Threshold Concepts and Naming What we Know

This book came to me through a bit of serendipity. In my 1302 classes for Spring 2020, I assigned an article called “The Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies in the Writing Methods Course” by Kristine Johnson (see Bibliography). My students and I studied the five threshold concepts that Johnson describes as useful for her practice of training preservice writing instructors. The article met with varying degrees of success among the students, some students responded well to the structure and potential value of the threshold concepts. Others had to read quickly and with little pause to try to complete the assignment in a short period of time. As the instructor, I found the article both useful and enlightening as I was not aware of this method of using concepts to draw connections between theory and practice. I passed the “Free Books” bookshelf one day I found the book Naming What We Know sitting there. This book, I knew, was the resource Johnson used for her article and her study involving her students.

Thus, my initial response to the threshold concepts of writing studies stemmed from my experience as a new faculty member at a new institution and as a junior scholar. Ah, I thought, this book will give me a lay of the land from this particular angle. I like books that give the lay of the land. Books like Byron Hawk’s A Counter-History of Composition and Ryan Skinnell’s Conceding Composition make me feel as though I understand something about the discipline I have attached myself to professionally (and ontologically if I’m honest). Naming What We Know offers an overview of the field, and what we know about the study of writing, or as Adler-Kassner and Wardle call it “the study of composed knowledge” (1).

The scope of this collection traverses a wide territory designed not only as a description of the content of such a discipline as the study of composed knowledge but also as 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). To try to encompass this vast territory, the editors took a collaborative approach to articulating the shared beliefs of the field. They started a Wiki and invited the community of scholars studying writing to contribute. The end result was twenty-nine contributors who worked together to agree upon and revise their shared beliefs to come up with five primary threshold concepts and thirty-seven sub-concepts as descriptors of some of what we know as writing scholars. The collaborative approach to this project means that each concept occupies a short space, most are 1000 words or less, but this short space distills the key pieces of “what we know” into digestible and memorable chunks.

My goal in tackling this book was to identify the ways that the contributors to this volume also included posthuman praxis as part of their definition and concept. What posthumanism brings to the field of rhetoric often circulates below the surface of our articulation of what we know about composed knowledge. I wanted to see if the elements of posthumanism existed in this territory of what we know as scholars of rhetoric and composition (I prefer writing studies) and if those scholars included the terminology, theory, or practice of posthumanism in their short responses. So, for the purposes of bridging theory and practice I take each of the five concepts and the contributions that contained, to my view, posthuman praxis or incorporated some elements of posthumanism into their response to the coordinating concept. This post is one of a series designed to connect “what we know” with the elements of posthumanism that most enlighten the kind of pedagogy we advocate for in this project.

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