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.


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