Live from MLA–Writing about Writing

Rebecca Day Babcock
Rebecca Day Babcock is Associate Professor of English and Chair of Literature and Languages at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin.

When I found out I would be blogging on January 8th as part of a guest blogger series here on Writingaboutwriting.net, my immediate thoughts went to the fact that I would be at MLA, and it was at MLA that I first heard about Writing about Writing and first met Betsy Sargent. So I decided that my guest blog would involve reporting from MLA on Writing about Writing-themed topics. Upon consulting the program, I saw no topics that explicitly mentioned Writing about Writing, but I did note two sessions on threshold concepts. Both these sessions, one sponsored by NCTE and the other sponsored by the MLA Committee on Community Colleges, were based on or inspired by the 2015 book Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle. While both sessions challenged and problematized threshold concepts,  participants in the NCTE session explicitly wondered if threshold concepts were as true for all students and teachers as they were for the authors of the above collection.  The Community College session both problematized and accepted the idea of threshold concepts and even encouraged audience members to articulate their own threshold concepts.

Session 338, entitled “Troubling Threshold Concepts in Composition Studies” began with an alarm sounding calling for everyone to exit the building (Several people noted that the alarm sounded at the same time that an anti-gun protest was going on, but in reality a fire in one of the elevators was what caused the interruption). The session participants filed to the street and speaker Mary Boland began to read her paper standing under a tree–police sirens and fire trucks responding to the alarm in the background.  As Boland spoke, passers by on the sidewalk tried to avoid walking in front of her. She informed the group about threshold concepts’ originators–UK economics scholars Erik Meyer and Ray Land. Boland went on to explain that threshold concepts do not apply equally to all students. (We then returned to the session room.) Boland prefers to talk about discourse communities. She is concerned that the use of threshold concepts and teaching for transfer could be used to hold more radical pedagogies at bay.

Other speakers at the session were Lance Langdon, who interviewed students as part of his research. He is concerned that threshold concepts are not accurate for all students, and that we need to look at the emotional and affective nature of these concepts. Speaker Craig Meyer thinks that students may see threshold concepts as fluid since they have experienced multiple English teachers who hold “pet peeves” as rules for writing and these constantly change from teacher to teacher. I think that perhaps threshold concepts and myths about writing are mirror images of each other and I would not be surprised if a particular item were to show up on both lists. Session organizer Jacqueline Rhodes notes that threshold concepts are not neutral. She reminds us that we should question them and their assumptions.

The Community College session (419), entitled “Threshold Concepts in First-Year Composition (FYC) at the Community College” enacted a novel format, as speakers read briefly from excerpts of papers that they had previously posed online and had engaged in discussion and feedback on before the conference.

Holly Larson discussed her students’ relation to the threshold concept “Writing is a Social Act” and explained how she forms her classroom as a community of inquiry. She works with expanding students’ ideas about writing and helping them to understand all aspects of the topics they are writing about.

Shawn Casey talked about literacy narratives and how we can have students connect those experiences to what we want them to learn in FYC. (This point is similar to one made by Craig Meyer in the previous session about having students tell their stories.) Casey also has students interview someone in their field about writing expectations and requirements. The threshold concept he is most concerned with is thinking critically about literacy.

Miles McCrimmon discussed alternatives to first year comp such as AP and dual enrollment and asked just where the threshold was. He also queried the structural metaphor of the threshold and wondered if it symbolized the virginal student being carried over the threshold by FYC into university life.

Audience members and panelists at both sessions were especially interested in pushing back and questioning the reification of threshold concepts as something, to quote Oprah, that we “know for sure.” I am happy the Adler-Kassner and Wardle collection has already sparked a debate here at MLA and I look forward to seeing where these discussions will take us in our scholarship.

4 thoughts on “Live from MLA–Writing about Writing”

  1. Thanks for the report, Rebecca! I wasn’t able to make it to MLA this year, and I’ve been curious about the apparent uptick in Writing Studies sessions.

    I’m hoping you can clarify a couple of the comments or positions of the speakers. One source of my confusion is that as I’m used to seeing threshold concepts — and especially as they’re presented in Naming What We Know — they tend to be expressed as declarative statements about how the world works (e.g. “Writing Enacts and Creates Identities and Ideologies” or “Writing is a Technology through which Writers Create and Recreate Meaning”), which members of some communities take as given and others don’t take at all… or outright reject. Meyer and Land call them “troublesome,” in part because coming to believe a particular concept often means becoming closer to some discourse community or community of practice and in the process becoming more distant from some other prior communities.

