Full-Time Faculty, Threshold Concepts, and the Vertical Curriculum

In the October 3, 2016, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Joseph R. Teller, an English professor at the College of the Sequoias, asks, “Are we teaching composition all wrong?” My answer to his question is yes, if we are teaching composition in the manner and with the misconceptions that Teller embraces. His main complaints are that “compositionists have been enamored of a pedagogical orthodoxy” that is incorrect; we should, instead, focus more on product, use the rhetorical modes, and should not teach reading in the first-year course.

Professors have been complaining about student writing for as long as students have been writing in their courses. Sharon Crowley’s excellent 1998 history, Composition in the University, reminds us that in 1892, more than half of the Harvard students who took the writing exam received a failing score. This crisis resulted in the creation of “English A” and began the widespread requirement of first-year writing in US higher education institutions (69). Despite the gnashing of teeth and the sweeping generalizations from Teller and his ilk, much has changed in the teaching of composition since the nineteenth century, to the ennoblement of the discipline and its students. In this article, I tell the story of how, in 2014, Governors State University (GSU), formerly an upper-division campus, established a structured four-year undergraduate program beginning with a two-course composition sequence in the first year. While the criticisms of contemporary composition are frustrating, they also remind us that we have not succeeded in telling composition’s story. These concerns seem to emanate from the 1980s when product versus process was a lively debate and educators were pushing hard to steer textbooks away from rhetorically disembodied discussions of the “modes.” Composition education has come a long, long way since then.

GSU, Full-Time Faculty and Class Size

I arrived at GSU in August 2011 during a perfect storm of curricular change. I remember the first convocation I attended when we discussed the cohort model for GE—with three groups of thirty students in each themed cohort. I started doing the math, and when it was time for questions, mine was the first hand raised. I reminded the president and provost that the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) recommends no more than twenty students and, ideally, fifteen in writing classes. President Elaine Maimon responded that our first-year writing courses would be limited to fifteen students. We have, in fact, kept that promise despite the crushing financial woes that we face in Illinois, having been without a state budget for eighteen months.

Small class size is recommended for a variety of reasons, from workload considerations to student learning needs. At GSU it moves hand in hand with our commitment to having only full-time faculty teaching GE courses. To put into place the high-impact practices recommended by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)’s LEAP initiative—including writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments and projects, community-based learning, and undergraduate research, among others—universities need full-time instructors who are integrated into the culture of the institution. Faculty need development and support to enact these high-touch strategies of teaching, and a local community of faculty, staff, and administration is integral to their implementation. Adjunct faculty don’t have the same access to this cultural enrichment because of the itinerant nature of their work. In a practical way, institutions cannot control the workload of adjunct faculty, since they may teach five or six courses at several institutions and commute many hours to their classrooms. If institutions are serious about limiting class size, then they must know how many classes, and what types of classes, their instructors are teaching. Full-time instructors with balanced workloads and no more than fifteen students in their writing classes are also able to put into practice the best recommendations of the field.

Threshold Concepts and the “Literacy Autobiography”

Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle recently edited an essential volume for the study of composition, Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. It is an accessible and engaging resource for non-specialists as well as for compositionists. They explain that threshold concepts are the critical ideas we need to “participate more fully in particular disciplines” (ix). These concepts are “troublesome,” in that they tend to contradict prior knowledge and ask writers to redefine themselves as well as to “unlearn” previous knowledge (x–xi). Threshold concepts are not pieces of knowledge, but rather are “ways of seeing . . . that change a learner’s stance.” They change “how” people know instead of “what” they know (xi). The volume includes thirty-six concepts, each written by an expert in the field, and includes concepts such as writing as a struggle, writing as a shaper and enactor of identity, and writing as a knowledge-making activity.

