“I’m Not Throwing Away My Shot”

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As I’m working this evening, I am humming songs from Hamilton and reflecting on sessions from the Cs in Houston in April and NADE in Anaheim back in March — threshold concepts, transfer, critical reading in the writing classroom, IRW, accelerated programs, calls for action.  These professional meetings energize and inspire me to have “a mind at work,” and I always return to campus full of ideas and projects and research proposals, amazed at “how lucky we are to be alive right now…”  (Hamilton has come up on Pandora again).

But how do I translate that energy for my students at this point in the semester?  Back in my classroom this morning, I heard myself saying, “If you take nothing else away from this course, remember that …”  Over the years, that phrase has come to signal discussion of the threshold concepts that define and structure my classes; in fact, I was framing my courses in this way well before I knew what  a threshold concept was, much less how such concepts might shape disciplinary conversations or a writing program. 

With only two weeks left in the semester, I face pedagogical angst:  have I made the points clear?  Have I created the opportunities to invite students into liminal spaces and encourage them to experience threshold concepts for themselves?  Have I paid attention to their comments–have I listened well enough to recognize their tentative efforts to deal with the confusion which inevitably accompanies our initial encounters with threshold concepts? How can I revise the text of my classroom (as Donald Murray’s revision checklist always comes to mind)?

I find myself preaching the concepts (as the wife of a preacher, pulpit-talk comes easily to me), whispering them in conferences, jotting them in the margins:  If you take nothing else away from this course, remember . . . you are writing for readers who will make their own meaning based on your lexical and grammatical choices.  If you take nothing else away from this course, remember . . .that you are a textual matchmaker, introducing your readers to your sources; in that position, you have both tremendous power and tremendous responsibility.  If you take nothing else away from this course, remember that language–and writing–reflects our identities and discourse communities.  If you take nothing else away from this course…

These threshold concepts may seem simple, but they are not.  They are much harder to acquire than a paragraph template, a comma rule, or pattern for writing introductions, in part because they require agency and self-efficacy (one of those words I heard at the Cs) — stances which my students have rarely been asked to take (or, in some cases, actively hindered from taking).  More than once, weary eyes have met mine:  “Professor Moore, just tell me what to say and I will say it.”  Ahh, at this point in the term, how easy that would be.  And how terribly unfair and cruel to these readers and writers. 

I’ve got just two weeks left in the semester.  Two weeks to craft responses that illustrate these threshold concepts.  Two weeks to resist asserting control over student writing.  Two weeks to invite students to experience the exhilaration of revision and the mot juste.  Two weeks to assure them that composing is hard work, even for their teacher…
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton gets it.  I may not be “just like my country,” “young, scrappy,” or “hungry,” but I’ve got two weeks left.  And I’m not throwing away my shot.

About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.