Prior to the 2019-2020 academic year, professors Renee Robinson and Ruth Tsuria developed a new Communication Portfolio course for the Master of Arts (MA) in Communication program at Seton Hall University, a program in which they are both active faculty members. The one-semester portfolio course was created as part of a larger curricular overhaul aimed at combining academic training in communication theory and research with practical skills applicable in various communication fields, including the program’s three advanced content areas: Digital Communications and Communication Technologies; Communication in Organizations; and Public Relations. The interview below focuses on the thinking that went into the design of the course, the pedagogical goals of the portfolio process, projects that have emerged from the courses, and specific elements of a digital communication portfolio, as well as how the Communication Portfolio course fits into the program’s larger curricular goals.
About Renee Robinson, Ph.D.: Renee Robinson is a Professor of Communication in the College of Communication and the Arts at Seton Hall University and Program Director for Seton Hall’s MA in Communication program. Her areas of expertise include organizational and instruction communication and she heads up the Communication in Organizations track of the MA in Communication program at Seton Hall. She is the author of several scholarly books, most recently Digital Training@Work: Engaging and Educating Employees Online (Bookboon; 2018) and, with Dr. Julie Reinhart, Digital Thinking and Mobile Teaching: Communicating, Collaborating, and Constructing in an Access Age (Bookboon; 2014). Dr. Robinson holds a PhD in Communication from The University of Memphis, a Master of Education (MEd) in Educational Administration from the University of Houston-Victoria, and a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Communication from the University of Houston-Victoria.
About Ruth Tsuria, Ph.D.: Ruth Tsuria is an Assistant Professor of Communication in the College of Communication and the Arts at Seton Hall University. She teaches in the school’s MA in Communication program, for which she worked to develop the Communication Portfolio course in collaboration with Professor Renee Robinson. Dr. Tsuria’s research focuses on the intersection of digital media, religion, and feminism in the field of communication. She is currently working on a book titled Holy Women, Pious Sex, Sanctified Internet: New Media in the Jewish Bedroom. Dr. Tsuria earned her PhD in Communication at Texas A&M University, received an MA in Comparative Religious Studies from Copenhagen University, and completed her undergraduate training at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Jewish Philosophy and Business Management.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What has your experience been in terms of digital literacy among undergraduates and graduate students? There is, I think, an assumption that young people are digital natives who have multiple social media accounts and for whom navigating various digital communications platforms is second nature. What have your impressions been?
[Dr. Tsuria] It’s funny that you mention that because it is something that Renee and I talk about all the time. There is a difference between having access to this technology, growing up with this technology, and then knowing how to use this technology. Sometimes the fact that our students are at home in these technologies actually plays against them. They haven’t thought through basic ideas about how your Twitter should look versus how an Instagram account should look. It can all seem like it’s just part of the same space without any real differentiation.
For example, I get so many emails that look like a text message. To address that, one of the courses that we developed focuses on workplace communication technologies. That class is designed to teach students how to navigate various professional communication tools and to better differentiate between email and text as modes of communication.
[Dr. Robinson] We have a Workplace Communication Interactions course. That’s a graduate level course that takes students through the considerations you should take into account whenever you are communicating hierarchically at different points within an organization using a variety of platforms. Ruth and I are also teaching a presentational course for undergraduates, which we have taken completely digital, to help them to better communicate through video conferencing and interviewing online. Those are increasingly important communication competencies.
[Dr. Tsuria] I was teaching that course for the first time at Seton Hall in the spring of 2020, when the pandemic started. Originally, the course was very focused on public and professional speaking and the two major graded assignments for the course were supposed to be face-to-face. Of course, because of the pandemic we had to make those assignments digital. That turned out to be quite valuable for me and for the students.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In what sense?
[Dr. Tsuria] We have a process at Seton Hall for taking courses online called Quality Matters. Through that process, over the summer following the spring of 2020, I was able to create the undergraduate course that Renee mentioned. The point was to think about the different skills that it requires to speak online, not just in a Zoom conversation like the one that we are having now, but also in conferences, when creating a portfolio, when presenting a solution to a problem. There are so many different professional challenges posed by these new technologies and we want to prepare our students for those challenges. We would be sinning against our students if we didn’t emphasize the importance of digital literacy.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What were your primary pedagogical goals when you set out to design the Communication Portfolio course?
