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Linda Adler‑Kassner & Elizabeth Wardle

Naming What We Know (in Writing Studies): Engaging Troublesome Trends in Educational Policy and Practice

Linda Adler-Kassner
University of California, Santa Barbara

Elizabeth Wardle
Miami University, Oxford, Ohio


In this talk, we address the role that threshold concepts can potentially play in two sets of (sometimes parallel and non-intersecting) discussions about student success currently taking place in education at all levels.

One set of discussions reflects many of the ideas in the threshold concepts literature. Another set of discussions focuses on how to use learning analytics and assessments to shape students’ experiences as they enter schools, tailor learning as they move through, and measure the effectiveness of that tailoring and students’ work as they leave.

While both of these discussions concern common questions, they sometimes draw on different conceptualizations of what it means to learn. For many interested in threshold concepts and their possibilities, discussions about learning like those in the analytics literature can sometimes seem troublesome. The question we must address, then, is what to do about - and even with - them. We dismiss these conversations and the ideologies they represent at our own peril: they seem to be here to stay, and they are powerful. They may also represent opportunities for pushing our thinking and engaging with threshold concepts new to us and, like other learners, we may benefit from crossing through our own liminal spaces as we engage with these concepts.

In our talk, we approach this conundrum from our perspective as writing studies researchers and teachers. Writing, after all, is central to teaching and learning; as we often say, it is everyone’s business. But although everyone writes, not everyone participates in the threshold concepts of writing. Thus, just as different conceptualizations of learning can run through the literature on threshold concepts and some of the work on learning analytics or assessment, so different conceptualizations of writing sometimes do, as well.

Because we recognized the need to advocate for conceptualizations of writing associated with inclusive and accurate notions of literacy learning, we engaged 37 of our colleagues in a process to identify some of writing studies’ threshold concepts in a project that led to our book, Naming What We Know. Naming threshold concepts of writing, we believed, would be important for members of our profession to make these concepts explicit -- for ourselves, as well as for others who consider writing to be their business.

In this address, we discuss how we went about naming what we know and imagining the possibilities for using that knowledge in courses, programs, assessments, and faculty development. We then consider how we need to push what we’ve done further in order to directly engage with the goals and language of conceptualizations of learning reflected in movements like learning analytics.

Ultimately, we contend that naming what we know and understanding how students learn does little good if we are not at the table when programs, curricula, predictive analytics, and assessments are designed. Naming threshold concepts and extending from them can provide us a voice in how this happens--or whether it should. 


Linda Adler-Kassner is professor of writing studies and associate dean of undergraduate education at University of California, Santa Barbara. Her work as a writing instructor and program director has led her to research focusing broadly on definitions of “good literacy” in teaching, learning, and assessment and the consequences of those definitions for teachers and learners. Within this broad umbrella, her most recent research has focused on issues associated with writing and public policy, writing and expertise, and conceptions of disciplinarity in writing studies. She has published numerous articles, books, and book chapters on these subjects and regularly gives talks and workshops about them.

Elizabeth Wardle is professor and chair of writing and rhetoric at the University of Central Florida. She has directed the writing program there and at the University of Dayton, which contributed to her ongoing interest in how learners use and transfer prior knowledge about writing, and how courses and programs can best help students learn to write more effectively. She regularly gives talks and workshops around the U.S. on how threshold concepts and knowledge about writing and knowledge transfer can be used to strengthen writing courses and programs. 

Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (Utah State University Press 2015) is the first book that Adler-Kassner and Wardle and have published together.