Spring 2019 Conference

Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts in the Classroom

Our conference this spring was inspired by Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Collaboratively written by Linda Adler-Kassner, Elizabeth Wardle, and many other composition scholars, Naming What We Know determines and describes the threshold concepts of writing studies.

A threshold concept is troubling, transforming, and transferable. It is troubling because it challenges commonsense ideas; it is transforming because once we understand a threshold concept, we can’t go back to how we used to think; and it is transferable because it can be used in multiple disciplines, as well as outside of academia.

We used Naming What We Know and it’s five major threshold concepts (and thirty subconcepts!) to organize our ECE conference. Each breakout session engaged with a major threshold concept of writing studies. For example, for the threshold concept “Writing is Social and Rhetorical,” we began by investigating commonsensical notions of writing and writers. We did a Google Image search of “writing” and “writers.” “Writing” yields images of disembodied hands using a pencil. Images of “writers” often show a single person, usually older, white, and male. Oddly, they’re using a typewriter or fountain pen. It takes some scrolling until you get to someone using a laptop. We discussed how these images communicate an idea of writing as isolated, clean, and exclusive; in fact, as the threshold concept demonstrates, writing is collaborative, messy, and all of our students are already writers. Part of our work as writing teachers is to challenge received ideas about writing. But how do we do that? How might these threshold concepts transform our teaching of writing?

Each breakout session adapted an assignment or activity that in some way speaks to their threshold concept. The threshold concept “Writing Takes Recognizable Forms” describes the necessity of writers to evaluate their rhetorical situation in order to choose, adapt, and/or create the appropriate genre. One group of teachers described an assignment where students are tasked with creating a teen health magazine about authentic student health issues. This assignment asks students to work within a known genre (the magazine) and adapt it to speak to their peers. Students learn the conventions of magazines–the values and practices the genre enacts–as well as how flexible genre can be to the needs of writers and readers. In the breakout session on the threshold concept “Writing is a Cognitive Activity,” participants explored the relationship between writing and the brain. One proposed activity for introducing cognition or metacognition into the writing classroom is to have reflective writing assignments that asks students to consider the affective domain of writing. Another proposal was to ask students to record themselves composing, perhaps using screen capture. This would direct students to consider how their writing is a way of thinking; how their writing shapes their thinking and vice versa.

All of these activities were shared during a large group discussion just before lunch. You can find more about threshold concepts and the activities we brainstormed at the ECE English website here. Click on the Session Materials folder to be taken to slides made by each breakout session. I’ve only highlighted a few examples of threshold concepts in the classroom here, but you’ll find many more in the slides. We also provided a brief overview of the developing Writing Across Technology (WAT) curriculum in First Year Writing.

The day ended with a meeting of the interest groups. In the multimodal interest group, we discussed the specific challenges facing ECE teachers when incorporating technology into the classroom. It was a very productive conversation for sharing workarounds, but also brainstorming how these challenges may be addressed in the future.

Thank you to all the participants and presenters for a wonderful day!