A Babel Fish Bookshelf

Naming What We Know About Writing

November 1, 2015

Academic librarians have been kicking around the idea of threshold concepts ever since a revision of the familiar information literacy standards proposed that we could rethink our approach to instruction in the art and craft of inquiry. The new Framework proposes several big ideas that could inform the learning that happens in our libraries. I really like this conceptual approach and the way it shifts the focus from learning skills to a more interesting and challenging set of ideas about how information works and how we make meaning. But it’s a significant shift in emphasis, and this new framework has, for now, been “filed” as one of many documents rather than adopted as a revision of the standards.

That has not stopped librarians from reworking their curricula and assessment plans with a hasty enthusiasm that I sometimes find dismaying. These aren’t concept you can cover in fifty minutes. Well, you could, but so what? They aren’t (to my mind) things librarians teach at all. They describe the kind of learning we design our libraries to nurture, but which is largely dependent on faculty in the disciplines who create the learning situations that will most profoundly influence whether our students cross these thresholds or not.

So I have this odd mix of excitement and concern about how librarians might use threshold concepts which made me eager to read a new book, Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle. This idea-packed book comes from the Utah State University Press, which very nearly closed its doors a few years ago due to budget cuts. I’m so glad it survived to publish books like this.

The book, a “crowd-sourced” collection of essays that involved over forty distinguished composition scholars, addresses two questions: “what do we know about writing?” and “how can what we know inform curricula and assessment of student writing?”  The first half of the book identifies “what we know” – a lengthy list of key concepts related to writing, described in short essays. The list of concepts was collectively arrived at and constitute a state-of-the-art look at the key ideas that have bubbled up through decades of research and practice. Among the threshold concepts are these ones that struck a chord with me as paralleling the meaning-making moves we are actually talking about when we say “information literacy.”

  • Writing is a social and rhetorical activity
  • Writing is a knowledge-making activity
  • Writing involves making ethical choices
  • Writing speaks to others through recognizable forms
  • Texts get their meaning from other texts
  • Writing enacts and creates identities and ideologies (Literacy itself is not ideologically neutral.)
  • Writing is linked to identity (something that seems critical as students begin to recognize their own authority to construct knowledge)
  • Failure can be an important part of writing development (and of conducting research)

All of the concepts, however, are interesting and thought-provoking and each is (amazingly) unpacked clearly in a mere page and a half. The editors are careful to call these ideas provisional, not a canonical list but an “articulation of shared beliefs providing multiple ways of helping us name what we know and how we can use what we know in the service of writing” (xix). These concepts must not be used as a checklist, they caution, which would strip away their complexity. “This type of learning is messy, time-consuming, and unpredictable,” the editors write. “It does not lend itself to shortcuts or checklists or competency tests” (9). Oh, yes.

The second half of the book explores how what writing scholars know can be used in practice, with chapters on using threshold concepts in first year writing courses, in an undergraduate major, and in graduate programs, a chapter on assessment, and on training writing center tutors. There’s a chapter on using these concepts in faculty development and a concluding chapter on Writing Across the Curriculum. I found these last two chapters particularly valuable. Rather like librarians who are committed to information literacy, writing scholars are committed professionals who are often seen as people who merely provide a service. They have to negotiate sharing their disciplinary expertise with recognizing the role faculty in other disciplines play in developing students’ writing abilities. Instruction librarians have a similar dilemma – we feel responsibility for a kind of learning that largely happens in other people’s classrooms. Helping ensure that faculty across the disciplines feel both prepared to enable that learning and committed to making sure it happens is one of the biggest problems we face. This is why I was so intrigued by Chris Anson’s closing chapter which addresses way to make what writing scholars know useful to faculty in other disciplines teaching writing. His final paragraphs offer a caution that librarians need to consider, too: “when not to cross the threshold.”

When threshold concepts are reduced from verbs to nouns, from their fully articulated, active form (along with plentiful explanation) to buzzword and catch phrases, many faculty will balk, and resistance an follow . . . certain threshold concepts introduced too glibly can trigger false assumptions, resistance, or confusion among faculty. 216

Many librarians seem so eager to adopt the new Framework that I worry complex ideas will be flattened into a list of things to cover in library sessions, a small canon of ideas to name and test for recall. In reality these ideas about how information works and how students can participate in making meaning can’t really be grasped except through sustained experience. Since for most students that experience is likely to come through courses and majors, we librarians need to find ways to work with faculty (how often we have said this!) to share the responsibility and the teaching practices that will help our student cross the thresholds of understanding that we jointly believe are important. The penultimate chapter by Linda Adler-Kassner and John Majewski provides a helpful discussion of how to “extend the invitation” to use these big ideas that we think are so important as grounds for a conversation about how these concepts play out in different disciplines, how to identify ways to sequence learning to build understanding over time, and how to see how these experiences can matter beyond specific disciplinary situations.

I recommend this book to librarians as well as to faculty right across the disciplines. It packs a lot of knowledge about writing into a small but rich package. It also might provide librarians with a model for how to talk to our non-librarian colleagues about the big ideas we all hope students will grasp without reducing them to a checklist to be covered in library sessions.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.