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

by Amber Simpson & Nick Stanovick

Using Threshold Concepts

In Part 2 of Naming What We Know (Adler-Kassner & Wardle, 2015), several scholars considered the utility of threshold concepts. This section consisted of brief essays separated into two sections.

Program & Curriculum Design

First, they considered the use of threshold concepts in curricular and programmatic design. Heidi Estrem outlined the influential potential of threshold concepts with respect to Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs). In Chapter 6, "Threshold Concepts and Student Learning Outcomes," Estrem imagined the utility of threshold concepts as offering clear identification parameters that could measure students' expected advancement, both within programs and in the university at large. Estrem noted that learning outcomes are effective tools for assessing academic progress throughout the university, but pointed out some writing-specific apprehensions regarding the linear or objective nature of learning outcomes and how writing, unlike other areas of study, is not a simple journey from one starting point to one ending point, but rather a complex and recursive process.

In similar fashion (yet contrary to some other scholars), Doug Downs and Liane Robertson showed that threshold concepts are appropriate for first-year composition students. In Chapter 7, "Threshold Concepts in First Year Composition," Downs used his composition program as an example, where he posited that "Threshold concepts [...] provide a means of locating individual theories about writing within a framework that allows for transformation" (p. 111). Downs and Robertson asserted that the ability to recognize and comprehend certain aspects of writing theory is especially useful for first-year composition students, as these concepts are naturally transferable to other disciplines and rhetorical situations.

Turning toward undergraduate and graduate students entering the field, J. Blake Scott and Elizabeth Wardle ("Using Threshold Concepts to Inform Writing and Rhetoric Undergraduate Majors: The UCF Experiment;" Chapter 8) and Kara Taczak and Kathleen Blake Yancey ("Threshold Concepts in Rhetoric and Composition Doctoral Education: The Delivered, Lived, and Experienced Curricula;" Chapter 9) considered how these threshold concepts can directly influence the ways in which young scholars are educated in undergraduate and graduate programs that focus on rhetoric and composition. Scott and Wardle showed the trajectory of the undergraduate degree with programmatic artifacts, while Taczak and Yancey demonstrated the less tangible utility of threshold concepts throughout the graduate experience and considered the ways in which the curriculum transcends both the syllabus and the classroom.

Writing Across the University

The book broadened its focus in the latter half of Part 2, as scholars worked to consider the use of threshold concepts across the university. Because of the impossibility of testing for the comprehension of threshold concepts, in her chapter "Threshold Concepts at the Crossroads: Writing Instruction and Assessment" (Chapter 10), Peggy O'Neill suggested ways in which threshold concepts can make writing assessment more valid and reliable. She expressed the importance of naming assessment's threshold concepts and seeing the ways in which they may intersect with writing studies' threshold concepts.

Next, Rebecca S. Nowacek and Bradley Hughes ("Threshold Concepts in the Writing Center: Scaffolding the Development of Tutor Expertise;" Chapter 11) stressed the importance of incorporating threshold concepts of writing studies in their tutor training. They wrote, "Using threshold concepts as foundational knowledge for tutors can help tutors and directors remember what's central to our field and to our practice" (p. 177) and to ultimately tutor more productively as "expert outsiders." This connection is apt, considering the relationship that writing centers often have to departments that house writing studies programs.

In the final two chapters of Naming What We Know (Chapters 12 and 13), Adler-Kassner and Majewski ("Extending the Invitation: Threshold Concepts, Professional Development, and Outreach") and Chris M. Anson ("Crossing Thresholds: What's to Know about Writing across the Curriculum") examined the influence that threshold concepts might have on encouraging multidisciplinary faculty to understand these threshold concepts (which, the authors acknowledge are threshold concepts themselves) and change the ways that faculty incorporate writing assignments into their curricula to be most beneficial to student development. This includes showing that writing is a way of learning and creating knowledge (1.1), as well as a way of "enacting disciplinarity" (2.3; p. 40).