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What Are Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies and Why Do They Matter?

September 15, 2015
Linda Adler-Kassner Linda Adler-Kassner

Aka: (How) Can Research-Based Concepts Contribute to Classroom Practice?

Aka: (How) Can Research-Based Concepts Contribute to Classroom Practice?

I invite anyone reading this to make a list of the ways that you use writing in your daily lives. You might write grocery lists, e-mails, notes to yourself about something you’re reading, or analyses of texts or other research artifacts. You might keep a journal, write to a relative, or create blog entries (like this one). I issue this invitation to make a point: many people write, and they do so for a variety of reasons.

Because writing is ubiquitous, it is frequently included in discussions about both educational attainment and the assessments that often signal levels of attainment. In the current climate, those assessments have a profound effect on classroom practice from kindergarten through college.*

At the same time, not everyone studies writing. For this reason, questions associated with that study, such as the ones that my colleagues in the discipline of writing studies focus on, are sometimes not considered. We ask, for instance, how is “good literacy” defined and taught? And with what implications and what consequences?

Because our discipline has investigated literacy practices and their consequences for sixty-plus years, my colleagues and I have deep understandings of the issues associated with these questions. These understandings stem from and are reflected in our discipline’s threshold concepts.

British researchers J. F. Meyer and Ray Land, the researchers who originally identified threshold concepts, defined them as concepts for full and immersive participation in a discipline. They are transformative, changing the ways that individuals understand and see; they are also often troublesome, butting up against inert, alien, or otherwise problematic knowledge.

Because writing is everywhere, many believe themselves to be experts on writing. In some ways, they are. After all, many write and have done so for many years. But not everyone is familiar with writing’s threshold concepts, those concepts that lead one to view writing from a research-based perspective and to consider the consequences and implications associated with the definitions and uses of writing—for instance, in assessments or other policy-related efforts.

It’s this conundrum that led Elizabeth Wardle and me to initiate the collaboration that led to Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. For this project, we worked with twenty-seven leading teacher-researchers in the field to identify and define some of the threshold concepts of writing studies, create accessible definitions of those concepts, and consider the implications of writing’s threshold concepts in specific sites like assessment, faculty development, and curricular design. Ultimately, we hope that Naming What We Know can help writing studies professionals communicate with many others—colleagues, administrators, policy makers, parents—about what we know about writing and writers and also help those outside our field draw on these concepts as they go about the work of writing.

*For instance, see this video from Student Achievement Partners, an organization founded by the lead writers of the Common Core State Standards. It features teachers talking about the virtues of the Common Core State Standards. What’s notable is not what they say about the standards but the ways in which their comments are framed by the idea that learning is driven by demonstration of proficiency.

Linda Adler-Kassner is professor of writing and director of the writing program at University of California, Santa Barbara. She is coauthor of Basic Writing as a Political Act: Public Stories about Writing and Literacy; coeditor of Questioning Authority: Stories Told in School, The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Basic Writing, and Naming What We Know; and author of The Activist WPA. Her research has appeared in various edited collections and journals, including Journal of Basic Writing, College Composition and Communication, WPA Journal, and College English.

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