Review of Adler-Kassner & Wardle's
Naming What We Know

by Amber Simpson & Nick Stanovick


If the goal of Naming What We Know to codify what the majority of the field of scholars in the field of composition believes about writing, then they have done it. It is notable that in the text, Adler-Kassner and Wardle indicated that their "crowd-sourced encyclopedia [...] led to a surprising amount of agreement" (pp. 3-4). Although orchestrating and receiving the widespread agreement of twenty-five perspectives in the field is indeed respectable, it is also concerning, especially considering which voices might not have been represented. Our investigation revealed that only a third of those who contributed to naming the threshold concepts were women, and only an eighth of them were non-white. With these factors in mind, it appears that there are numerous threshold concepts of composition that are widely accepted with proven efficacy, but we must not forget that the historical environment in which these threshold concepts were conceived was largely white- and male-dominated; thus the concepts themselves may reflect a dominant set of values and ideologies. Ideal additional iterations of this text would enlist more socially diverse viewpoints to offset an otherwise homogeneous ideology. Further, future ventures into naming the threshold concepts of writing studies will hopefully address scholars with different theoretical viewpoints and specialties—for instance, more multimodal compositions (beyond that which was already shown in 2.4, All Writing is Multimodal, from Cheryl E. Ball and Colin Charlton).

Adler-Kassner and Wardle acknowledged that "the threshold concepts in this book do not and cannot represent the full set of threshold concepts for our field; in fact, we do not believe it is possible or desirable to try to name, once and for all, all such concepts" (pp. 8-9). The impossibility of a comprehensive set of threshold concepts is essential, considering that more views should be consulted, although including them may (hopefully) make such an articulation of threshold concepts contentious.

Naming What We Know presented in clear terms the general principles that guide the theory and teaching of writing studies. However, it is worth considering the kind of audience(s) for whom Adler-Kassner and Wardle intend this text, and whether reaching them is possible. In their chapter in Naming What We Know, Doug Downs and Liane Robertson expressly indicated that threshold concepts should be the content of a first-year composition course. Although it may demystify writing to an extent, we contend that this text is less appropriate for novice writers, especially the first-year composition students Downs and Robertson refer to in Chapter 7, as they may not actually benefit from having all threshold concepts revealed to them too early in the educational process; it may be discouraging (see 4.0 or 4.2) or overwhelming. It should also be noted that a classroom edition of the book has been published. (The 2016 book included Part 1 from the 2015 full text but omitted Part 2.) While the abbreviated 2016 book may be beneficial for undergraduate students studying writing beyond a compulsory first-year writing course, the text would benefit from some supplementation for the classroom.

Resources or examples grounded in reality that elucidate the utility of these threshold concepts, especially as they are enacted simultaneously and in specific writing scenarios, would allow for students to better interact with and understand how writing concepts fit into their own thinking patterns and writing strategies. Nonetheless, this text is certainly enlightening for aspiring writing studies scholars and new teachers of composition, as it showcases some of the thinking that is central to writing studies.

Naming writing studies' threshold concepts has implications for the future of composition, as scholars continue to add to and revise the body of knowledge about writing studies' essential elements. Conceptualizing threshold concepts acts as a way of gaining institutional credibility and has the potential to generate funding opportunities, expand the boundaries of the field, and enhance students' experience in the classroom. Furthermore, Adler-Kassner and Wardle's project sets a standard for other fields, as scholars in many disciplines take up the task of naming threshold concepts. Despite the concerns raised here, Naming What We Know is a strong representation of what academics in many fields can do with Jan ("Erik") Meyer and Ray Land's (2003) work on threshold concepts.