how might the notion of the “threshold concept” be applied to cultural studies? (response to Kathryn Temple)

Since Kathryn has opened up some interesting possibilities with her references to Meyer’s and Land’s notion of the “threshold concept,” I thought I’d briefly outline how this notion might be relevant to both cultural studies and literary studies.

In Glynis Cousin’s helpful “Introduction to Threshold Concepts,” she suggests that the threshold concept, or TC, helps us to overcome the “stuffed curriculum” problem that occurs whenever disciplines define their teaching as the transmission of an undifferentiated bulk of specialized knowledge, or set of facts, that need to be learned before students can be initiated into the concepts and research that characterize the field.

This unreflective view of disciplinary teaching focuses on the materials used by a discipline to define itself, rather than the concepts, intellectual organization, or  ways of thinking deployed by experts.  These are closely linked with the characteristic practices and skills necessary to “do” work in that field.

In other words, an expert in literary studies is not simply someone who knows more literary works, authors, and genres than someone else, but someone who knows how to think, write, and talk like a literary scholar, in a manner that is recognizable to other scholars.  (We often make this distinction when evaluating amateur or undergraduate work in relation to professional work in our field.  One exists in relation to existing conversations and debates, and follows the field’s protocols about evidence, reasons, and arguments, and the other does not(

Interestingly enough, the most characteristic features of a discipline cannot be brought into explicit analysis, reflection, or discussion except with reference to its pedagogy, meaning the process by which its distinctive forms of thinking are acquired by novices in the incremental process of mastering the discipline’s forms (cf., for example, the “Decoding the Disciplines” project).

Thus, instead of focusing the instructor’s attention on a bulk quantity or set list of disciplinary facts, the TC enables instructors to focus teaching time and energy on the relatively small number of field-specific concepts that, once grasped and eventually mastered, are genuinely transformative, integrative, and troublesome (among other things).  The TC is a concept that holds the key to entering into an understanding how experts think about a particular field.  In literature, concepts like “author,” “work,” “genre,” “period,” “close reading,” “interpretation,” “context,” and so forth represent terms that no literary scholar can do without, no matter what her individual project might be.  And we have seen how much resistanced the advocates of practices like machine-reading or culturomics have faced in arguing for new protocols of reading, interpretation, and evidence for literary studies.

In my view, the rich and complex notion of “culture” developed by Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and now elaborated by several subsequent generations of scholars can be said to operate in precisely in the manner outlined by Cousins: as a transformative, integrative, and troublesome concept in relation to literary studies.

At the same time, this rich sense of  “culture” is also “bounded” in Cousin’s sense as having a “provisional explanatory capacity,” and leaving a space for continued questioning of the concept itself.  And, we might add, such concepts in Cousin’s account are also “irreversible” in the sense that, once learned, scholars are unlikely to forget them, though they might modify or reject them in favor of a more refined or rival understanding.

When viewed from the perspective of the threshold concept, Cultural Studies becomes yet another instance of the ongoing debate over whether literature and literary studies should be defined as the transmission of a preexisting set of literary “content” or as a group of skills, and ultimately, concepts, to be learned by students and practiced by professionals. And, of course, from the perspective of the classroom, it seems unlikely that students can truly learn either skills or content in isolation from one another.  The promise of the threshold concept, I suppose, is that it makes it possible to think about the process by which the learner acquires both content and concepts a bit at a time, by moving from one to the other and back again.

NB: for two accounts of how threshold concepts can inform curricular discussions in English departments, see these examples, from the University of Brighton and Helen Day’s article in Pedagogy.


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