Threshold Concept: Teaching What I Don’t Know

(This is the 5th post in a series of 5. To see the earlier posts, start with Part 1 where I explain what threshold concepts are, following Addler-Kassner and Wardle.)

Teach what you don’t already know.

The last threshold concept took me a bit by surprise. As a recovering know-it-all, I very much still like feeling like an expert in the room. Even given my second threshold concept (“Knowledge is always already in-becoming, not motionless, static, or objective”), I still planned to maintain my position as slightly elevated in the classroom. If only by virtue of being older, more experienced in academic discourse, and better read than my students, I hoped to hold a smidge of expertise.

Then I read Haake’s essay “Dismantling Authority: Teaching What We Do Not Know,” in which she describes organizing entire courses around a theme or body of knowledge in which you aren’t an expert. I gulped. I wanted to dismiss this idea because it felt scary. But then I reminded myself of my third threshold concept (“Teaching can be a spiritual practice”).

This fall, as part of my spiritual practice, I meditated on the seven traits of mindfulness: one of them is “beginner’s mind,” shoshin. Shoshin is a positive mindset to cultivate, through which one approaches each moment with an attitude of curiosity, open-mindness, non-judgement. In fact, psychologists who study the nature of expertise have found that self-perceptions of expertise increase closed-minded cognition and limit the subject’s ability to see creative solutions and approaches.

As I sat with the idea of teaching what I don’t already know, I felt the nervousness start to morph into anticipation. There are so many things I want to know more about, that I want to talk about with well-read, thoughtful, inquisitive people. Could it be that the privilege of teaching E110 could actually offer the space for that? Could it actually be that, by abandoning my need to be an expert, I could encounter richer discussion, writing, and collaborative learning, right in my own classroom? It remains to be seen, as I walk through that doorway. But right now, I feel more hopeful than I have in a long time that I can bring my own full self, with my strengths and shortcomings, passions and obsessions, capabilities and stories, into the classroom, all while inviting my students to do the same.

Works Cited

Haake, Katherine. “Dismantling Authority: Teaching What We Do Not Know” from Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom, Anna Leahy, ed. 2005. pp. 98-105.


Threshold Concepts: Celebrating the Messiness of Writing

(This is Part 4 of a 5 part series on threshold concepts in the teaching of writing. You can go back to see the first post here.)

Writing is processural, and we need to talk openly with students about this and celebrate the mess together.

Since taking Intro to Writing Pedagogy with Dr. Melissa Ianetta in the fall of 2013, I have been utterly convinced that writing needs to be about process, and not just one process but each individual student’s personal process. I’ve always talked with my students about this important understanding of writing as a process-based, not a product-based, practice. And yet I have not always done a good job of structuring my classroom assignments to best embrace the messy, iterative, boggy experience of writing. I have set assignments on tight schedules even as I ensure multiple rounds of drafts and revisions. Most of all, though, I fear that I have not adequately acknowledged and modeled the ways in which even professional and advanced writers bump into major research, drafting, and revising challenges.  

In this case, I crossed a threshold when reading Berthoff’s “Theory and Practice,” in The Making of Meaning, in which she talks about why students suffer from “premature closure” (22). This is something I witness each semester with good students who are scared to take risks.

Berthoff writes, “We can encourage our students, instead, in learning techniques of revision only if we forego treating false starts, unfruitful beginnings, contradictions, and dead ends as mistakes, and see them, rather, as tentative steps, stages in a process,” writes Berthoff (22). This passage convicted me and opened up my realization that it isn’t enough to a) acknowledge that writing is a process and b) to talk to our students about it as such. The final step is moving beyond acknowledgement to actually embracing and celebrating the mess as we’re in it. I look forward to doing this the very next time I teach E110 by sharing more of my own “false starts, unfruitful beginnings, contradictions, and dead ends,” and I’ll share them as necessary blunders on the pathway to a productive process.

Works Cited

Berthoff, Ann. “Theory and Practice” from The Making of Meaning: Metaphors, Models, and Maxims for Writing Teachers. Heinemann, 1981. pp. 19-29.


