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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.