Last week's blog post, "A Defense of the ACRL's Use of Threshold Concepts," generated great discussion on Twitter. In my post I critiqued Lane Wilkinson's June 2014 post on Sense and Reference, "The problem with threshold concepts." In the subsequent Twitter chat, I promised Lane and Lisa Hinchliffe a follow-up post on why I believe that threshold concepts are valuable as aspirational statements.
Here is that post, which will argue: 1. that threshold concepts do exist; and 2. offer a case study about the value of one of the ACRL information literacy threshold concepts.
Warning! This will be long; but also quite juicy if I do say so myself.
1. Yes, Threshold Concepts Exist
To orient us, here is how the ACRl defines a "threshold concept" in the latest iteration of the information literacy standards: "those ideas in any discipline that are passageways or portals to enlarged understanding or ways of thinking and practicing within that discipline."
There's a "no going back" component to a threshold concept; once you've crossed the threshold regarding any topic, your ideas and perspective will inevitably be different than they were before. This is why threshold concepts are often termed "troublesome." They unsettle settled ideas.
Here is a brief, but hopefully fair, summation of Lane's critique of threshold concepts:
1. The definition of a threshold concept is so broad that literally anything can be classified as a threshold concept, even obvious nonsense (ie "Libraries Jump Spanish Sandwiches," which Lane posits as a logically coherent threshold concept given the way that threshold concepts are defined).
2. Just because you understand something conceptually--ie, you have crossed the threshold--does not thereby mean that you have the ability to act upon this information.
3. Thresholds are "agent-relative." What troubles and unsettles my world view is positively humdrum to you. There are no absolute or universal thresholds, but the ACRL implies that there are with respect to information literacy.
4. Disciplines are not monolithic in their knowledge claims. Knowledge thresholds are not only agent-relative, they are multifarious and contradictory within and between disciplines. Any thresholds we see are likely to reflect the power dynamics within a discipline, not a genuine consensus. So the ACRL standards presuppose a tidy world that cannot, never did, and should not exist.
Or as Paul Simon put it, "One man's ceiling is another man's floor."
This idea of bright-line thresholds gets us into insurmountable trouble, because all it leads to is endless jousting over the definition of terms. It's better, and simpler, to articulate what the information literate student needs to know without reference to a nebulous theory.
[Lane, please indicate if this is a fair summation of your views here or on Twitter. For now I will proceed as though it is accurate!]
Here's the thing....I agree completely with Lane, on every point. Thresholds are necessarily contingent and agent-relative, and if you break down the componenents of a threshold claim into its constituent parts they may not all hang together.
We must remember, though, that Lane is an analytic philospher who refers us to modal logic in his piece--modal logic being an application of propositional calculus that traces every claim and sub-claim in a chain of argument to ensure that they all cohere.
This is an indispensable mental attribute when building a bridge or designing a new medication. These are tangible products which require that every proposition supporting their creation be justified.
But there are many things that do not lend themselves to this type of analysis. Some of us are more drawn to gestalts and holism. Our means of sense-making do not involve disassembling a concept into its constituent parts, because not everything can be disassembled.
Some aspects of the human experience, such as how to critically evaluate a piece of information, are and will remain mysterious. Just because a logical proof cannot be mustered on behalf of the ACRL threshold concepts does not mean they are not useful. Threshold concepts are guideposts, landmarks, wayfinders. In this sense, for me, they exist. And that is enough.
I know that this is unlikely to convince minds of a more analytical bent. I think we will all will just have to live with that.
Here's why. In his recent post Lane referred us to a 2o11 piece he wrote to criticize the rise of constructionism in library theory. This is a brilliant piece that led to incisive comments, which illuminate the current disupte about the value of threshold concepts. Here is a sampling of those comments:
1. Lane Wilkinson: “However, as an analytic philosopher, my concern here is with evaluating methods of justification: which track the truth, which are most reliable, etc.. As my advisor used to say, "your beliefs are only as good as the reasons you have to back them up."
2. R. David Lankes: "“In the prevailing concept of librarians being unbiased it quickly turns into all arguments are equally valid. What's interesting is that I think we'd both agree that this is wrong. It's just you [Lane Wilkinson] are willing to say because some of those folks are right, and some are wrong universally, and I would say that they are right or wrong given a complex interplay of personal and social factors.”" [And so, by extension, it is perfectly fine and expected that threshold concepts will mean different things to different people, all of whom bring a "complex interplay of personal and social factors" to the question at hand.]
3. Angela Pashia: "“We need a middle ground that breeds a healthy skepticism (I like to think of that as information literacy, the ability to evaluate an information resource) without denying either an objective external reality or the influence of social conditions on learned human behavior.”
Pashia's comment perfectly captures the cognitive disposition needed to cross the thresholds that the ACRL has identified for the information literate student. I think this is all we after in the end--the ability to mold healthily skeptical behavior when faced with a piece of information. Perhaps "threshold concept" just muddies the waters needlessly. As Lane notes in his post, "Really, the six [threshold] concepts in the Framework are a good start and they make sense. More importantly, they can stand on their own quite independently of the threshold concept hypothesis."
2. Threshold Concepts as Aspirational Statements
So why do we need threshold concepts? As aspirational tools, both for ourselves to motivate creative teaching and for our students to determine what they should be learning. We want students to ponder the deeper implications of our systems for providing and vetting information, and the new ACRL standards provide a framework that encourages this.
The best way I know how to justify this is from my own experience, in which I crossed a key threshold over the course of my career.
As I've noted on multiple occasions, the ACRL threshold concept that most resonates with me is that "Authority is Constructed and Contextual." This is because early in my career, at the National Library of Medicine, I learned about how peer review was the vetting mechanism for scholarship, the safeguard against bad ideas and shoddy science. The librarian's role was to select, organize, and make available these unblemished resources. Simple, easy, settled. In ACRL terms I was pre-threshold, basking in the received wisdom.
Along the way, though, I encountered the perspectives of people like Drummond Rennie and Richard Smith. Rennie is the driving force behind the International Congress on Peer Review and Biomedical Publication, an effort dedicated to ferreting out the biases and distortions inherent in the peer review process. Smith, the former editor of the British Medical Journal, calls peer review "a flawed process at the heart of science and journals. He notes that peer review is slow, inconsistent, and prone to bias and abuse.
Hmm. What at first blush appears to be the pristine record of science turns out to a faulty record spurred by all-too-human defects of perspective and understanding. In retrospect, this is obvious. There is no possible way that the journal peer review system could ever be as virtuous as advertised.
But my first inklings of this reality were troublesome indeed. This is the kind of "light-bulb moment" I want to provide to students as well. If you don't threshold concepts to turn those light-bulbs on, don't use them. For me they are clarifying.
My new understanding of peer review spurred, and still spurs, existential questions. The academy still depends on peer review, after all, and professors still want access to the most recent issue of NEJM no matter how flawed the peer review process may be. How do we square our service mission with our educational role? When do we just "give the people what they want" and when do we start a conversation about alternatives that could be better?
I have no ready answers to these questions. All I know is that they have animated my career ever since I learned about the flaws of peer review, and will continue to do so for the next 30 years. That was quite a threshold to cross, and there is no going back now.