Thrash Old Concepts

Didn’t have time enough in Indianapolis to attend any of the sessions about threshold concepts, but I did hear about them in hallway and dinner conversations. I’d encountered the phrase before in this article, but at #4c14, it seemed like an awful lot was coming up threshold concepts, seemed like there’s a growing gusto for this sort of thing. Threshold concepts as their own sort of threshold. The oncoming threshold concept turn.

Home-ish now from the convention, tonight I was reading to Is. before bed, near the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a book we’ve been chipping away at for, I don’t know, a month or more, every other bedtime. Harry and Hermione are advancing “Through the Trapdoor” (the 16th chapter’s title), in front of them a dead troll:

“I’m glad we didn’t have to fight that one,” Harry whispered as they stepped carefully over one of its massive legs. “Come on, I can’t breathe.”

He pulled open the next door, both of them hardly daring to look at what came next–but there was nothing very frightening in here, just a table with seven differently shaped bottles standing on it in a line.

“Snape’s,” said Harry. “What do we have to do?”

They stepped over the threshold, and immediately a fire sprang up behind them in the doorway. It wasn’t ordinary fire either; it was purple. At the same instant, black flames shot up in the doorway leading onward. They were trapped. (285)

Is. interrupted here to ask, “What’s a threshold?” And, attempting with a weak shrug to reach across connotations both referring to door trim and limits, I said, “It’s something like an edge, a boundary.”

That thresholds trap, enclose, bound, constrain, pen up, etc. and that they simultaneously, by doing so, protect, focus, and intensify a domain is at least part of their paradox. And I should be clear that I look forward to learning more about this idea emerging in service of disciplinary bona fides. But I’m also wondering where the idea (toward common disciplinary articulations) maps onto or butts up against rhetoric, which seems especially with invention and memory to by constituted by a kind of thresholding–if we can verb TC for a second–the re-articulations that themselves ignite and also extinguish flamewalls like the ones sandwiching poor Harry and Hermione in Rowling’s narrative telos.

Just wondering now which narrative telos “our” threshold concepts will flamewall in and flamewall out. Wondering how (im)permeable and how burning-hot the flamewalls will become and how much will char in their proximity.


  1. I like where this is going! I think there’s a historic presence for this idea (crossing the rubicon etc.). More to come?

  2. Definitely a significant concern, though as someone who’s rather enamored of TCs of late, I like them because they encourage invention. That is, by thinking about what is particularly sticky or challenging or (as TC folks like to say) troublesome for us or for students, we’re able to rethink the terrain of teaching and learning.

    For me, it’s helped me to articulate how and when and why students may struggle with source integration.

  3. Thanks, Susan (and sorry I didn’t get the chance to say hello on Thursday evening!). I want to be careful about mis-characterizing TC. I also want to be cautious about celebrating them too enthusiastically. Need to learn more about them first. Not sure there’s much value in my predicting how this will play out, but I suspect these, like keywords, will become more hotly contested as some pick up steam, gain sponsors, proliferate blindspots (by focusing us too narrowly on these but not those), and so on. I also tend to see them–or what I know of them–as at least forked along the lines of what should hold conceptually for students, what should hold conceptually for instructors, and the extent to which those thresh-holdings should be perfect mirrors. Somewhere in this continues to lurk the trouble of perfect mirroring as possible, optimum. Lots of great stuff for me to think through; I appreciate the comment.

  4. @Andrew, Yeah, possibly. CCCC re-kicked a project that slipped tragically to the double back-burner in the maelstorm of the past 18 months’s workload deluge. Not sure how much of this will make it to the blog, but I shld be back to updating the dataset and opening the ms daily (starting Wednesday?!).

    By the way, I just noticed a handful of comments from you that’d been filed as $spam. Sorry about that!

  5. Are threshold concepts by nature concrete? I would say no. I would say that they are transparent, albeit strong. Informative, influential, but not stagnant.

    I didn’t make it to that session either, but am looking forward to catching up with that one among many others that I missed.

    Also, you made a HP reference in relation to comp. And for that, this is the best blog post I’ve read in a long time. 🙂

  6. Yeah, maybe, Chelsea. Sorting through that this week. I have another, riskier half-plan that’s very interesting to me, so not sure yet whether I’ll run with that or instead with this resuscitated (zombie) project. Whichever way it goes, it’s nice to end the conference feeling new lift for a stalled project.

  7. Interesting to hear that there was some buzz around it. I was involved at the early stages of the TC project, and knew about the panels/workshops that several folks had proposed.

    My understanding, which should in no way be taken as canonical, was that TCs are ideas/concepts which, once learned, can’t be unlearned. So they’re like passageways or pathways that can only be traversed in one direction.

    For my part, I struggled with articulating and securing that sense of passage–it’s interesting to try and answer questions about what we know about writing without drifting into statements of “what writing is,” but TCs are an attempt to make that distinction (I think).


  8. It’s difficult to say with confidence how they were framed having missed all of the panels. I think they’re at risk for wielding as god terms. So they have all the oomph of universals, and accordingly, we have to be very, very careful with ushering them in. I guess that’s the main thing I was struck by about them. If we hold them up as the IT and ALL, do they block some of the sunshine from reaching the undergrowth, the lower and emergent micro-ecologies.

    One thing I was thinking is that these threshold concepts should be time-stamped. Genre1956 is not genre1986 is not (unless it doubles back!) genre2016. Do you remember, Collin, when we saw something or talked about something from New Crit/Close Reading around time-stamping words? I’ve searched high and low but can’t find anything that lays out that practice or pins it neatly to a particular litcritical or theoretical approach.

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