Notes: Lane Wilkinson, “The Problem with Threshold Concepts”

Wilkinson, Lane. (2015). The problem with threshold concepts. Sense and Reference: A Philosophical Library Blog. Web.


Wilkinson, in this blog post, points out that over the eleven years, by his count, since the inauguration of “threshold concepts” there has been little in the way of criticism of these readily adopted pedagogical practices. Drawing on the scant articles that criticize these concepts, Wilkinson attempts his own criticism of thresholds.

Keywords: disciplinarity, information literacy, literacy studies, library, library science, threshold concepts


Barradell, S. (2013). The identification of threshold concepts: a review of theoretical complexities and methodological challenges. Higher Education, 65(2), 265-276.

O’Donnell, R. (2010). A critique of the threshold concept hypothesis and its application to opportunity cost in economics.(Working Paper No. 164).


“The key thing here is that threshold concepts have a way of reducing all of our students to a single idealized student who learns a particular way. But, we know that isn’t the case. In a room of 30 students, each student will have a different standard for how troublesome or transformative a concept is.”

“O’Donnell (2010) raises what I feel is the most damning criticism: that the threshold concept hypothesis requires us to reduce disciplines down to core sets of unchanging beliefs. The push to have students “think like an x” (a doctor, an engineer, an economist, a librarian, etc.) has negative impacts on critical thinking, O’Donnell argues, because “if we want creative thinkers and innovators, we need graduates capable of moving outside the x framework and operating within multiple frameworks” (2010, p. 9).”

“Even worse than that is the problem Barbara Fister alluded to on 27 February (link above). If we’re going to talk about disciplines having threshold concepts, we have to ask “whose threshold concepts?” As O’Donnell argues, “the view that there is a single set of threshold concepts in a discipline typically reflects the view that a discipline only has one reputable school of thought.” (2010, p. 9).”


If we talk about threshold concepts in a rhetorically savvy way that addresses whose threshold concepts these are, what purposes they purport to serve, and discuss what is at stake within them as we go about this practice of teaching them, is it possible to create a counter-narrative to the grand narrative of threshold concepts that Lane Wilkinson speaks to? What could that counter-narrative look like?

In order to move beyond a given discipline, to integrate other ways of thinking within it, do we have to understand the original discipline? But, if that too is problematic, then, in order to integrate other ways of thinking into a given discipline, do we need to name our audience and make works understandable to them?

Notes: Kyle P. Vealey and Nathaniel A. Rivers, “Dappled Discipline at Thirty: An Interview with Janice Lauer”

Vealey, Kyle P. & Nathaniel A. Rivers. (2014). Dappled discipline at thirty: An interview with Janice M. Lauer. Rhetoric Review, 33(2), 165-180.


Vealey and Rivers take up many of the issues and ideas that Lauer wrote thirty years prior to talk about how the field has grown, changed, and remained the same. The authors discuss how Lauer’s article helped shape the conversation around composition studies and how that framework she established for talking about composition studies helps frame many of the current conversations around composition.

Keywords: composition, disciplinarity, disciplinary history, interview, rhetoric, writing studies


Trimbur, John. (1993). Composition studies: Postmodern or popular. In Anne Ruggles Gere (ed.) Into the field: Sites of compositions. New York: MLA, 117–32.

Vitanza, Victor. (1991). Three countertheses: Or, a critical in(ter)vention into composition theories and pedagogies. In Patricia Harkin & John Schilb (eds.) Contending with words: Composition and rhetoric in a postmodern age. New York: MLA, 139–72.


“Lauer contests the boundaries of composition as a discipline—marking, in particular, the way boundary-crossing and boundary-blurring are distinctive features of composition’s disciplinarity. In other words, what makes composition unique as a discipline is its resistance to traditional disciplinary characteristics” (p. 166).

“As Louise Phelps has so insightfully written, rhetoric and composition is characterized by reflexivity, which allows it to question itself, critique itself, and understand itself without those doing so being censured. Such reflexivity, I believe, can produce healthy growth, modification, and correction if such reflexivity is done respectfully” (p. 178).


Between the two articles pertaining to Lauer, she seems to put composition at odds with English departments–is that part of the articulation of what composition is? not literature?

How can Lauer’s does Lauer’s ideas of composition’s reflexivity inform its pedagogical practice?

Notes: Janice Lauer, “Composition Studies: Dappled Discipline”

Lauer, Janice. (1984). Composition studies: Dappled discipline. Rhetoric Review, 3(1), 20-29.


Lauer undergoes a discussion about the field of composition’s origins and key ideals, by not only going through a sort of history of the field, but by reflecting on analysis of how the research within composition had been conducted to its date of publication. She points to chief issues within composition, such as negotiating with already established disciplines within English studies, and navigates the benefits and costs of composition’s interdisciplinary reach.