[Dr. Robinson] Ruth and I had a lot of conversations about that. At the time, we were going through a major curricular overhaul, and we are both familiar not just with our own specializations, but also with thinking more globally about the communication discipline. Part of my background is to look at higher education as a whole, the landscape in which higher education exists, and the challenges we face in terms of justifying our existence. I’m also trained extensively in assessment. So Ruth and I began this major overhaul with the intention of creating this new Master of Arts in Communication program with some very specific outcomes in mind.
The portfolio class grew out of that larger change in the graduate curriculum. It developed because we saw two very different types of students in our program: students aiming to eventually pursue further graduate studies at the doctoral level; and students who were interested in developing practical skills for professional advancement. We made the decision that we were not going to focus exclusively on preparing students for PhD programs or professional careers. Instead, we would train and educate both types of students and make sure that they all graduate with research skills and speaking capabilities, and that they all write a major thesis document.
Ruth and I tend to be wired the same way in that we are both very student oriented. With the portfolio class we wanted to do something that would allow the students to select a project for the class and to determine for themselves what they want the portfolio to resemble. In addition, we wanted to create a bridge between the academic and professional worlds. Often we are told in higher education that we are out of touch or that our courses have to do a better job of meeting the standards of the professional world. You hear all kinds of things. We wanted to make sure that our students would have another level of assessment, and that they would be able to translate what they learn in the courses and in the program to whatever they plan on doing after they graduate, whether it’s further academic studies or a professional career. And we wanted to ensure that they would have a say in what goes into that content.
[Dr. Tsuria] To add to that, both Renee and I come from backgrounds where our lives are mixed with academics and non-academics. A lot of academics live and breathe academia. That’s great. That’s like the classic dream of academia. But it has disadvantages. One of the biggest disadvantages has to do with what Renee just pointed to: how are we preparing our students for the real world? What is the relationship between what happens here in our classes and what happens in the real world?
My husband is also an academic and when we were in our master’s program, we almost broke up because I basically said that if academia is not out there in the world and in touch with the real world, then it is not worth maintaining. He felt at the time that it should be maintained just for the sake of maintaining it, which I respect. The question is, how do you achieve the rigor and the discipline-specific depth that is associated with academia while also addressing real-world issues and teaching practical skills? That is what our program overall tries to do.
There was something else we wanted this portfolio class to address. A lot of students lack what I would call the tools for agency. When they go out there in the world, most employers want to see projects. They want to see that a candidate can do projects because most of the deliverables out there are project oriented. That requires understanding how you start with an idea and follow it through to the completion of a clearly defined project on a timeline. It’s that process that we want to introduce to our students in the portfolio course.
[MastersinCommunications.com] That’s not even a discipline specific skill. That is a general life skill.
[Dr. Tsuria] Yes. Many young people are focused on success in school because that is what they are familiar with. They know how to build a good calendar in order to prepare for finals. But preparing for a project is so much messier. I can give you an example from a project that came out of the portfolio course. I had one project where the student wanted to interview female business leaders. She wanted to do three journalistic pieces. She was planning to interview six people. And then, in the middle of semester, we had the pandemic. So now she’s in a situation where people aren’t comfortable being interviewed. Interviewing online was not well established. What do you do? That was a challenge because that ability to be agile is something that even our very smart students are less trained to do. That’s just not something they typically have to do in school.
[Dr. Robinson] I would echo that and say that we go to great lengths to create the challenge of dealing with ambiguity for our students. There are times when we do not give them a map to the road. Instead, we point them in a general direction and make sure that they have a compass. The challenge then is to develop project management and time management skills along with the ability to think on your feet, deal with ambiguity, and articulate who you are and what you are in a coherent way. That’s what we mean by the ability to exercise agency. We want the students to have power over their project and to then be able to talk clearly about that project and to think on their feet through a series of questions.
We are question askers. We are always talking to the students and asking them tough questions because that’s what you are going to get when you are out in your professional life. You are going to be expected not only to express what you think, but also to support that with evidence and to explain how that is going to work in a particular industry or field. This approach has worked out quite well for us so far.
[MastersinCommunications.com] From your perspectives, what are the key elements of a communication portfolio, and would it be fair to say at this point that most or all of a communication portfolio is digital?
[Dr. Tsuria] Actually, I would challenge that. In the portfolio class this past semester we had 12 students and about half of them created non-digital projects. A few of those were training and development documents and one was an internal proposal that was done by a student who was working at Nickelodeon. She wanted her project to be a proposal for a new program on Nickelodeon and that is what she worked on.
