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Composition Threshold Concepts in Basic Writing Instruction

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FAQ: How can threshold concepts be used in the basic writing classroom?

By members of Karen Uehling’s Basic Writing Graduate Course (Spring 2017):

  • Nicole Carrobis
  • Madison Hansen
  • Sarah Wilson

What Are Threshold Concepts? Making Connections

Threshold concepts hit the scene in 2003 with Meyer and Land’s controversial article, “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines.” Threshold concepts are the generally agreed upon ways of believing, thinking, and practicing within a given field. Most scholars who use and write threshold concepts believe that these concepts are necessary for gaining membership into and effectively participating within a their respective disciplines. Importantly, Meyer and Land note that these ways of thinking and practicing are rarely articulated; members in a discipline have already internalized them, and as such, the lack of explicitness can be difficult for newcomers. Thus, Meyer and Land theorize threshold concepts as “akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something” (1). Meyer and Land’s framework assumes that, prior to encountering a threshold concept, learners are outsiders of a given discipline, and as such, the process of encountering them is difficult. They provide five characteristics of threshold concepts, based around the idea that they contain often new, paradigm-shifting, and alien knowledge: threshold concepts are troublesome, transformative, integrative, bounded, and irreversible (4–5).

While this posting will discuss ways to effectively use threshold concepts in the basic writing classroom, we wholeheartedly acknowledge and agree with much of the skepticism surrounding threshold concepts. We’re particularly cognizant of how threshold concepts have become trendy in academia, and of how Meyer and Land’s five characteristics—troublesome, transformative, integrative, bounded, and irreversible—are quite dramatic. In his critique of threshold concepts, Derrell Patrick Rowbottom points out that what is transformative for one student may not be transformative for another, “because this depends on the conceptual scheme (or system of concepts) initially possessed by each [student]” (267). Lori Townsend summarizes several common suspicions of threshold concepts, including that they “don’t address skill development” and “ignore diversity.” And in the basic writing field, there may be skepticism that threshold concepts will become a rigid, disciplinary-centered stand-in for the holistic, student-centered learning outcomes that basic writing teachers have devoted so much time and energy to crafting.

If threshold concepts are used as tools of exclusion, they may be hegemonic or mandate agreement, but our posting works from the belief that this does not have to be the case. For example, Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle open their recent collection, Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts for Composition Studies, by enthusiastically arguing that “the threshold concepts in this book do not and cannot represent the full set of threshold concepts for our field; in fact, we do not believe it is possible or desirable to try to name, once and for all, such concepts” (7–8). They’re also careful to warn that threshold concepts also should not be course outcomes for students: “these threshold concepts should in no way, shape, or form be used as a checklist—for the development of curriculum, for instance, or to check students’ learning” (Adler-Kassner and Wardle 8).

In what follows, we assert that threshold concepts are one set of tools to help students and teachers move toward outcomes; they do not replace outcomes themselves. Through incorporating threshold concepts into our individual course designs, we’ve found that they can create a very clear and direct way for students to understand writing expectations. We believe that basic writers can benefit from encountering threshold concepts, and we hope to provide a bit of theoretical backing as well as practical tools that basic writing instructors can use to experiment with bringing threshold concepts into their classrooms. We’ll dive into how threshold concepts align with basic writing principles, explore ideas of transparency and academic literacy, and present specific activities, lessons and examples of overall course design that show how threshold concepts can be integrated into an accelerated course model.

How are threshold concepts relevant to Basic Writing?

How can Threshold Concepts be used in conjunction with a pedagogy of transparency?

How can threshold concepts be used to foster “critical academic literacy”?

How can threshold concepts be integrated into activities, lessons, and course designs?

How can these topics assist in the teaching and learning of multicultural students in Basic Writing classrooms?

Full Threshold Concepts Bibliography

An Invitation to Collaborate

In the spirit of collaboration and innovation in basic writing, we invite all other scholars to extend, complicate, and further our conversation. Please see the guidelines for Using the CompFAQs Wiki to learn about the ways you can contribute to this FAQ.

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Page last modified on April 28, 2017, at 09:50 PM