Our first-year composition program is built on these concepts, and the example of one shared assignment we use, the “literacy autobiography,” illustrates how the threshold concepts play out in our classrooms. First-year students bring with them a raft of knowledge related to writing, some of it rigid and unhelpful. They begin in a restricted place, with guiding assumptions and conclusions based on their own experiences. Threshold concepts invite them to expand those boundaries and their knowledge. Using the literacy autobiography, a common pedagogical tool, invites students to reflect on their reading and writing experiences before they came to college and to consider how those experiences shape their current writing practices. This assignment helps students to see through the lens of the following threshold concepts: that writers’ histories with writing vary, that writing is informed by prior experience, and that writing creates identity.

Students, and many other writers, assume that all writers share common histories, and that we all struggle and succeed in the same ways. Some may assume that we all learned our craft by first writing a sentence and then moved to combining sentences into paragraphs, even though our lived experience and composition research defy this assumption. For instance, Teller ends his Chronicle piece with this sentence: “But if they [students] show up, do the work, and turn off their phones, they just might leave my class able to write a sentence.” For most of us it is both much messier and more spontaneous than this. Students and teachers must unlearn this unhelpful prior knowledge about the neat linearity of the writing process if they are to succeed.

Many of our students—those in our summer bridge programs, our peer mentors, and our writing fellows, as well as many staff and faculty members—complete Gallup’s StrengthQuest assessment, which identifies individuals’ combination of strengths and empowers them to work from a natural place of engagement. To teach our students, we need to know who they are. We know that our GSU students are 55 percent people of color and 54 percent Pell eligible. Many are first-generation college students from the South Suburbs of Chicago. They have been told in action and in words the dozens of ways in which they will fail and the specific nature of their weaknesses. At GSU, our entire GE program is predicated on a strengths-based model of education. Therefore, GSU’s challenge has been to get to know our students’ strengths and to enable them to see how their rich literacy traditions can inform their college writing. Indeed, students also bring with them enriching literacy experiences that can be transformed into practice in our classrooms and in their academic writing. In terms of threshold concepts, we know that literacy experiences shape and express identity in positive as well as in more troubling ways.

The literacy autobiography also offers insight into how a specific threshold concept—that writing is shaped by genre and context—works with first-year students. Most of my students come to college with the guiding principle that they should “never write in the first person.” They have heard this “rule” throughout high school and will, no doubt, hear it in college as well. It is an appropriate guideline in some contexts. The problem, however, is that writing is always situated. Every semester that I’ve assigned the creation of a literacy autobiography, students have raised their hands and asked, “Are we allowed to write in the first person?” At first, I was surprised—it is, after all, a literacy “autobiography,” a genre defined by its use of first person. It’s clear that these students have been successful in high school in part because they’ve learned rules such as “no first person,” but rules don’t cross contexts very well. What writers need instead of rules is rhetorical knowledge, which invites them to think about their writing in context. The genre of the autobiography invites the first person because it is a story about the self. The “I” is expected and appropriate.

The literacy autobiography also allows educators to extend boundaries as to where writing “belongs.” Students and teachers hold the notion that writing belongs in and to the class where it was assigned. At GSU, we want our students and instructors to see writing extend beyond the boundaries of first-year composition, into their other classes, and into their lives. We have established a literacy autobiography contest for first-year students in the spring semester. Their autobiographies can be revised multiple times, in consultation with their first-year writing teachers or with any other teacher or tutor. Students submit the revised essay along with a reflective piece about their writing process to a contest committee of readers, selected by the provost, and are awarded prizes at a formal luncheon. Our goal is for students to continue working with their writing outside of the context of the classroom and past the boundaries of the semester. These stories matter because they shape writers’ understanding of themselves, which in turn shapes the kinds of writing experiences they are capable of. Additionally, this contest underlines another threshold concept—that revision helps writers develop.

A Vertical Curriculum and the Importance of Rhetorical Situations

When professors complain about their students’ writing, their concerns are often based on students’ performance within the boundaries of their own classrooms. This makes sense because we rarely think about creating environments where we can see our students’ work across the boundaries of many classrooms and writing activities. Two concepts advise against this narrow view, however. First, writing is a complex cognitive activity and progress is unlikely to be significant within a ten- or fifteen-week period. Second, students learn to write when they are taught to write across the curriculum in their majors and GE courses, as well as in composition courses. Both principles shape and inform the work we have been doing in composition studies, in the GE program, and through our writing across the curriculum program.

