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  • Composing at the ThresholdCollaborative Composition and Innovative Form
  • Rebecca C. Conklin (bio)
Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle. Utah State University Press, 2016. 232 pages.

In Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, editors Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle capture the foundational knowledge of writing studies while avoiding the prescriptiveness that such projects tend to produce. The contributors to this collection, including such key names in the field as Andrea A. Lunsford, Victor Villanueva, Paul Kei Matsuda, and Kathleen Blake Yancey, compile, discuss, and finally compose the threshold concepts of writing studies—that is, the “concepts critical for continued learning and participation in an area or within a community of practice” (2). According to Adler-Kassner and Wardle, their invitation to the contributors “functioned as an exigence, an opportunity to uncover and interrogate assumptions; in that sense, identifying the threshold concepts presented here was a collective philosophical exercise involving exploration as much as consolidation of what we know” (xix). The result of this collaboration is a book unlike any other that writing studies, composition, or rhetoric has seen—unique both in its “crowd-sourced” (3) and flexible form and its discipline-spanning content. [End Page 359]

Threshold concepts present a new way of thinking about disciplinary knowledge and have significant pedagogical implications. Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land first developed the idea of threshold concepts while studying the “effective characteristics of teaching and learning in an undergraduate education” (2). Meyer and Land (2006) spoke to economists about what they felt were the defining characteristics of their field, what separated their field of study from other disciplines. They called these characteristics and boundaries threshold concepts and identified the epistemological themes common across diverse disciplines. For example, opportunity cost and supply-and-demand curves represent two threshold concepts in economics, while the idea that writing is both social and rhetorical is a major threshold concept in writing studies. As Adler-Kassner and Wardle describe in their introduction, Meyer and Land’s research concludes four major qualities of threshold concepts: (a) that learning threshold concepts is transformative and often prompts an ontological shift, (b) that once they are understood they are difficult to displace, (c) that they are integrative by showing relations and connections between phenomenon, and (d) that they tend to involve troublesome knowledge, which may be troublesome because of its foreignness or counterintuitiveness (2). In these ways, threshold concepts offer a way of thinking about and describing how a field knows, moving beyond the explicit theories and data of seminal publications.

In the preface to Naming What We Know, Land explains that threshold concepts are particularly important in writing studies because “such study operates across two important dimensions” (xii). On the one hand, writing studies has become its own discipline with its own knowledge; on the other hand, it finds itself inextricably linked to all other disciplines. The threshold concepts from writing studies certainly apply to scholars within the field but also have a wider application to those who write or teach writing outside of writing studies. By framing the knowledge of writing studies in terms of threshold concepts, the book meets the interdisciplinary needs of a diverse readership. Adler-Kassner, Wardle, and all of the contributors explore how threshold concepts may present a viable path toward continuing to define the field and enabling productive knowledge sharing with those in other disciplines who write or teach writing.

Naming What We Know is organized into two main parts. Part 1 defines thirty-five threshold concepts of writing studies. Part 2 explores in greater detail the application of threshold concepts by stakeholders in the field. To determine the focus and content of the book, Adler-Kassner and Wardle used PBwiki (now renamed PBworks), a collaborative software program, [End Page 360] to contemplate, converse, and compose with dozens of scholars from the field. The result is a selectively “crowd-sourced encyclopedia” (3) with twenty-nine contributors composing thirty-five brief meditations, one for each threshold concept. Notably, five major threshold concepts arose through the collaboration: writing is a social and rhetorical activity; writing speaks to situations in recognizable...


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pp. 359-365
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