[MastersinCommunications.com] So the portfolio project doesn’t necessarily have to be digital.
[Dr. Robinson] It’s a good question. Are we talking about the nature in which they create their work, reveal their work, and showcase their work, or are we asking whether or not what they are creating is digital? Almost all of these portfolio projects are stored in a digital format of some kind. I’ve worked with undergraduates in a class similar to the master’s program portfolio course and we used digital portfolio systems within a learning management system. I actually like that least. In my prior work with undergraduates, we’ve had some students create websites that they use to showcase their work, and we’ve had other students that find ways to storehouse the digital content and use digital tools to create that content, even if the ultimate deliverable is not a digital product.
I should say that this way of teaching creates challenges for the person teaching the class. Keep in mind that at the start of a semester we aren’t telling the students that they are going to have three tests and two papers and that’s how your grade will be determined. Instead, it’s about what each student wants to take on as a portfolio project. We have to brainstorm on the fly about which digital tools may be needed for each project, and we constantly collaborate with the students and call in other faculty members if a student needs assistance outside of our area of expertise. As faculty, we work together on this. In addition, we co-create the syllabi, which is unique in higher ed.
[Dr. Tsuria] To give you an example of how this works in the portfolio course, we had four or five students who created training and development documents. Renee wears a few hats in the department. In addition to teaching, she leads the organizational communication track. So Renee came in and gave those students a workshop while the other students were working with me on digital content. In that way, we use our various strengths for the benefit of the students.
I think that the way this course is designed makes it important to get to know each of the students individually. For example, we had one student who was already very talented in the area of website creation. That’s what he does for a living. In the beginning of the semester, the first assignment is to come up with an idea that is supposed to relate to the student’s professional goals. They need to define their professional goals, which is already a challenge. We start with broader professional goals and then we narrow it down from there to a project that they can achieve in three months. This student that I mentioned, he suggested that he could create a website for himself. He already had a website that he had created, so I knew that creating another website wasn’t going to be a challenging project for him. That’s something he could do in an afternoon. In contrast, I had another student who had never touched digital content in her life. For her, just to create a website is a full, semester-long project.
With the student who was already proficient in website design, I had to push him so that he could push himself to find an area that he was curious to explore.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Did he end up doing something with website design?
[Dr. Tsuria] He did. What he created was a satirical website like The Onion that specifically focused on the NBA. He had to come up with content. He had to find out how to get permission to use pictures. He knew the language of website creation, but he had to step into the shoes of being a content creator, which was challenging for him.
[Dr. Robinson] To get back to your question about the key elements in creating a portfolio for the class, there are a number of things that we consider. The first important factor is that the project has to have a specific beginning and end time. The second thing we need are specific benchmarks to see if the students are meeting whatever goals they may have identified at the start of the course. One of the first benchmarks is for the students to identify the skills they want to learn as part of the project that will be reflective of their entire body of work as a master’s student and will speak to their career trajectory. We also emphasize the deliverable because the students have to take into account the limited amount of time they are going to have to complete a project that will leave them with a deliverable of some kind. In that way, it is meant to mirror the real world. We want our students to learn how to manage the time pressure and the stress of having to meet specific deadlines.
Another thing that we talked about with this course and the program in general is getting the students to articulate in a summary what their key outcomes are and to identify the key artifacts that they will develop over the course of the program. That gets housed in one part of the portfolio. Then another part of the portfolio focuses on goals and trajectories. And the next part of the portfolio becomes the project they took on that semester and how that relates to what they have been learning in the program.
[Dr. Tsuria] When we were designing the course, we realized that to accomplish our goals we were going to need a combination of workshops and individual meetings with students. In addition, we have a research section, where the students do their independent work. The research section can be a little bit different for each student. The students are directed to do research on whatever it is they want to create. When a student wants to create a blog, they have to do research on how to communicate effectively through a blog and look into the benefits and the disadvantages of blog communication as compared to other modes of communication. Then we start the creation process, which involves workshops and meetings. And eventually we have project presentations and assessments.
[MastersinCommunications.com] That’s in a typical 15- or 16-week semester, correct?
[Dr. Robinson] Yes, but the course can be taught on an accelerated path.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In a quarterly format?