Threshold Concept: Teaching As Spiritual Practice

(This is Part 3 of a 5 part series about threshold concepts in teaching writing. You can see Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)

Teaching can be a spiritual practice.

The last few years I have been on a spiritual journey of better understanding myself and my way(s) of being in the world. I do a lot of reading, meditation, embodied connection work to reintegrate my intellectual aspects with my spiritual, emotional, and physical aspects, and journaling to trace and reflect on this work. I started noticing applications of this kind of self-reflection and mindfulness in other areas of my life, including my friendships, my life as a parent, my decisions as a consumer, and more. So it’s only natural that, as I research the psychological insights and hangups of academic writers, I start to ask how to bring this mindfulness to bear on my professional life in the classroom.

I read Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature with some credulity, yet her (somewhat critical) response to Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach was very helpful to me. Her reference to Palmer’s work led me to track down some of his writing, which, it turns out, speaks to me in deep ways and has altered how I think about my presence in the classroom. I have loved reading about responsible ways I can allow the self-reflection and love for myself and others that I cultivate in my spiritual practice to inform my work as a teacher. So many of the values I bring to bear in my E110 classroom were, in some ways, related to the spiritual convictions I live by, but reading Palmer (as well as bell hooks) helped me think further through those beliefs and link them more explicitly to my spiritual journey.

This threshold concept also relates to my own (not infrequent) teacherly anxiety. In my private life, when I experience a strong reaction to something or someone, particularly when it’s negative, I am learning to pause and investigate that resistance. I’m starting to ask, “What is being activated in me? Why am I taking something personally? What part does my own psyche have in I feel threatened by something or someone else’s idea?” I’m learning to stay with the discomfort and to pay attention to it. Rather than hardening and getting defensive, I’m working on dialoguing with it as a “shadow” part of myself, as Ostrom recommends in his introduction to Colors of a Different Horse. As part of learning to incorporate spiritual lessons and heart-centered mindfulness into my pedagogy, this approach of thinking playfully about discomfort allows shadows to to creep in and enhance my writing and teaching.

Works Cited

Showalter, Elaine. Teaching Literature. Blackwell, 2003.

Ostrom, Hans. “Introduction: Of Radishes and Shadows, Theory and Pedagogy,” Colors of a Different Horse: Rethinking Creative Writing Theory and Pedagogy. Hans Ostrom and Wendy Bishop, editors. NCTE, 1994. pp. xi-xxiii.

Palmer, Parker. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. Jossey-Bass, 1998.

Threshold Concepts, Part 2: What is Knowledge?

(This is Part 2 of a 5 part blog series in which I write about conceptual thresholds I’ve crossed in teaching. You can read Part 1 here.)

Knowledge is always already in-becoming, not motionless, static, or objective

Even though I’ve thought a lot about the social constructedness of reality, for some reason I had deeply considered what that might mean for my teaching practices.

Reading Friere helped with that. Before taking this class I knew about Friere. However, I had not taken the time to really delve into his writing, so this semester’s encounters with Pedagogy of the Oppressed was great. I took pages of handwritten notes, much of the book challenging and resonating with me and my educational philosophy.

My second threshold concept arises from two short passages in Friere: “Education is suffering from narration sickness,” the teacher talking, narrating reality “as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable” (71). And the second, which melts my heart and gives me such hope for the future: “Dialogue cannot exist in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people” (Friere 89).

I see these two sections of text interacting with each other because the first names the pathology: narration sickness caused by teachers talking as though their expertise grant them a position of ultimate power in the educational setting. The second highlights the necessity of “dialogue,” which can only exist in the presence of “profound love for the world and for people.” That profound love prevents hubris and opens up the space for dialogue and discussion.

I don’t think the concept of “narration sickness,” which I’ve felt and also unwittingly created in my own classes at times, will ever be one that I can forget. If I slip into narrating knowledge as though it is something I have the corner on, I’ll trip on this threshold. Hopefully I’ll catch myself and reopen myself to dialogue and the always in-becoming nature of learning.

Works Cited

Friere, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. Continuum, 2005.

Crossing Thresholds, Meditating on Teaching

(This is Part 1 of a 5 part series about threshold concepts of teaching writing.)