Threshold concepts about writing—that it is rhetorical, situated, shaped by genre, directed toward an audience, and exigent—inform the importance of a vertical curriculum. Disciplines demand certain kinds of writing and the writing completed within the discipline shapes the knowledge of the discipline. Writing, from this perspective, is read and judged by audiences based on the disciplinary communities in which it is produced. Therefore, students must become acquainted with successful discourse practices within disciplines. For instance, the English discipline uses the Modern Language Association (MLA) style guide to govern our writing conventions, while the social sciences and others use the American Psychological Association (APA) guide. On the face of it, these guides may seem only to dictate where citations are placed and how bibliographies are produced. However, once writers dig into these guides, we realize that they shape the foundations of the writing. As an example, the MLA privileges text and, consequently, invites extensive quotation of both literary texts and critical texts. Quotations serve many roles, including support for arguments, strategies to build the writer’s credibility, and celebrations of language itself. The APA, however, tends toward much less quotation, and in some cases none at all, using research conclusions and citations as sufficient evidence. Further, the APA privileges dates in its citations for the obvious reason that research in the social sciences changes quickly and tends to be time sensitive. Good writing needs the context of discipline-specific instruction to help develop these key features.

In addition, the vertical curriculum seeks to create more and deeper student engagement through writing-intensive courses, one of LEAP’s high-impact practices. The writing across the curriculum movement views writing to learn as one of its key objectives and assumes that writing enhances learning and creates knowledge. Recent research across several institutions by Paul Anderson and his colleagues underlines the importance of using writing to improve learning. Based on their research, which is discussed in their article in this issue, students need to do more than “write more.” They must write in a context in which they will be read and taken seriously; they must be asked to participate in meaning-making tasks; and they must understand teachers’ expectations. Students profit from having their writing read and responded to before it’s graded, whether it’s by the teacher, a writing tutor, or a well-prepared peer. Further, writing needs to be connected to learning outcomes in ways that are explicit to students.

GSU’s vertical curriculum makes use of writing fellows in order to support instructors as they invite students to use writing as a way of making knowledge as well as to create disciplinary texts. These students, who are English majors or from other disciplines, and are both graduate students and undergraduates, are paired with a particular professor and a specific classroom. They sit in on the course and offer support to both professors and students to better understand the writing process in courses across the disciplines. They serve as translators between professors and students, as well-prepared readers, and as experienced writers who can share their own writing practices with their peers. As one of our fellows, Samantha Schmidt, recently said in a meeting, “Our job is recognizing and leveraging students’ strengths.” Indeed, her words are the foundation of what we do at GSU.

Teaching writing is challenging work. It requires our best instructors in disciplines across the curriculum to embrace a praxis where teaching, on-the-ground experiences, evolving understandings of our students’ strengths and needs, and an awareness of critical composition research merge to urge us past our personal frustrations in order to meet our students where they are and to help them enlarge their boundaries. 



Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Elizabeth Wardle, eds. 2016. “Preface.” In Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Boulder: Utah State University Press, ix-xv.

Anderson, Paul, Chris M. Anson, Robert M. Gonyea, and Charles Paine. 2015. “The Contributions of Writing to Learning and Development: Results from a Large-Scale Multi-Institutional Study.” Research in the Teaching of English 50 (2): 199−235.

Crowley, Sharon. 1998. Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Gallup StrengthsQuest. http://www.strengthsquest.com/home.aspx. Accessed November 1, 2016.

Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

National Council of Teachers of English. 2015. “CCCC Position Statement: Principles for the Postsecondary Teaching of Writing.” March. http://www.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/postsecondarywriting.

Teller, Joseph. 2016. “Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong?” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 3. http://www.chronicle.com/article/Are-We-Teaching-Composition/237969.

Writing Program Administrators. 2014. “WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition (3.0).” http://wpacouncil.org/positions/outcomes.html.

Kerri Morris, Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Across the Curriculum, Governors State University

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