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Crossing Over, Academically Speaking

A first-of-its-kind book provides faculty with tools to help students understand — and maybe even surmount — threshold concepts.

Research  |  May 11, 2018  |  By Rachel Glaze
Silhouette of businesswoman with briefcase standing in doorway

It’s kind of like that sad day you find out Santa Claus isn’t real — except it happens in the classroom.

Say you’ve dreamed of becoming a scientist, and the first day of your college biology class, the professor starts talking about evolution, which conflicts with your spiritual beliefs. What do you do?

You’re faced with a troublesome idea or “threshold concept” — a concept you must accept as true to advance within a discipline, but a concept that, once understood and accepted as truth, can’t be easily unembraced. In fact, if you accept such a concept as truth, you’ll find it difficult to recall what it was like to believe anything to the contrary.

So it’s also kind of like when you look back and realize how naïve you were to have ever believed in Santa Claus in the first place.

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) recently shifted from a set of standards for teaching information literacy — those skills that enable us to think critically with respect to the information we seek, obtain, and digest — to a framework structured around six threshold concepts:

  • Authority is constructed and contextual
  • Information creation as a process
  • Information has value
  • Research as inquiry
  • Scholarship as conversation
  • Searching as strategic exploration

Much like the threshold concepts the new framework details, the pedagogical shift has created some discomfort for academics.

But UNLV library faculty Samantha Godbey, Xan Goodman, and Sue Wainscott viewed the shift as an opportunity to lead as the new framework was implemented. They recently contributed chapters to and edited Disciplinary Applications of Information Literacy Threshold Concepts, which is the first book on the subject addressing the framework shift from a multidisciplinary perspective.

Here, they share their experience working on the book and explain the ways it can help librarians and faculty seeking theoretical and practical ways to implement the ACRL’s new framework within academia.

Can you explain in more detail what threshold concepts are?

A woman with glassesWainscott: The idea is that when students are learning a new specialty, they’ll have moments where they have to cross beyond a mental threshold because a concept will change the way students view the world around them. Some students will hop right over the threshold, some will stop in a state of liminality, and some will stop entirely and say, “That’s weird and I’m uncomfortable.” Sometimes, those uncomfortable people will choose not to continue on in a field because of a threshold concept. But once someone crosses over and chooses to accept the information as truth, that person can more easily accept further information they are given about the field, and it transforms their thinking.

A woman with glassesGodbey: These threshold concepts are central to a discipline but disrupt a student’s way of thinking because they essentially create a new way of being.

A woman wearing a green hatGoodman: And a moment of crossing over a certain threshold will vary depending on the level that a student is at, just as the threshold concept itself will differ depending on the level. For instance, a graduate student would’ve already accepted and moved past a threshold concept that a first-year student is just learning.

How will this book help the academy?

Goodman: We wanted to create a book that would help librarians work with faculty members who are in need of examples and practical applications of these new concepts. The prior ACRL standards were ingrained in things like accreditation and practice of librarianship. Because of the shift, the implications of this new theory are far-reaching. We want this book to help address the implications of this new framework.

Wainscott: We wanted any professor from any discipline to be able to incorporate stories of their own practical application with this framework. This book was compiled in such a way that someone like me—a conservation biologist turned engineering librarian—can pick it up and walk in, say, fine arts shoes while reading the chapter.

Godbey: I know education really well, I know psychology really well, but I do not know things like art history very well. I gained a lot of insight just by working on this. A strength of this book is that anyone can learn from it. We’re doing work that will help librarians throughout the world improve their practice.

What inspired you, individually and as a group, to write and edit this book?

Godbey: The three of us started working at UNLV Libraries around the same time and have always been a tight cohort. We’ve collaborated on a number of different projects together, and the idea of threshold concepts was completely new to all of us, but then Sue (Wainscott) came back from a conference in 2013 on this topic, and she explained it to us. Once Xan and I understood it further, we decided to rework the structure of another project we were working on together to incorporate these ideas. So before it became a hot topic in the library profession, we’d already learned about it, so we were then able to conduct workshops with librarians from around the world and teach them how to integrate threshold concepts into library instruction. Those workshops were the catalyst for our book; we wanted to put something in writing that could be used as a resource.

Goodman: The three of us recognized a gap in thinking when the new framework first came out. Faculty were wrestling with this new idea, and we wanted to find a way that librarians could work with threshold concepts and help them understand ways to theoretically and practically implement these threshold concepts in the classroom. Some thought it wasn’t the right time to put this book together; they said it was too soon and feared that there wouldn’t be enough quality contributions to curate an entire collection. But when we sent out the call for chapters, we had more than 60 pieces to choose from. The response was huge.

Wainscott: The 25 chapters in our book prove there were definitely enough people out there willing to write about their practical implementation of the framework. Once threshold concepts began gaining traction in academia as a whole, the three of us really did feel confident that there were enough faculty across a number of disciplines trying to incorporate them into their instruction, and people would have something to say on the subject.