Keywords: composition, disciplinarity, disciplinary history, interdisciplinarity multimodality, research methods, writing studies


Linda Flower and John Hayes, “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing,” College Composition and Communication, 32 (1981), 365-87.

Maxine Hairston, “The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing,” College Composition and Communication, 33 (1982), 76-88.


“Through this process, the field has been seeking warranted consensus about knowledge of written discourse. But the kind of consensus it reaches differs from that in technical fields. Farrell, distinguishing between social and technical knowledge, helps clarify the nature of the judgmental process. He explains that while both social and technical fields grant epistemic status to new work on the basis of consensual agreement, in technical fields, that consensus about methods of investigation can be more rigorously verified. But social fields like composition studies depend on attributions of consensus that act as preconditions for arguing the validity of any theory” (23).

“He implies another distinction that has important implications for this discipline. In social fields, advocates have two kinds of audience: 1) the epistemic court of experts and 2) larger affected populations for whom social knowledge exercises a rhetorical function, attempting to gain their acceptance of its conclusions and to induce their action” (23-24).


With writing existing across disciplines, what do writing methods look like and how can they remain responsive to fluid and expansive interests within the research of writing?

Are the benefits of remaining and embracing the multimodality greater than their costs? And, if so, what would be the articulation of the field centered on this–beyond collaboration?

Notes: Louise Wetherbee Phelps, “The Domain of Composition”

Phelps, Louise Wetherbee. (1986). The domain of composition. Rhetoric Review, 4(2), 182-195.


Phelps engages the field of composition’s basis as a field to argue for a loose definition of composition’s core values. Phelps contends that this core is centered around the writer’s act of writing and that, while much of the field’s previous work has been spent in exploring composition’s relationship to other fields, the field of composition must also continue to explore itself as a unique discipline.

Keywords: composition, disciplinarity, literacy, rhetoric, symbolic action, writing studies


Reither, James A. (1985). Writing and knowing: Toward redefining the writing process. College English 47, 620-28.

Michael Cole et al. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


“So one must characterize a disciplinary domain via the relationships among the following elements: a group of inquirers, a characteristic attitude toward phenomena, the objects of inquiry themselves, the means of inquiry, its purposes, and scenic factors fall within the field” (182).

“A focus on the relational structure of written discourse presupposes that it is a form of symbolic action, like speech. Even though the text as a mediate act makes it possible for actual writing and reading performances to be remote in time and space, it also determines the fact that these actions are defined by their reciprocity. The construction of linguistic meanings is inherently intersubjective and collaborative, so that one cannot examine the constituent writing and reading acts (which may appear to be private and largely mental) except in terms of their relationship” (183-184).


In his discussion of language performances, to what extent is language performative in writing practices?

What are the ways in which the interdisciplinary inquiry within composition can be limiting?

Notes: Linda Adler-Kassner & Elizabeth Wardle, “Naming What We Know, Introduction”

Adler-Kassner, Linda & Elizabeth Wardle. (2015). Naming what we know: The project of this book. Naming what we know: Threshold concepts of writing studies. Logan: Utah State University Press.


Adler-Kassner and Wardle lay out the writing of Naming What We Know by outlining both the methods by which entries were written and revised and by attempting to articulate the “spirit” of the book. The authors argue for the necessity of the act of naming what we know, they argue that this act of naming allows us to better advocate for writers in policy and to other entities outside of the field, and they argue that these threshold concepts are not only beneficial for such explanations but also for the formation of new knowledge within the field of writing studies.

Keywords: communities of practice, composition, disciplinarity, disciplinary history, pedagogy, rhetoric, threshold concepts, writing studies


Hesse, Doug. (2012). Who speaks for writing? Expertise, ownership, and stewardship. In Jennifer Rish and Ethna D. Lay (eds.) Who speaks for writing: Stewardship for writing studies in the 21st Century. New York: Peter Lang, 9-22. .

Wenger, Etienne. (1999). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


“Threshold concepts are concepts critical for continued learning and participation in an area or within a community of practice” (p. 2).

“There is a difference between naming and describing principles and practices that extend from the research base of a discipline, as this book begins to do, and stripping the complexity from those principles in order to distill them into convenient categories to which generic attributes can be associated or attached” (p. 8).


In what ways can this act of naming and defining resist either being a best-practices approach to teaching or a hyper-focused articulation of what “writing studies” is?

In what ways would these threshold concepts be used during assessment practices? Is there a way to prevent the conversation of threshold concepts to become limiting outcome benchmarks?