[Dr. Robinson] The way we conceptualized it, the course could be taught in a three-week, five-week, eight-week, ten-week, or traditional 15-week semester format.
[Dr. Tsuria] For a course like this, the thing to keep in mind for faculty is the amount of individual, one-on-one work with students that is necessary. You can do some of that in workshops, because eventually the students are at similar points in their projects. To take on the kinds of projects that are required for this class is a challenge. It’s not just that we have to deal with ambiguity ourselves, because initially we don’t know what the projects are going to entail, but we also have to take on a lot of individual work.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Before we move on to the next question, what are we are talking about when we refer to a student’s portfolio. The portfolio course is a workshop-oriented course in which students work on a project and end up with a product/deliverable. And, in the context of this course, that is the portfolio. It isn’t, if I understand correctly, a portfolio that includes multiple components, such as a bio, a personal statement, or a resumé. Is that correct?
[Dr. Robinson] That’s a great question because there are different ways to define a portfolio. The way the program’s curriculum is nested, most of our students will also take the Workplace Interactions course, in which they create a digital resume and a digital presentation about themselves, capture an interview in place using some of our career services software, and develop other artifacts that they can keep and integrate into a larger portfolio. The students also develop an artifact in the Communication Portfolio course that can be added to these other assets they are accruing. By the end of the program, they should have a resumé and a cover letter that can become part of their larger portfolio.
[MastersinCommunications.com] So they are accumulating the pieces of a digital portfolio as they progress through the program and the portfolio course focuses on one element of a larger portfolio.
[Dr. Tsuria] Yes, and if a student is taking the course in their first semester, then creating a resume and a cover letter may become part of their project.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Are there other elements of the portfolio that they will develop in the program? For example, do you encourage the students to have a social media presence as part of their portfolio?
[Dr. Tsuria] Yes, but it depends on the student. For students who want to express themselves mainly through photography and writing, having a website that showcases their work may be much more important than a strong LinkedIn profile. But for a student who wants to work in human resources, LinkedIn takes on more importance.
[MastersinCommunications.com] So the goal is to make sure that they are familiar with various social media platforms and can make informed decisions about what they should incorporate into their digital portfolio.
[Dr. Robinson] Exactly. And keep in mind, we are a department of Communication and the Arts. So we have students who are interested in production; we have students who have produced short films; we have students who are artists and designers; and we have students who are traditional communication and media people. The portfolio becomes a place where each student can keep the projects they complete as part of the program. Also keep in mind that every student who comes through our program does a master’s thesis or a major project that also can find its way into their portfolio.
[MastersinCommunications.com] That makes sense. It’s a cumulative process that ensures that students come out of the program with both a degree and a portfolio that is representative of the work they have done in the program.
[Dr. Robinson] Yes. I think you have to realize that many of our master’s program students are coming in much younger than was maybe common in the past. I remember the days when a graduate program would have 35 year-old students in the classroom. We now have 23 year-old graduate students and they are coming straight into the program from an undergraduate program, which may have just ended a few months earlier. That is an important consideration because many of these younger students do not have prior work experience. They have learned how to be good students, but they need new tools and skills in order to transition from the classroom to the boardroom.
I would be remiss if I were to say that we have all the answers in this area. But we are willing to experiment. With this portfolio course, in particular, there’s a very good chance that it will be taught very differently the next time it is offered. We look at every piece of data that comes in from the course, we take all the evaluations into consideration, and we sit down and ask ourselves what worked and what didn’t as we look ahead to how it will be taught the next time around.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Looking at the program’s three tracks – Digital Communications and Communications Technologies, Communication in Organizations, and Public Relations – there are certainly different kinds of portfolio projects students might pursue based on the track they have chosen. Are there also different digital tools, like Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, WordPress, Wix, and/or Squarespace, that you emphasize based on the track?
[Dr. Tsuria] For this specific course we have students coming in with different goals and different projects in mind. So it really does depend on the student and their project. We do encourage our students to stretch. For example, in a different graduate level course that I just taught, I had all of my students work with Tableau, which is a digital data visualization software. I would not say that they are all digital visualization experts now, but they know what Tableau is, they got to work with it, and they have some familiarity with the data visualization process.
For me, that’s the point. I am exposing them to various tools that are being used in the real world and I am telling them that they are always going to have to learn how to use new tools. In the 1930s or 1940s, using a typewriter represented a basic business skill. In today’s world, there is no one basic skill or tool that you need. Instead, you have to have the ability to learn new skills and to be agile and to feel comfortable with that.
