Naming What We Know

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July 30, 2015 Naming What We Know_Photo 1.jpgThere’s been a lot of buzz lately about Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s edited collection, Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (Utah State UP, 2015), and with good reason.  In this timely and fascinating volume, the editors define “threshold concepts” as those that are “critical for continued learning and participation in an area or within a community of practice.” As Linda and Elizabeth make clear in their thoroughly useful introduction, this concept grows out of research in the UK on effective teaching and learning. Ray Land (who contributed the preface to this volume) and Jan H. F. Mayer used the notion to study what economists reported was essential knowledge in their field. What they learned led them to establish “threshold concepts” as central to learning in any field and provided an impetus for the present volume.

Following Land’s preface and a lively introduction by Kathi Yancey, Linda and Elizabeth lay out the project, explaining when and how they came up with the idea and the fairly elaborate process they followed in identifying and categorizing writing studies’s threshold concepts. Since I had the privilege of contributing three of the entries in the volume (1.2: “Writing Addresses, Invokes, and/or Creates Audiences”; 2.5 “Writing is Performative”; and 3.3 “Writing is Informed by Prior Experience”), I went through much of this process with the other authors, reading and responding to drafts and groupings, and honing my entries with the helpful responses of other authors. As Linda and Elizabeth say, in the beginning it felt like a big “crowd sourcing” effort, as some 45 people pitched ideas and responded to the ideas of others. And it was certainly collaborative through and through, a model, in fact, for one of the principal ways that “written knowledge” gets produced.

Beginning with a discussion of a “metaconcept,” that “writing is an activity and a subject of study,” written by Linda and Elizabeth, the volume continues with five threshold concepts:

  • Writing is a Social and Rhetorical Activity (10 essays)
  • Writing Speaks to Situations through Recognizable Forms (7 essays)
  • Writing Enacts and Creates Identities and Ideologies (6 essays)
  • All Writers Have More to Learn (7 essays)
  • Writing is (Also Always) a Cognitive Activity (5 essays)

Following the discussions of threshold concepts—which to my mind are succinct and to the point, presented in just the right tone and register for those entering the field—is a second part on “Using Threshold Concepts,” showing how the concepts could interact productively with writing across the curriculum, writing centers, professional development, graduate education, first-year writing, and so on. The introduction (written by the editors) and the six essays that follow provide sound advice that I’m sure will be put to good use by writing teachers and administrators, as well as by those coming to writing studies for the first time.

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Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle

I’ve read bits and pieces of this book—some of them many times. But not until I received a copy did I have an opportunity to really take in its thematic structure. So I am starting at the beginning and intending to read straight through, keeping a log as I go of how my understanding of “threshold concepts” grows as I engage each contribution to this volume. Especially read in relation to a few other volumes, such as Key Words in Composition (1990), Key Words in Writing Studies (2015), and the older Teaching Composition: Twelve Bibliographic Essays (1987), Threshold Concepts provides a clear, cogent, and compelling introduction to writing studies. Brava, Linda and Elizabeth—and all contributors!

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.