The idea of a threshold contains within it both a spatial and a volumetric valence; the spatial is more obvious, as everyday we pass over thresholds into rooms or spaces, into and out of buildings, offices, homes, places of work and pleasure. Transitional spaces through and over which we cross mark a portal from one space to another. Thresholds do not register on the temporal plane–one can cross over a threshold, back and forth, many times or never, those crossings unbound by time. Adler-Kassner and Wardle, in their introduction to Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts in Writing, assert that threshold concepts differ from learning objectives in part because they are “liminal, time-consuming, and unpredictable” (9). As ontological as well as conceptual crossings, thresholds may beckon or repel, but ultimately when a person crosses over, there is a shift in who we are and how we see the world.

This spatial shift, a more obvious interpretation of why thresholds (and threshold concepts) matter, partly conceals the volumetric meaning. When someone says that a threshold has not yet been crossed, it is because the magnitude or intensity of something has not reached the required level for a certain result to occur. If water rises toward a house, it must rise to a certain level in order to cross the threshold and flood into the building. In this sense, then, a threshold marks a line over which some substance must rise before the required magnitude can cross it. In this way, thresholds may be breached, not just stepped across. There’s a certain point at which something reaches a level at which point it must overflow, and there’s no going back.

While I’ve moved through my advanced pedagogy class this semester and engaged with the course readings, the threshold concepts that have rocked my pedagogy have felt both like upwellings of something that’s been there all along and like steps taken willingly into a new space.

Here’s my first threshold concept:

Time is the most important resource in a composition classroom


I’ve always been hyper-aware of time, and when I first started teaching I planned every second of a class period out. By the minute. I did not always rush through things, but I felt hesitant about building cushion and margin into the schedule. Sometimes, even though I valued writing activities, I worried that “giving up” class minutes for students to sit writing might not serve my course objectives the best. Even though I had loosened up on controlling time in E110 each semester I taught it, the words of Mike Rose in Lives on The Boundary struck me to my core: “Give them time” (145). Rose is writing about his students freezing up because they “don’t have the background knowledge or the conceptual grab bag” to “make connections” (145).

The parceling and carving of time in the classroom prevents us from giving our students time; this hyper-control of time usage actually reasserts the banking model of education as castigated by Paolo Friere. In a teaching economy in which information is static, constant, and transmittable from one person (the teacher) to the class (the receivers), time is just a vessel to fill and pour out. In other words, time stands as a commodity in the banking model. Teachers must use time, maximize time, economize each minute, not “waste” time. And yet, as Friere, Dewey, and many others have pointed out, the banking model of education fails precisely because it denies temporality and the socially-constructed nature of learning and knowledge.

In contrast, Rose says that educators can give our students time, and that in fact, this may be one of the most important things we can do. As a teacher, I have often approached time as a vessel to be filled–the 50 minutes or 75 minutes out ahead of me. Not just filled, but filled to the brim, with a mini-lecture where I provide context for the topic we’re working with, with silent writing, pair share, group discussion, activities, samples to break apart and put back together. And those all are or can be good things. Yet as Rose shows in Lives on the Boundary and Bartholomae shows in “Inventing the University” and Friere argues in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that filling-up of time (and with it, human educational subjects) runs counter to the core commitment to dialogue, discussion, and conversation.

This threshold concept–which seems deceptively simple–reminds me to give my students time enough to listen and to talk. And to write. I remember so many instances when I have posed a question or made a statement and asked them to respond somehow, and then immediately jumped into the abbreviated silence to say more. Even if what I say is a clarifying or restating of the question, there’s something kind of terrifying about a silence in the classroom. It seems like a waste of time. This realization has invested me in playing with the idea of time–giving time, taking time, making time–as something we can act within and on, not just a temporal space in which I can impart knowledge, but a co-creative thing with which we can play and make.

Works Cited

Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Elizabeth Wardle. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. University of Colorado Press, 2015.

Friere, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. Continuum, 2005.

Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary: A Moving Account of the Struggles and Achievements of America’s Educationally Underprepared. Penguin, 1989.