Reviewed by Sheri Rysdam, Utah Valley University, Orem, UT (email@example.com)
Co-Chairs: Gwen Gorzelsky, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO
Kevin Roozen, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL
Keynote Speakers: Linda Adler-Kassner, University of California Santa Barbara, CA
Elizabeth Wardle, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL
This year on March 18, 2015, at the Qualitative Research Network Forum (QRN) at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, I attended a keynote address and workshop by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle. The address focused on thresholds concepts and why they matter for teachers and administrators. In addition to integrating their combined experiences on the subject, the presenters drew on Adler-Kassner’s (2012) coauthored piece from Composition Forum, “The Value of Troublesome Knowledge: Transfer and Threshold Concepts in Writing and History,” coauthored with John Majewski and Damian Koshnick.
At the QRN, Adler-Kassner and Wardle first encouraged the audience to think back to an idea they had encountered that fundamentally changed the way they thought about writing. As an undergraduate student, I remembered first learning that writing can have social class markers and “status marking” errors. I remembered this realization absolutely changed the way I thought about writing, and it still informs my teaching to this day. Others answered ideas that fundamentally changed the way they thought about writing included thinking about writing as a process, discovering that writing always happens in a context, and learning that writing is social. According to Adler-Kassner and Wardle, these ideas could all be considered threshold concepts. Threshold concepts are our underlying assumptions. They are concepts that are critical to “epistemological participation in communities of practice” (Adler-Kassner & Wardle).
Adler-Kassner and Wardle emphasized the importance of remembering that threshold concepts are often transformational and troubling. Threshold concepts are transformational because they forever change the way one thinks about her or his work (at least until they are replaced). They are troubling because they often challenge previously held beliefs. Here’s how the metaphor works: As students experience a threshold concept, they often walk up to, walk around, and back away from, before ultimately walking through, the threshold. That means this kind of learning can take place over a long period of time. Consequently, standardized tests are not a great measure for students of writing in particular because, in college writing classes, students are likely still walking up to and around important threshold concepts. In writing classes, whether or not students walk through the threshold is likely less important than if they are being exposed to and are beginning to experiment with a threshold concept.
During the QRN, I realized these are some of the threshold concepts that I emphasize in my writing classes: peer review, revision, and reflection. These are concepts my students may or may not have accepted as a useful part of writing (which could be problematic when they respond to course evaluations). Whether or not they’ve accepted one or more of these concepts, the exposure to and interaction with the threshold concept is an important and necessary part of their learning process.
Finally, Adler-Kassner and Wardle emphasized it is crucial for us, as practitioners in the field, to name and define our threshold concepts. In part, so uninformed policy makers don’t do it for us. As Adler-Kassner, Majewski, and Koshnick (2012) wrote, “threshold concepts may provide a productive frame for faculty to productively engage with questions about the purposes of GE (General Education) and to consider how to support students as they work to achieve these purposes.” Understanding the field’s threshold concepts is essential for pedagogy, practices, and politics.
That writing is a process and can usually be improved upon strikes me as the most crucial threshold concept for us to consider in our field, especially as we imagine the kinds of writing that should be required of college students.
Adler-Kassner, Linda, Majewski, John, & Koshnick, Damien. (2012). The value of troublesome knowledge: Transfer and threshold concepts in writing and history. Composition Forum, 26. Retrieved October 27, 2015, from http://compositionforum.com/issue/26/troublesome-knowledge-threshold.php