populating threshold concepts in writing studies

In our Teaching Practicum, we’re reading Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing StudiesIf you aren’t familiar with it, it’s an interesting texts with many contributors that seeks to identify some of the threshold concepts of our discipline where “threshold concepts” have some specific, though unsurprising, characteristics:

  • Learning them is generally transformative, involving “an ontological as well as a conceptual shift . . . becoming a part of who we are, how we see, and how we feel” (Cousin 2006).
  • Once understood, they are often irreversible and the learner is unlikely to forget them.
  • They are integrative, demonstrating how phenomena are related, and helping learners make connections.
  • They tend to involve forms of troublesome knowledge, what Perkins refers to as knowledge that is “alien” or counterintuitive (qtd. in Meyer and Land 2006, 3).

I’ll return to that characterization in a moment. The book is edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, who start our their introduction to the collection by reminding us of the struggles we have had even with naming our discipline, let alone figuring out what it is about. There they come up with the following line, while we have struggle to define what the field is about, “researchers and teachers in the field have, at the same time, focused on questions related to a common theme: the study of composed knowledge.” The study of composed knowledge?  Trying to define this discipline is an unenviable task, and I’m not saying that I have a better answer, but… the study of composed knowledge? They continue:

Within this theme, our work has been expansive. To name just a few areas of practice within it, we have studied what composed knowledge looks like in specific contexts; how good and less-than-good qualities of composed knowledge are defined, by whom, and with what values associated with those definitions and qualities; how to help learners compose knowledge within specific contexts and with what consequences for learner and context; the relationships between technologies and processes for composing knowledge; connections between affordances and potential for composing knowledge; and how composed knowledge can be best assessed and why.

This explanation helps make clear what is meant by composed knowledge, and I imagine most scholars in the field can see themselves in these generalities somewhere. Still. One might “compose knowledge” by practicing a golf swing, performing a laboratory experiment, or watching your dog play in the yard. Some of that knowledge may be trivial. Some might involve writing somewhere along the way, or not. So either I’m confused about what “compose” means or I’m confused by what “knowledge” means because I think we study a very narrow slice of composed knowledge, and, I think we study things that are not composed knowledge also. That is, in my mind anyway, rhetorical-expressive processes and events are not simply knowledge, if by knowledge we mean something along the lines of declarative statements. Maybe I could replace “composed knowledge” with “rhetorical-expressive processes and events” in the passage above, but I’m not sure if that’s very helpful.

Fortunately I think we’re better off not attempting to identify essential, defining characteristics of the discipline but rather describing the population of assemblages within it. How do you know where the boundary is? Good question. The short answer is that you have to go look. Perhaps it will be clear, as when the land reaches the sea, but maybe not. Meanwhile though, the rest of this book is about trying to describe those assemblages or threshold concepts.  All the threshold concepts in the book are about writing. That is, each concept makes a claim, and most of the claims are about writing. Some are about writers or text or words or genre. I guess it would be too tautological to say that writing studies studies writing. If, as DeLanda observes, assemblages can be territorialized by code, then one way our field is populated is through activities coded as writing. Writing itself has become destabilized (or decoded or deterritorialized) in the digital era, so that boundary is not as crisp as it once was.

But let me return to the notion of threshold concept itself. As described above, they sound to me like “aha” moments. The overarching threshold concept in Naming What We Know is “Writing is an Activity and an Object of Study.”  As Adler-Kassner and Wardle note, “the idea that writing is not only an activity in which people engage but also a subject of study often comes as a surprise, partially because people tend to experience writing as a finished product that represents ideas in seemingly rigid forms but also because writing is often seen as a ‘basic skill’ that a person can learn once and for all and not think about again.” Yeah… ok. I think that’s probably because people tend to separate “writing” from “composing knowledge.” And also they probably don’t give the matter much thought.  The average person knows they can’t sit down and write an article for a physics journal but that’s because (they would say) they don’t know physics not because they don’t know how to write. The idea that part of learning to know physics would be learning to how to write physics articles is one of those subtle points. Actually it’s not that subtle but let’s give “people” the benefit of the doubt. Admittedly it’s frustrating when the physics professors thinks she can teach the physics and I can teach the writing and the two will just magically combine inside students minds so that they can just write physics papers. Probably no one really believes it happens that way. We just don’t tend to give a lot of thought to how it actually does happen. But then again, that’s what writing studies is for! Investigating how writing happens… or as I so charmingly put it in an earlier paragraph investigating “rhetorical processes and events.”

So, does this concept seem to be a threshold? Is it that kind of aha moment? I’ve had some aha moments as a scholar. I remember in grad school when I first “got” the idea of rhizomes and the next week felt pretty trippy as I was seeing rhizomes everywhere. I don’t recall having that kind of experience around this notion. Maybe because it came on slowly. Maybe it was because I wanted to write sci-fi novels when I was a kid and so I’ve been studying writing and trying to figure it out for a long time. In fact, I’m not sure I ever though of writing as a basic skill that a person learns once.

For me, the metaconcept here is that writing is a messy business, and that’s something around which I have had recent aha moments in building a WID curriculum on campus. It’s one thing to understand this conceptually. It’s another to encounter it on the ground.