Thresholds in Practice

In the process of examining the concepts described in Naming What We Know, I became more cognizant of some of the fundamental principles of writing and the teaching of it. But there has to be a point where theory meets application, and there aren’t many better places to observe how these concepts are at work than to enter the English composition classroom.

As a student in the Teaching Assistant program at Kennesaw State University, one of my eventual responsibilities will be to instruct English 1101 courses. Therefore, it will be my responsibility to design a syllabus, course schedule, and assignments that comply with learning outcomes to use in those courses. Part of that design involves understanding how each outcome connects to a specific philosophy surrounding the instruction of English. These philosophies are the threshold concepts outlined in Naming What We Know and explored to some extent in previous posts in this series.

Investigating how those philosophies manifest in extant syllabi by current professors was the purpose of the project I’ll be discussing in this post: the Syllabus Analysis Project (SAP). The first step in the SAP involved extrapolating threshold concepts from a college professor’s syllabus. The professor on whom my analysis was based was Lydia Ferguson. It’s worth noting that she did not write the syllabus with threshold concepts in mind; her syllabus, therefore, was created without any intention to integrate the them. For that reason, it’s safe to assume that any appearance of the threshold concepts in her curriculum are purely coincidental (read: directly connected to the methodology of writing). You can find my annotation of Professor Ferguson’s syllabus here.

From those annotations, you can see that Professor Ferguson’s learning outcomes align with the University System of Georgia recommendations (as of September 24, 2019) and that even statewide policy is innately bound to the threshold concepts. Naming What We Know compiled these concepts from “insert a quote from the book about their process for coming up with the concepts” with no mention of having considered learning outcomes. To see them scattered so liberally throughout the syllabus demonstrates the ubiquity of these concepts.

This Venn diagram illustrates the connections between thresholds and current systems of instruction.

Beyond the thresholds, though, my execution of the SAP revealed not only academic/disciplinary truths but personal truths as well. I did have an opportunity to interview Professor Ferguson for the sake of this project, and many of her policies aligned incredibly well with her temperament and confidence as an instructor. Along with my work on the syllabus itself, I extrapolated meaning from some of the external forces that informed her syllabus decisions, viewable here.

Of course, the work of a single professor is not necessarily indicative of trends in thresholds and how they correlate with the structure of the writing classroom. To resolve this gap, my findings were collated with those of three others, and from that collective information, we were able to reach more concrete answers in regard to syllabus structure, classroom administration, and assignment planning as they related to the thresholds. Those findings can be found here.

Educational design should aim to keep threshold concepts in mind.

This all goes without saying that knowing and understanding the threshold concepts in practice is invaluable to the design and teaching of English, particularly first-year composition, such that students are best acquainted with skills they can transfer across disciplines.

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