Having said all of that, every student in the program has to be proficient with Microsoft Office. That’s basic.
[Dr. Robinson] I approach this a little differently because I don’t think specific tools or technologies drive the course. Instead, having an ability to express messages coherently in a way that is word based or sound based or visual is the important factor. I want the students to think about which tools they can use to accomplish that. Whether you are using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or another platform, there are still basic skills, etiquette concerns, and sensitivities you need to employ. Regardless of whether you’re using Photoshop or some other graphics application, there are still things you need to know about what makes an effective visual message and about how to use light and space in designing a graphic.
I also believe that most of these digital tools should be free. I feel the same way about information. So I have to ask myself, why are we asking students to pay subscription and membership fees for various digital assets when they are already paying tuition for the program? That philosophy has led me to a place where I am more interested in seeing what tools the students are already using and encouraging them to learn new ones while placing an emphasis on message construction.
[MastersinCommunications.com] It sounds like the students have the opportunity to explore various digital tools and platforms and that they are encouraged to do so, but a primary objective of the portfolio course and the program is to cultivate core communication and critical thinking proficiencies.
[Dr. Robinson] We have computer labs that have the entire Adobe product suite, and we also have research software, and we have a laptop program on campus. So we try to be pretty fluid about our approach to technology. We have a by-any-means-necessary attitude. I don’t care what kind of device you’re using, whether it’s a laptop or a phone, let’s just figure how to communicate effectively with it.
[Dr. Tsuria] A proportion of our master’s students are commuters, which means they might not have time to sit in our media lab for several hours at a time in order to learn how to use a particular application. But there are a lot of free software applications, and my attitude is that if there’s a free application that you can use then you should learn how to use it. Also, the most important tool is your mind. If you are using your brain well, then I am happy.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Makes sense. Why don’t we talk about the portfolio projects. Do the projects for the portfolio course tend to vary based on which program track a student has chosen?
[Dr. Tsuria] The projects can be very different. As I mentioned before, in the organizational communication track we had a number of students create training and development projects. That’s very different from what students in the digital media track were doing. Many of those students focused on projects that involved creating websites or blogs. I only had a few students from the public relations track in the most recent course, but one of those students created a PR campaign.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Can you give me some specifics on these projects, perhaps starting with what a training and development project entails?
[Dr. Tsuria] I can show you. One of the students created a training and development project for Nintendo. It’s not actually for Nintendo, but that was the idea. There is a training and development folder that would be given to employees, where they fill in their name and date, and it has the exercises that the employee would do, and line-by-line instructions for how this type of training would progress. The student researched Nintendo through the company’s website and focused on the company’s core competencies, its values, and its mission. And then they did further research into what an employee training and development program might look like. All of that research then comes together in the document that the student creates. What the student has created here, based on best practices, is a training regime for the company’s core competencies. That’s an example of a portfolio project for a student in the organizational communication track.
Now, for a student on the PR track, I have an example in which the student had to go through a lot of contingencies and changes in plans. The student started with a project based on one company and then that company backed out. Then another company agreed to it, but the student had to make a number of changes to the plan. Despite all of that, the student came up with a pretty cool PR plan. This was at beginning of the quarantine and the PR campaign was for a plumbing company. So the idea was to create a series of videos to help people solve plumbing problems at home. Through that, the consumers would become familiar with the company’s name. The student created an entire PR plan based on that idea.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What seems to be emerging is that while not all of these portfolio projects are inherently digital, they are digital in the sense that they exist in a digital space.
[Dr. Robinson] Keep in mind too that when we have students who want to pursue a PhD, their portfolios may look completely different from what we see with students on these other tracks. For students who intend to pursue a PhD we may go through a series of reflective practices with them to pull out their best writing samples and to think through what their personal statement and application might look like. We take them through a series of mentoring exercises. We walk them through what interviewing for a PhD program might look like.
In some instances, we might take a student to an academic conference. The portfolio experience is one that is flexible, and our phraseology tends to rely on the idea that it depends. That applies to the portfolio course and to the thesis project work that the students do. It’s definitely a core philosophy of the program.
[MastersinCommunications.com] If a student’s career goal is to pursue a PhD, then the portfolio course can be used as an opportunity for the student to immerse him or herself more in academia.
