Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Writing in the Disciplines, Disciplinarity, and Threshold Concepts

Here is a bit a text I am working on as part of my participation in Thresholds of Writing, "a multi-year initiative to study and transform the way we teach writing as an integral part of a liberal education in the 21st century." We are holding a colloquium with faculty across the college, and we will soon be discussing "reflections" as a pedagogical tool. This bit of text is designed to place the practice of reflections within the broader concept of writing in the disciplines, disciplinarity itself, and threshold concepts. For the uninitiated, threshold concepts, drawn from theorists Jan Meyer and Ray Land can be defined as,
an approach to disciplinary thinking that proposes there are certain foundational ideas that serve as gateways to subjects that students must understand in order to progress in that field. These thresholds are more than just core concepts but often serve an integrative function within fields.
One of the primary goals for the project is to promote writing as a way for students to move through such threshold concepts on their way into their discipline.

Here is what I have so far:
As we talk together of writing, we necessarily confront our disciplinary differences and similarities: what about writing can we agree upon and what about writing in our own disciplines creates unique challenges and opportunities. Likewise, the interdisciplinartity effort of fostering writing in the disciplines necessarily involves a discussion of threshold concepts: what are the defining portals (or ways) into our disciplines that constitute them as unique. As portals they must be somewhere along the walls around our fields of study.

In light of this double move, we would like to suggest that thresholds of writing serves as a catalyst for writing in the disciplines, which brings into sharp relief the boundaries of those disciplines and then discovers those boundaries as threshold concepts. Thus, we as a colloquium enact this coming-to-thresholds-through-writing in much the same way we hope our students might. In having to articulate what exactly we do, what makes us different, and what difference those differences make we come to articulate our threshold concepts. As we have discussed, and as Randy Bass has explored in his work on visible knowledge, we must be able to articulate the threshold concepts of our disciplines if we are to have any hope of bringing students through those very portals.

This moves us then to reflection. We see reflection enacted in a variety of ways, places, and times depending upon the discipline and the task at hand. Students can be asked to reflect upon the significance and implications of a philosophical text, they can be ask to describe and justify rhetorical moves made in a set of technical instructions, or they can be asked to articulate their methods and discuss the results of an experiment in a lab report. Reflection need not be soft, holistic, and after the fact; it can be down and dirty and in media res. In can be a highly detailed post mortem or brief cover memo attached to an assignment.

Reflections can also reveal a student’s struggle with threshold concepts. A student who is unable to articulate a choice he has made with respect to word choice or document design is a student not yet through one of the key thresholds of rhetorical activity. A student who can describe the procedure of an experiment while being unable to explain how the process works or the experimental design itself, maybe struggling with troublesome knowledge and a threshold concept. Reflection need not be extra work for either students or teachers when made part and parcel of the task. Reflections so integrated do not necessarily add work; they might, in fact, make less work for teacher and student by demystifying the aspects of the course, materials, or discipline students struggle with.

As a colloquium, our emphasis on writing stresses its inventional qualities. That is, writing is not simply (or only) the communication, transmission, or delivery of information. Writing is itself a coming-to-know and the chief method we have for generating ideas. Reflections should be no different. Ostensibly about describing work in progress or products completed, reflections are likewise places to generate new ideas, new processes, and new ways forward. More specifically, for students and teachers reflections can become a way to grapple with troublesome knowledge and invent ways to move productively through thresholds to become scholars deeply integrated in the values and methods of a discipline.


  1. What, no Burke quote?

    Seriously, this looks like a promising way of grounding and inter-disciplinary approach to writing instruction. I would argue that reflection are in fact the primary work of any educational setting--self-reflexivity and a demonstrated awareness of the nuance of context. Its thinking about our thinking.

  2. Yeah, when you say something like "Its thinking about our thinking" it makes me question not including Burke (e.g., barking a tract about barking). Thanks for the feedback.