thinking that they don’t have anything to put in a portfolio. Maybe they did a lot of leadership work, but they weren’t directly involved in the writing process. I see the portfolio process as an opportunity to take a line on a resumé and expand on it in some way by describing in detail what you did. You can do that with additional text or with pictures or graphics or something like that. It’s not necessarily something you’ve written or created yourself because you might not be in a position to include materials like that.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Finally, for students who are coming into a master’s program, should they expect the portfolio creation process to be integrated into the larger curriculum?
[Dr. Turner] Ideally, yes. When I first started teaching in this master’s program, I taught an introductory course in which students started to create what I would call an inward-facing portfolio for themselves. I think that is an ideal way to approach a master’s program. Try to include something from every course that you take, even if it’s just a post or two about what you are doing in that course. Use that as an opportunity to reflect on what you are learning and how that is important. Then, when it comes time to put together an outward-facing portfolio, you already have all of your materials together in one place and you’ve already started the process of thinking about what you might include.
As I think I noted, creating a portfolio begins as a process of reflection. You have to actively do that and think about how one course connects to another course that you are taking. Even at the graduate level, it would be good if as faculty we focused on being a lot more prescriptive about that. But, to do that effectively requires every faculty member to be on board. However, students can do a lot of this for themselves. Even if it just amounts to creating a Google Drive folder in which you keep track of what you are accomplishing, that can be a big help. It’s good to do that every semester or even at the end of each year, just to actively reflect on what you’ve done and what you have learned.
People think that they can talk about themselves and that talking about themselves is easy. It’s not if you haven’t thought about it and reflected on your work. It’s harder than people think.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Is there anything you’d like to add?
[Dr. Turner] I would say that I think that getting a face-to-face interview is going to be harder and harder to get as we move forward. People are going to value their in-person, face-to-face time in a different way than they used to. Whereas before, maybe you could count on getting a face-to-face interview and rely on that to make an impression and tell your story, having a strong portfolio becomes much more crucial in a situation when you’re not sure if you’re going to have that opportunity.
[MastersinCommunications.com] That’s a very good point. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and insights.
[Dr. Turner] Of course. Thanks for involving me.
Thank you, Dr. Jeanine Turner, for your excellent advice regarding how to craft a strong and convincing portfolio, as well as your description of the portfolio building process!