[Dr. Robinson] Exactly. And one of the things you might be picking up through the concrete examples Ruth has cited is that we have refused to give up research. We think it is a false dichotomy to suggest that either you are a professional or a researcher. We don’t accept that. We believe that everything a student in the program engages in should be grounded in research, which can then be applied and built out in different ways. The examples Ruth is sharing are representative of our philosophy in that these are portfolio projects that begin with a heavy research focus that is then applied to practical applications that the student must be able to communicate in layperson’s terms while at the same time understanding the core theoretical underpinnings.
[Dr. Tsuria] To give you one more example of a portfolio project that was completed by a student in the digital communication track, one of my students combined various media to create blog. She designed posters and infographics, she recorded podcasts, and she put it all together in a blog. What’s interesting is the subject matter. Her main goal was to study grant writing. But the more she learned about writing a blog and participating in blog communication, the more she became interested in the challenge of communicating about the process of grant writing. Grant writing can be interesting, but how you communicate about grant writing is also an interesting subject. The infographics in her portfolio project would probably be more useful to a person who doesn’t know much about grant writing than a research paper on writing grants would be.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Clearly, one of the purposes of creating a portfolio is that it gives the student an asset that he or she can use moving forward and that asset is itself a communication product. In addition, the portfolio project amounts to a demonstration of the student’s ability to use various digital and non-digital communication tools, from blogging software to written language. Do you put equal stress on these aspects of the portfolio project?
[Dr. Robinson] Yes. We want the students to be able to translate what they are learning in the classroom to problem solving in the real world and it has to be measurable. There has to be evidence of the student’s ability to do that. So the more practice our students have at communicating about who they are and what types of skills they have, the better off they are and the better off our world is in terms of getting the assistance, the communities, and the changes that are needed. Those changes are going to come from our ability to communicate. So skill sets are really critical, and so is the ability to choose the right tools, the right words, the right decision making processes, and the right way to communicate ideas.
[Dr. Tsuria] Many of these skills are “soft” skills that must be demonstrated. Creating an artifact in the form of a portfolio project is one way to clearly demonstrate these kinds of skills. When this class and program are working well, that is what our students come away with. For example, we had a student who was working for Johnson & Johnson. She created a blog that she later had to take offline, so I can’t show it to you, but what she did was to combine her passion for globalization with her interest in pharmaceuticals.
Then the pandemic happened. Within that same semester she had an interview for another job, and she was able to use the research that she did for the blog and the blog itself to land the job. She was one of those talented students who could have gone in many different directions. So the ability of our faculty and our program to encourage her to follow her passions and her professional interests in creating her portfolio project had real tangible benefits. She was able to use that artifact in the right place at the right time to further her career goals.
I will also add that, regardless of whether a student lands a job as a result of the portfolio project, there was a noticeable and stark difference in the students who completed this course as they moved toward their master’s project as opposed to the students who didn’t have the opportunity to take this course before beginning their master’s project. Those who were able to take the portfolio course had more skills and more confidence in taking on the master’s thesis. Even those students who did not create an amazing J&J blog or something like that still had the advantage of being able to apply the experiences they had in the portfolio course to their master’s thesis project.
[MastersinCommunications.com] To students who might be considering a master’s in communication program, are there specific ways they can prepare for a portfolio course like the one your program offers?
[Dr. Robinson] I think the ability to assess information is critical, as are research skills and the ability to use or apply that research. We are more fluid when it comes to specific tools, but we are not as fluid when it comes to research. What we see our students struggling with the most are research skills, managing databases, and being able to understand keyword phraseologies. These are some of the basic things that academic scholarship is founded on. Students may come into the program knowing how to use Google Scholar, but they lack proficiency and familiarity with academic library databases.
Research skills are really important for any portfolio work and asking questions or being comfortable asking questions is another key. Asking the right questions of yourself is central to portfolio work. Questions like, why should I include this piece in my portfolio? What am I trying to communicate with that? Who am I communicating that to? There are a series of questions they should be considering.
I think Ruth has already hit on the necessity of students being able to use Microsoft Office. When we have students come in, they are not graduate students yet. If they had all the answers then they wouldn’t be here. We have to help them transition. We’re looking for potential. We’re looking at their transcripts and their undergraduate grade point average. We look at their statement of intent. If you want a skillset that will help a kid in graduate school or get them to the next place, teach that student how to write a good statement of intent. What do you want? Why do you want it? And what are you going to do with it?