    So I’m wondering a few things: (a) What did Casey mean by saying (in your paraphrase, at least), “the threshold concept he is most concerned with is thinking critically about literacy”? What is the declarative statement about the way the world works that he wants to contest, or to convince others is true? (b) Is Boland (or, for that matter, McCrimmon) concerned about the framework of “threshold concept” as a whole, or about the particular concepts that were agreed upon by the contributors to the Adler-Kassner and Wardle edited collection? Or is it more of an objection to any statement of shared ways of viewing the world, even those explicitly named as only “final-for-now definitions of some of what our field knows” (Adler-Kassner and Wardle 4), as being too limited and/or limiting?

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  2. Thanks, Ben, for your comments. I hesitate to speak for the speakers, and these are only my interpretations of what they said. But for most if not all it appeared they were afraid that threshold concepts could become too rigid and codified, that perhaps not all would agree with their ideological nature, and even that learning was more situated and contextual, and as Casey remarked, it may not be so much what students learn, but how, where, and when they learn. In answer to your final question, yes, the panelists in general (the NCTE more so than the Community College) were hesitant to accept any kind of statement that could be seen as true for everyone at all times when in their work with students (for instance, in particular one of the students that Langdon interviewed) they found these concepts most surely did not work or ring true for all students in all situations.

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  3. Hi, Ben. And thanks, Rebecca, for bringing attention to the topic with this blog.

    I would support your answer of Ben’s question, and note that I share the concern voiced most powerfully by Mary and Jackie on my panel that we fear the concepts will be reified; Ben’s last statement captures that fear perfectly, for me at least. It’s not so much that we disagree with particular declarations but that we’re concerned that arranging them together in an authoritative document–even when they’ve been sourced with knowledgeable veterans and arranged by a respected leader–will lead to rigidity, and will take away from other emphases that aren’t stressed in the document–say the ability of writing to promote progressive politics, or the importance of emotions in learning to write.

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  4. As the co-editor of the threshold concepts book that these speakers are referencing, I feel quite baffled by the comments as summarized here. Both Linda and I in the book, as well as Meyer and Land, talk a great deal about the changing nature of threshold concepts. They are not reified or codified, nor are they imposed from the top down. They emerge from the research, theory, discussion of the discipline, and they change as those things change. One major purpose of Meyer and Land’s TC frame is to help improve teaching: TCs are what experts in a field tend to know intuitively but not bring to the level of conscious awareness. As a result, teaching is not always clear, and may assume that students understand ideas they’ve never been explicitly presented with. The actual benefit of naming TCs is that they *are* then available–not only for learning, but also for critique and discussion. They are actually much more likely to be codified if we don’t bring them to conscious awareness because unnamed ideas are hard to interrogate. Jackie Rhoades is right–TCs aren’t neutral. No one claims they are.

    In the book, Linda and I point to another reason for naming TCs in the manner that Lance opposes above. We spend a great deal of time in the introduction discussing this purpose. That is, that our field has had very little ability to impact policies and practices that have very negative material consequences for student writers. If we just refuse to talk about what our research tells us to be true, this situation continues. We can argue with one another ad naseum about whether it’s a good idea to tell anyone in writing what we know, but the fact is, when we don’t, everyone else makes policies and practices that impact students. Students get sorted and ranked by metrics that are biased and totally invalid, they are indoctrinated with ideas about what writing is (like writing is error avoidance) that shut down their desire and ability to write or to use writing for meaningful change in the world. I get that we as a field are uncomfortable with any sort of list of things we might agree on after 50 years of research, but the fact is that students are suffering while we sit around and argue about that. There are things we agree on. For example, that writing is not error avoidance, that writing is not neutral, that good writers are not just born that way. We agree on these things, but the broader public doesn’t. And the longer we sit and argue about whether we should write these things down and risk having them codified, the more the misconceptions about writing win. The misconceptions are already codified–in tests, in Pearson software, in teachers’ worst practices, in articles about writing in the mass media. I, for one, am committed to students and to seeing change happen for the good of students, so I’m willing to risk the possibility that one of our research- and theory-based ideas about writing might become codified in place of these already-codified, dangerous, and harmful concepts about writing that are impacting students lives all the time.

    I’m also baffled here by some of what people are suggesting as TCs. TCs are not activities or directions like “think critically about literacy.” They are research- and theory-based ideas and claims that are not just key terms but which, when enacted and embodied, actually change learners’ views of the world and help them integrate disparate ideas they may never before have seen as connected. All of this is in the very wideranging literature on TCs, and seems to have been misunderstood by many of these panelists. Critique is important, but critique of a straw person is not productive or fair.

    Elizabeth

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