From Ink to Hyperlink: Experimenting with an Online Comprehensive Exam Portfolio


Kate Nesbit

Kate Nesbit is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Iowa. Kate studies recitation, elocution, and oral reading practices in Victorian England and is currently working on her dissertation on the nineteenth-century practice of reading aloud in the home. Her website can be found here. Her Twitter handle is @nesbitkate

Don’t get me wrong—I love paper and ink. I am of the strange species that still takes notes in notebooks, annotates paperbacks, and loves the satisfying sense of completion that follows stapling a freshly printed essay. As an English PhD student here at the University of Iowa, I was—like many doctoral candidates—tasked with the preparation of a rather infamous print document: the Comprehensive Exam Portfolio.

The Comps Portfolio—referred to by my fellow English grad students as “the port,” “the port to doom,” and “the fartfolio”—is an approximately 100-page compilation of written work meant to profile your expertise and prepare you for writing the dissertation. The portfolio is comprised of various parts—a review essay, an academic article, annotations of critical and theoretical texts, syllabi—that are ideally supposed to talk to each other and point towards the student’s dissertation.

I specialize in nineteenth-century sound, listening, and oral reading, and as I began to prepare for my exam, I realized print was perhaps not the best medium for my portfolio’s content. I wanted to link to audio and audio-visual content, and—as someone interested in oral exchange—I wanted the different parts of the portfolio to converse with each other more explicitly.

Image of Kate Nesbit's portfolio homepage
Figure 1: The “Home Page” and “Table of Contents” of my online Comprehensive Exam Portfolio

I completed a print version of my Comprehensive Exam Portfolio, but I also compiled an online version. I constructed this online portfolio using Scalar, a digital humanities publishing platform run by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture at University of Southern California—Los Angeles.

As I began constructing the Scalar portfolio, the online version became central to how I thought about, composed, and organized my materials. I take great interest in media and how it shapes information, thought, and consciousness. In the case of my portfolio, the Scalar platform influenced how I perceived and experienced the Comprehensive Examination preparation process. I came to see the portfolio materials as:

  1. Non-linear: Scalar, like most website platforms, allows a user to link different pages of her site through hyperlinks, paths (linear), and tags (non-linear). The Scalar portfolio
    Figure 2: “Special Interest Area Annotations” Visual. Found at

    asks users to follow self-guided lines of inquiry through thematically linked content. Take, for example my special interest annotations. The Scalar platform allowed me to not only place annotations in multiple categories, but also visualize the relations between annotations and their thematic groupings (Fig. 2).

  2. Conversational: In trying to think about where I could link to different pages and content on my online Portfolio, I found myself thinking more creatively about the connections between different scholars, as well as different aspects of my own work
  1. Porous: By this, I mean that, by looking for ways to link to outside content (YouTube videos, other websites, online archives), I came to more fully appreciate how others’ ideas as well as my own are very much affected by and affecting happenings within and beyond the academy.

That being said, my online portfolio had its limitations. Since the URL is public, I could not include my article, which I hope to eventually publish elsewhere. My exam committee rightfully took issue with some of the ways I categorized, connected, and linked information. And…since I had to create both a print and an online portfolio, it took a lot of extra time.

Even so, I encourage departments and students—especially those interested in media studies—to experiment with different portfolio platforms. An online portfolio just may lead to fresh lines of inquiry and conceptual connections that are—believe it or not—even more satisfying than staples.