Crossing Thresholds

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This blog was originally posted on November 20th, 2013.

In my last post, I wrote about the difficulties of helping students see the practical, transferable value of things we teach them. In particular, I was a little frustrated that the analysis and assessment techniques I shared with students in the Writing with Communities and Non-Profits course didn’t really hit home with them until guests from non-profits started coming to class and sharing what amounted to the same techniques.

In today’s post, I’d like to follow up on that and talk a little about the same class and the issue of threshold concepts. As we’ve already mentioned in this blog, the next edition of WAW will be centered around threshold concepts. At the same time, I am co-editing a book with Linda Adler-Kassner on threshold concepts (Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts in Writing Studies, Utah State University Press, forthcoming 2014), and am currently writing a chapter for that book with my colleague Blake Scott on how threshold concepts can help shape writing majors. So, suffice it to say, the lens of threshold concepts is on my mind. To recap, threshold concepts are, according to Meyer and Land, communally-agreed upon knowledge from a field that learners must understand in order to progress in their learning in that field. Learning a threshold concept “occasion[s] a significant shift in the perception of a subject.” Threshold concepts “expose the previously hidden interrelatedness of something.”

One of two big assignments in Writing with Communities and Non-Profits was a grant project. This entailed pairing students with community non-profit partners, and then asking the students to find ten possible funding sources (using the Foundation Directory) and then to write a grant proposal to one of those sources. This project required the students to spend a lot of time with their non-profits, learning about their programs and achievements, and to write many, many drafts of what was a new genre for all of them.

The day the students turned their grant proposals into me, we talked in class about what they had learned while completing this project. Their reflective comments surprised me. They learned that

  • they can’t predict how readers will understand what they have written because each reader brings something different to the reading experience. (I’d instructed them to have multiple people read their grant proposal drafts, and they’d learned that each reader fixated upon something different, and interpreted claims and points differently, sometimes in opposite ways from other readers.)
  • no matter how many times they revise, their proposal can still be improved upon. (In other courses, they pointed out, they’d been told to do revision but had no real commitment to doing it and thus acquired no particularly urgent learning about how important revision is to meaning and effectiveness.).
  • using what they know from another setting (for many of them, this meant using techniques learned in creative writing courses) was possible but difficult, and required conscious and careful repurposing (being creative and passionate in the Needs section of a grant proposal requires a different approach than being creative and passionate in a novel, but creative writing techniques can be drawn upon.)

As I sat listening to the students explain their learning, I realized they were telling me that they had crossed some important threshold concepts about writing:

  • Readers and writers together construct meaning in texts.
  • Writing requires revision and is not perfectible.
  • Using writing knowledge in disparate contexts requires careful reflection and repurposing.
  • These were not the threshold concepts I had set out to teach them in this particular course. These weren’t even conscious outcomes of the course. I went in wanting the students to think about how writing mediates activity in the workplace, for example. While I included lots of scaffolded drafting and revision time in the course, I did not stop to think about what I was trying to teach them by including that. The threshold concepts the students named are threshold concepts I share, and they were implied in the design of my course. But I did not stop to think about them as the main threshold concepts of that particular course when I designed it.

One of the issues I’ve been struggling with how different threshold concepts are from outcomes. Outcomes can be set at the beginning of a course and then measured; threshold concepts are much slipperier. They underlie what we know and say; they underlie our desired outcomes and our course activities and assignments. But they are not easily taught in a direct manner or at a particular time. When students cross particular thresholds depends on many things, including their own histories and experiences and identities and motivations and dispositions. The students in my class have all revised before, and shared their work with others before, and drawn on prior knowledge before. But for some reason, their work with a non-profit client on this particular text at this particular time enabled them to understand threshold concepts they had not understood before. Of course, that isn’t true for all of them. I can see some of them still going through the motions, and that’s intriguing, too. They all had similar experiences, but their learning happened in different ways.

So how and why do students cross learning thresholds when they do? How can we better name the thresholds we hope they will cross, but also be open to whatever thresholds they cross while they are with us, even if they weren’t the ones we’d planned for? Learning is messy. But when it really happens, it’s incredibly rewarding. And it reminds us why we chose to be teachers in the first place.

About the Author
Elizabeth Wardle is Howe Professor of English and Director of the Roger and Joyce Howe Center for Writing Excellence at Miami University. Her research interests center around transfer, threshold concepts, first-year writing as writing studies, and writing program administration.