What’s unique about your book?

Wainscott: For one, our book is the first of its kind to take this discipline-centered approach to information literacy threshold concepts and provide discipline-specific instances and applications of these threshold concepts.

Godbey: Our book is a foundational document for librarians in colleges and universities who are building on a completely new theoretical framework. In writing and editing this book, we asked librarians and disciplinary faculty from different disciplines to do something quite difficult: to combine the theoretical and practical while also reflecting on their experience as instructors and researchers. There are other books about threshold concepts out there, but none look at the concepts within such a wide range of disciplinary contexts as ours does.

Goodman: Our book takes examples from the ACRL’s six different frames and applies them across specialties. For example, my chapter focuses on Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman who lived in the Jim Crow Era and had very limited options for treating her cervical cancer. She ended up at Johns Hopkins Hospital, but when she had her tumor biopsied, they saved a type of “immortal” cell called HeLa cells without her knowledge, then used them in medical research. In this way, her body is still being used to create information, even today. This example can help students in public health better grasp the threshold concept Information Creation as a Process.

What’s your favorite chapter and why?

Godbey: Xan’s was my favorite. There was also a chapter on women and gender studies that was written as a conversation between two librarians, and I liked being able to read the exchange of ideas between the two with regard to threshold concepts.

Wainscott: I grew up in a house that can be referred to as an amateur museum. It was heavily influenced by the notion that having artifacts from other cultures would spark your interest or remind you of an experience, so I enjoyed the chapter about curiosity cabinets. It was a concept that made me stop and think, “Why did my family choose to collect artifacts from different cultures?” It was familiar yet challenging at the same time.

Goodman: I enjoyed the chapter by UNLV sociology professor Anna Smedley-Lopez along with our former sociology librarian Heidi Johnson. It focuses on the service-learning project students in the sociology department do to identify resources for community organizations. In any urban city, the university can be very impactful with regard to helping the community access information; this highlights the frame Information Has Value. As we sit in this academic setting, we have easy access to scholarly work. But how does the community make decisions when it comes to accessing this same information? What happens when the information costs them money? It’s a nationwide problem, and the chapter highlights the digital divide across the country. Here, our sociology students are creating annotated bibliographies that arm the community with valuable information.

What did you learn from writing and editing this book?

Goodman: It is an undertaking to do this kind of work together. I learned that I have two very valuable colleagues. It takes a lot of trust and willingness to help each other. Learning how to collaborate is essential, and it’s something you take with you through your career. With regard to threshold concepts specifically, I learned that we have a community of librarians who are engaged and who truly care about information literacy. They want to contribute to the dialogue and are doing so in interesting and brave ways.

Wainscott: I had no idea how long books take, and I now have an even greater respect for authors. One thing I’m most proud of is that we were able to attract so many people from different backgrounds who are excited about this topic and, as editors, help them find ways to write about their work. It was truly a privilege to have had the opportunity to edit for them.

Godbey: Nothing really surprised me about the process portion; I knew it would take a while, but I love everything about the work because I love writing, I love editing, and I love helping people improve their writing. But everyone involved with this book thinks about things in different ways. Looking at the different chapters, we have so many disciplines and perspectives represented. We have an art librarian working with Native American art, and other librarians are addressing social work, linguistics, health and exercise, communications, and more. It’s big.

An Immortal Legacy

It's nearly impossible to have a conversation about bioethics in medicine without mentioning Henrietta Lacks. The cells that were removed from Lacks’ cancerous tumors in 1951 were taken without her consent, Rebecca Skloot noted in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but those same cells led to medical breakthroughs that have saved thousands of lives.

HeLa cells—dubbed so from combining the first two letters of “Henrietta” and “Lacks”—were the first that scientists were able to keep alive in a laboratory for more than a few days. In fact, Lacks’ cells divided indefinitely and continue to do so even today, leading researchers to consider them practically immortal. This endless supply of cells to experiment with paved the way to the polio vaccine as well as numerous cancer, AIDS, and genomics studies. But for decades, the Lacks family had no idea their relative’s cells were at all responsible for these prestigious—and profitable—discoveries.

Skloot and Henrietta’s daughter Deborah Lacks investigated hospital archives, uncovering the truth about HeLa cells and shining a light on the family’s secret medical history through Skloot’s 2010 book. Although federal regulations requiring patient consent for participation in research didn’t exist in 1951, many believe the way researchers treated Lacks was at least in part due to her status as a poor African-American woman.

The revelations inspired some to take corrective action. Skloot herself established the Henrietta Lacks Foundation in 2010 to provide financial support to individuals and families who helped advance medical research without benefitting from those contributions, especially those who did so without their knowledge or consent. And, as detailed in a 2013 press release, the National Institutes of Health consulted with the Lacks family to create the HeLa Genome Data Use Agreement, which now requires researchers to apply for permission to use the full HeLa genome sequence. Two members of the Lacks family sit on the working group that reviews these applications.

—Alexandra Karosas