AAEEBL Presentation: The Narcissus Quandary

What does the Greek myth of Narcissus and Echo have to do with building electronic portfolios at UW Bothell? More than you may think.

At least that was Dr. Kris Kellejian’s and my argument made during a presentation this past summer at the Association for Authentic, Experiential, and Evidenced-Based Learning (AAEEBL) International Conference in Boston, MA.

Reflecting on Narcissus

Entitled “The Narcissus Quandary: The Possibilities and Limits of Teaching Reflection,” our presentation sought to problematize questions of self-reflection by playing with the theme of narcissism and the socially-minded and future-oriented dimensions of self-reflection. By reflecting on the story of Narcissus and Echo, we showed the pitfalls of assuming that self-reflection is necessarily a solipsistic act.

Dr. Kellejian and I argue that, rather than follow the fate of Narcissus and perish alone transfixed by one’s own reflection (or at least metaphorically do so in their portfolios), students’ self-reflection is necessarily social. In other words, self-reflection is other-reflection. Our selves, our ideas, our actions, and our goals are shaped by the ideas and actions of others. To know oneself is to know one’s community. When Narcissus rejects the social world to gaze at an object of desire, this is not authentic self-reflection. Indeed, he only finds out later that the image he sees in the pond is his own reflection, and by then it is too late.

What’s more, Narcissus never leaves the self-reflective act; or more precisely, he remains transfixed in the mode of gazing and never moves into a mode of action. He dies by the pond. For him, the reflection is an end in itself, rather than a means to achieve other goals. In the everyday world of the student, reflection should not be the end, but the means to something else. Whether it is simply greater wisdom or something more specific like choosing a career path, self-reflection is always future-oriented.

Teaching Reflection with ePortfolios

Drawing on these ideas, we presented a few practical steps that teachers could take to implement socially-minded and future-oriented self-reflective activities in the portfolio building process.

First, we described an assignment modeled after Kenneth Burke’s metaphor of scholarly discourse as an ongoing conversation in a parlor. By  literally mapping their path through a set of discourses and practices (like a mind map, but with the appurtenances of a parlor populated by people), students can see how their work and experiences are shaped by their interactions with others.

Second, we presented a slightly adjusted reflective essay assignment prompt. We argue against the prompt that asks students to look backward at past work and experiences (i.e., the artifacts collected in the portfolio) to create a narrative that leads to the present, as if it is some grand culminating moment like a wedding at the end of a movie. Instead, we argue that the assignment should also be future-oriented and in a very particular way.

Often portfolio assignment prompts include a question about how this past work will affect the student’s future career and/or academic goals. Here, the student is asked to prognosticate about how their learning will hopefully help them. We find this unsatisfying. Instead, we’d like students to pose very serious questions about their future. This is not prognosticating; this is a practical questioning that will provide a path to future endeavors. This questioning could be about career and academic goals, or it could be a set of research questions the student hopes to pursue. In either case, the point is to end the portfolio (particularly the reflective essay) with an action-oriented future look. The portfolio should not be an end; it should be a new beginning.