Category Archives: Neal

Neal’s Cautionary Tale of Formulaic Reflective Cover Letters

Here is a moment that I found helpful in the Neal text:

  • What are the relationships between reflective writing and other artifacts within a portfolio?
  • What — if any — value remains in guiding students into specific reflective writing activities, either for teaching and learning or for the purposes of writing assessment?

In addressing these questions, my intent is to reaffirm the important relationship between reflective writing and portfolio artifacts–though not in limited, formulaic cover letters, but rather as integrated learning tools for students to make evident tacit decisions they make as writers.

Reading Neal right after the Taczak and Robertson reflection reading, I was thinking a lot about active reflection as a framing device for students understanding the narrative of their work throughout a given semester, and the idea that reflection not become a rote thing that you slap on top of a finished revision, but more of a conversation about the writing process that empowers the student writer. Also, how can reflection — and portfolios as final assignments — offer our students agency over their writing decisions, and choices about how and what they choose to highlight as the most important facets of their journey as writers?

In final reflections, I often ask students to reflect on one theme that they find interesting about their own work, whether it is the narrative of their development over the semester’s assignments, their strengths and weaknesses as a writer, or what changed for them in their writing practice. I have found that having a focusing dominant theme, macro-question, or unifying idea in their reflection letter (or essay, they don’t have to address it to me) has led to more interesting and ultimately successful rhetorical explorations of their progress and journey as writers. The thing that surprised me most when I recently did this assignment was the freedom and power in many of the students’ voices–especially students who had struggled to express themselves confidently in an academic tone. Maybe we need to hand the reins to students in their final reflections, and ask them, what about this whole writing process is interesting and exciting to you?


I don’t think I’m alone in having used final course reflections poorly. As Neal says, there are “potential problems  of reflective writing being either coercive or disingenuous.” I’d say maybe both at the same time. Over the years, my students’ reflections have wandered between fluent cursing and fluid ass-kissing. I wish Neal had given us more examples of what he wants instructors to do, and which he quotes Peggy O’Neill as saying that “[i]ncorporating reflection ethically requires more than just adding a cover letter or a reflective essay because students need to be taught what we mean by reflection, how to generate reflective texts, and how to evaluate them as processes and products.” He does make one useful point — that if a student makes a claim in their final reflection that they’ve learned something, they need to have an example of that learning in the revised materials in their portfolio. But that’s where the usefulness ends for me.

As an aside, in the same volume as Neal’s piece and the one by Taczak & Robertson, Jeff Sommers walks through how his final reflection piece evolved over time and the kinds of questions he asks students, which I found much more useful. A second aside/useful piece is the work in Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak’s Writing Across Contexts which talks about a final reflection as the culmination of a term-long series of reflections, and which results in a theory of writing developed by that student. Maybe we can talk about that?

Neal’s Portfolio

I chose this text because it was in Yancey’s recent “A Rhetoric of Reflection” and it was about portfolios and reflection. After reading it thoroughly, I’m fairly disappointed. Neal’s conclusion, that the portfolio and the reflection go hand-in-hand is obvious and it seemed like by the end, we didn’t make any significant progress. There are a couple of items that are important: Yancey’s triparte structure which is now outdated as her more recent TFT shows. At least getting introduced to that history is worthwhile. I’ve read White’s Phase 2 deal when it came out, and I think Neal is right that it’s all about efficiency. Neal slides into program assessment, which is really something we don’t need for our purposes, and to be honest after I got into those pages on White, I skipped forward. I think we’ll need to discuss TFT and assigning the final portfolio. Maybe there’s a better related text out there.