[Dr. Tsuria] I completely agree. Of course, if you have no digital skills and you are coming into communication graduate program, that’s going to be a challenge for you. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do it. We have students who are less digitally literate, and they learn, they are able to get there. That’s not necessarily a problem. The problem is if you don’t have ambition, curiosity, and motivation.
I will also agree with Renee on the importance of research skills. If you don’t know how to differentiate between the results you’re getting from a Google search and you are not thinking critically about that, then that’s going to be a problem for you anywhere, but it’s a big problem if you want to pursue a master’s degree. I would also encourage students who are interested in a master’s program to ask themselves why. Why are am I getting this degree? What are may passions? What do I want to do with the degree? And what are the things that I want to do with my life? Those can be difficult questions to answer. That’s okay. If you don’t have the full script, that’s fine. But if you are not asking yourself those questions then a master’s degree will be a real challenge for you.
[Dr. Robinson] I tell students all of the time in my Director of Graduate Studies role that this is expensive. Not just financially. It’s going to take a toll on your wallet, your emotional state, your physical state. At times, it is going to hurt. So, what is it that you feel so much conviction about that will make the challenges worthwhile and then what are you going to do with the degree that is going to make the world a better place? Those are important questions to me.
Looking at students coming into a master’s in communication program, I think one really big lesson that we need to teach them, and this is something we emphasize at the undergraduate level, is that not everything belongs to you. You can’t just go online and take things without proper attribution. A lot of younger people have the idea that if something is available online then it is free. As far as digital skills go, being able to figure out if a site is credible is so important. And then you have to figure out whether you need permission to use something in your portfolio and how to properly cite it.
[MastersinCommunications.com] That aspect of scholarship has always been complicated, but it has gotten more complicated in the digital realm.
[Dr. Robinson] Yes, and information management is so important. For some reason, we are not succeeding at teaching students about information management at the undergraduate level. That’s a basic communication skill that they are going to need.
[Dr. Tsuria] I know we are talking primarily about the portfolio course, but I’ll just add on a more general note that just a few weeks ago we had our students presenting on their thesis projects. One of the things that was really moving for many of us as faculty is that all of our students presented on what I would call reality changers. These are issues of diversity, of race, of gender, and of class, with an innate understanding that communication happens in a messy world. So what are the digital media and communication tools and strategies we can use to make that world a better place for us and for others?
When you are coming into a master’s program, there should be some kind of fire there. A lot of students have gotten used to burying that fire. They say they are just interested in getting a better job. Getting a better job is good. But there might be a deeper reason for you to want to know more and to have more expertise. It’s great to see our students digging into those deeper reasons and understanding that issues of social justice or of personal justice can be a driving force in their graduate studies.
[MastersinCommunications.com] I feel like I’d be remiss now if I didn’t ask you to explain something about the difference between the portfolio project and the master’s thesis project. What are the basic differences?
[Dr. Robinson] Our master’s project thesis course is in keeping with the overall philosophy of the program. We think students ought to have choices. If they want to do a traditional thesis in order to prepare for their next challenge, which might a PhD program, they can do that. Others may want to take on a major project to change something in their workplace or to implement changes in other areas of their lives.
The portfolio course is similar but on a smaller scale. It’s a one semester course that requires research, ideation, and then deliverable formation, which are also components of the thesis project. But the thesis course is one full year. Every student, no matter what subject they choose, writes a five-chapter traditional thesis. They may also choose to create an artifact, but that’s in addition to the written thesis.
For example, we have a student who just came through the program and wrote a five-chapter traditional thesis that examined the need for higher education PR professionals to be better trained to articulate the case for higher education and tell a more effective story to incoming and potential students. So he wrote five chapters on that subject based on original research and literature review. In addition, he created a website that was a training and development program for PR in higher education.
[MastersinCommunications.com] So there are parallels between the portfolio course and the thesis project.
[Dr. Robinson] Yes, the components of our program, the various courses, are designed to fit within a larger framework. So the portfolio course speaks to the master’s thesis, and it builds off of the communication research and methods course. All of these courses can be tailored to the area of concentration or study. Each of the courses communicates with the others.
Thank you, Dr. Robinson and Dr. Tsuria, for your excellent insight the Communication Portfolio Course in the Master of Arts in Communication Program at Seton Hall University!