Troublesome workshop invited us over the threshold – Trevor Holmes


Relying heavily on one of higher education’s most recent door-opening concepts to run a workshop on, well, door-opening concepts, Gary Poole took a FLEX lab full of people through our paces Tuesday morning, May 5th, 2009. After his Presidents’ Colloquium talk on the Monday, in which he addressed the powerful phenomenographic notion of deep versus surface learning (more on that another post), I wasn’t sure if we’d work up a connection between that topic and “threshold concepts” — a title that was softened for our sensitive ears to “door-opening concepts” and that Poole also referred to as “portal” and “gateway” concepts. In short, these are the really key concepts in any given discipline that are the doorways to the field, as it were. The concepts that, once learned, open up whole dimensions of previously unthought thoughts for students and help them to grasp the rest of the discipline, and after which there’s no going back. They are often “troublesome” concepts — this is what’s sexy about them for both Poole and for me, because they imply some difficulty and you can keep coming back to them over a career. It’s not so much the elementary (when elementary means simple) as it is the often-counterintuitive, argued-over, and yet foundational concept of a discipline

Dr. Poole suggested the examples of opportunity cost in economics and precedent in law, among others. Browsing very briefly around some conference reports on the Web, I found:

For me, Gary Poole’s workshop was deceptively simple — after introducing the idea, he had us identify our own disciplines’ troublesome threshold concepts (they had to fit the definition he posted, which is directly from Meyer and Land’s pioneering work on the topic), and then discuss how we might go about “spiralling” such concepts through our courses and whole programs. Strikingly, I thought immediately of the curriculum work I’ve been doing with Departments and Programs, and how both the foundation and the capstone experiences could be underpinned by struggles with threshold concepts.

What made the workshop a bit frustrating for me was that when I tried to apply it to my own teaching (I teach a large introductory Cultural Studies course at WLU each winter), I realised that yes, Cultural Studies has threshold concepts, and we do deal with them in my course, but Cultural Studies is both interdisciplinary and different in different nations. I’d go so far as to say that canonically, Cultural Studies has sedimented itself into at least three radically different formations: British, American, and (for lack of a better term) rhizomatically global. So as I tried to think about “self-reflexive reading of the world’s symbolic and real structures” as a potential threshold concept in my field, I realized that not only is the field all mixed up with literary, anthropological, historical, sociological, political, communications, philosophical theories and methodologies, it is also very much a function of the practitioners’ orientations. No wonder it’s frustrating for all of us that, by the end of the course every year, there’s still no solid definition of cultural studies to hang onto. So, can an interdisciplinary field have what is associated in the literature with disciplines and disciplinary knowledge-construction? Semiotics, defamiliarization, ideology, critical reflection… these are potential door-opening concepts, and perhaps my job next Winter is to make sure that when my students are defining these “Weird Words” from the readings, as we call them, that I help them to foreground precisely which ones are actually causing the transformations, the irreversible new ways of seeing, the liminal crossings of troublesome cognition that do (I’d argue) show up in final papers and exams.

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As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum and Programming, Trevor Holmes plans and delivers workshops and events in support of faculty across the career span. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Trevor worked at a variety of universities teaching courses, supporting faculty and teaching assistants through educational development offices, and advising undergraduates. Trevor’s PhD is from York University in English Literature, with a focus on gothic literature, queer theory, and goth identities. A popular workshop facilitator at the national and international levels, Trevor is also interested in questions of identity in teaching and teaching development.

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