On Naming What We Know by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle

Image by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay

I’ve mentioned it a couple of times before but I wanted to spend a little time talking about Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, a book by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle which was the main inspiration behind the research I’ve been doing related to research as a subject of study.

The main reason I originally picked up Naming What We Know is because the ACRL Framework had recently introduced the idea of threshold concepts into thinking about information literacy and I was still trying to get my ahead around what threshold concepts even are. I’d read a bunch of stuff by Meyer and Land, the researchers who originated the idea, but a lot of the examples used in those books are from economics, biology, and other fields of study that are outside my expertise. So I was excited to find a book on threshold concepts for writing studies.

As an information literacy librarian, writing studies is considered outside of my professional realm but there are some connections there. For example, at my institution, our writing and critical inquiry program has a close relationship with our information literacy department (or, more accurately, my colleague who is the liaison to that program) because as part of those courses first year students have to write at least one research paper, which means that in addition to this being their first encounter with college-level writing, it’s also their first encounter with college-level research.

Besides that, I also have a Bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in creative writing, so I have at least some understanding of research in that field. At least more of an understanding than I do in some of the other more technical fields where I’d seen threshold concepts discussed.

Reading through Naming What We Know is what sent me on my current research path. Here are some thoughts.

Difference in purpose

The Framework is a document that is intended to provide guidance on how information literacy should be defined and taught across the library profession. In introducing the six threshold concepts related to IL, the Framework was basically telling us “these are the six things a person has to have developed some expertise with in order to be considered information literate.” Like with the Standards before it, librarians could expect that this was the document their information literacy programs would be assessed against in order to be considered successful…or not.

This puts a lot of pressure on the Framework, first as a document that not only captures the core concepts of information literacy but also one that does so in a way that everyone agrees on. And by using threshold concepts instead of learning outcomes, librarians also have to agree to accept that not all learners will achieve the same learning (i.e. cross the threshold of understanding) in the same way at the same time, an idea that is inherently incompatible with traditional ideas about assessment. Traditional ideas that the current education landscape places a lot of value on. Like, a lot. Maybe too much.

From the start, Adler-Kassner and Wardle are pretty clear that what they and their collaborators have come up with isn’t meant to dictate how others think about writing or how they teach it. In other words, it’s not meant to be a core defining document of their field the way the Framework is. In fact, they almost caution against such attempts at broad application. Instead, they are, as the book’s title indicates, looking to capture writing professors’ understanding of their subject and what they do as a whole.

I’ve gone back and forth with myself a lot of times about the value of these two different approaches. As much as I like the Framework and as much as it has fueled my scholarship such that I have no idea what I would have done to earn tenure without it, I do wonder if it misuses threshold concepts a little by making them something we’re supposed to build learning outcomes around and assess against. Or maybe it’s not the Framework that’s misusing threshold concepts but librarians who are misusing the Framework by trying to build learning outcomes and assessments around it. I don’t know the answer, but I do like Adler-Kassner and Wardle’s more exploratory approach if only because it leaves a little more room for growth.


That’s a lot of threshold concepts

Which is to say, in total Adler-Kassner and Wardle and their collaborators suggest 32 threshold concepts related to writing studies. By contrast, the Framework has six for information literacy.

On the one hand, I think if the Framework had had 32 threshold concepts when it was first introduced, librarians who work in information literacy would have gone even more berserk than they did at the time. Like, how are learners supposed to learn even one core concept in the little time that we usually have with them, much less six? Thirty-two would be impossible.

Again, this is where it’s helpful to remember that Naming What We Know and the Framework serve two different purposes, as described above. It’s possible to name 32 threshold concepts because there’s no expectation that writing instructors will be assessed according to those concepts the way information literacy instructors might be with the Framework.

The Framework does make it clear that there might be more than the six threshold concepts that it names and that those six could change over time as information literacy continues to evolve. In other words, it’s a work in progress, not the final word. But the thing is that the Framework is meant to be a core document to the library profession. Also, there doesn’t seem to be a clear mechanism (that I know of) for conversation about what other threshold concepts there might be. So even if it’s not meant to be the final word, it is kind of the Final Word For Now (meaning until there’s a revision or a replacement ten or twenty years in the future).


The fifth Beatle

That said, I think the metaconcept that Adler-Kassner and Wardle introduce that writing is both an activity and a subject of study has some real possibilities as a seventh threshold concept or metaconcept for information literacy, if it were to be adapted to information literacy. Which leads me to my current research path.

Reading Adler-Kassner and Wardle’s introduction and the section on the metaconcept was really galvanizing for me. Because if you replaced “writing” with “research” in these passages, especially in the discussion about how writing is seen by experts as a basic skill that you only need to learn one time, you would be getting to the very heart of one of the main challenges for information literacy. Except unlike writing studies where in most institutions composition instructors get an entire three-credit course to help teach students how to write at the college level as part of a larger program, information literacy instructors are expected to teach students everything they need to know about research and information literacy in the space of a single 50 minute session.

Ironically, because of the close relationship between information literacy instruction and first year composition courses, a lot of the time it’s writing instructors who are placing these expectations on information literacy instructors and while those of us who teach information literacy are happy to get the business, the fact that these parallels either aren’t recognized or are recognized but ignored can be very galling. We have a common pain.

Anyway, the metaconcept that writing is both an activity and a subject of study, which Adler-Kassner and Wardle suggest, is meant as a way for experts in writing studies to convey to non-experts that writing is not, in fact, a basic skill. In reading this, I realized that the same is true for research. Research is not just a process for finding, evaluating, and using information in order to fill a gap in knowledge. It’s also a subject of study in a number of fields, primarily library and information science but elsewhere as well. We study research in order to understand something about how people find, evaluate, and use information.

The trouble is, I think writing studies professors can easily recognize that they not only teach writing, they also study writing. With librarians, the story is much more complicated, especially since a lot of librarians don’t teach information literacy or research even though they might study it. So it’s something of an uphill battle. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth fight.


All of this to say that even though it’s not about information literacy, Naming What We Know has been at least as important to my research path as the Framework. I try to make sure to give Adler-Kassner and Wardle (and their collaborators) credit for this as often as possible, but in case I ever fail to do so, consider this a standing acknowledgement that my work owes a great debt to theirs.

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