Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

J. Elizabeth Miller
J. Elizabeth Miller

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News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

February 18, 2009

Professor: ‘Academic portfolios’ lend significance
to teaching, research accomplishments of faculty

DeKalb, Ill. — A professor’s vita can go on for pages and pages, perhaps fill up boxes and boxes and eventually grow downright unwieldy with the years.

But can an administrator or another professor grasp the substance of someone’s life of work from those single-spaced lists of publications and presentations? Can they understand why a person teaches they way that they do, and why it matters?

Northern Illinois University’s J. Elizabeth Miller has her doubts – and she has a better idea.

The “academic portfolio” requires not only clarity and brevity (no more than 19 pages) but also a written narrative.

“When an administrator doesn’t know your work or the significance of a particular article, the narrative allows a faculty member to explain that in more depth,” Miller says. “The narrative must be written in a jargon-free way. You have to write it so your grandmother could understand it.”

Miller, an associate professor of family and child studies in the School of Family, Consumer and Nutrition Sciences, is the co-author of a new book titled “The Academic Portfolio: A Practical Guide to Documenting Teaching, Research, and Service.”

She will present the concept in greater detail Friday, Feb. 20, at a networking luncheon co-sponsored by the NIU Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and the Women’s Resource Center.

Lunch is served at 11:30 a.m. in the Chandelier Room of Adams Hall. Miller speaks at 12:05 p.m. Reservations are due today at (815) 753-0320.

“The academic portfolio is a new way to present your research, your teaching, and your service as well as how those are integrated. You can present a cohesive picture of what you do and why you do it instead of just a list of what you’ve done,” Miller says.

“You give the faculty member a chance to say, ‘This is an especially important work. I may have published 20 articles, but these are the most important, and here’s why.’ ”

Miller and her co-author, Peter Seldin, expanded the concept of a teaching portfolio to meet a growing demand for proof of quality performance by college faculty. Professors are feeling pressure from students and parents, all of whom are paying higher tuition bills, as well as from members of state legislatures and governing boards who are held equally accountable.

“The new focus is not just what they have accomplished,” the book’s first chapter states, “but the skills, abilities, attitudes and philosophies that enabled them to achieve professional excellence.”

Such documentation also helps with external review for grants, evaluation for teaching and research awards. Professors near retirement have enjoyed creating a legacy for themselves and their younger colleagues, reflecting what they learned and accomplished over their careers.

Students also can take a beneficial glimpse at the goals and accomplishments of their professors.

More than 200 department chairs and deans from across the country provided input to help Miller and Seldin create the final rubric, the ninth iteration. Users have called it “a powerful catalyst that helps young academics define their careers with precision and effectively and reflectively accelerate their membership in the academy.”

During the last two years, Miller has mentored faculty nationwide as they develop their academic portfolios. Soon she will travel to Japan – the book is being translated into Japanese – and to Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates.

“I’ve seen people go from no narrative draft to a third draft in four days. They find that, in that four-day period, they feel really positive about their work. They feel invigorated. They gain a sense of clarity about who they are. They also document where they had struggles and how they coped with those – an important learning piece,” she says.

“It’s useful to identify issues that are important to faculty, to refocus what they want to do over time, and to have a sense of integrity about how they combine research and teaching in their work.”

Meanwhile, Miller says, academic portfolios can generate good public images.

“If faculty members choose to make their portfolios public, others can read in more detail what professors do and why it’s important to the university and the community,” she says. “At NIU, where we talk about what we do for our region and our state, having academic portfolios on file for a board member or a member of the community to read could be a positive public service. People would understand: ‘Here’s what I do and here’s why I do it. I’m not just a researcher in a vacuum.’ ”

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