College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals

Leave a comment

Kurtyka, Faith. Conservative Women on College Campuses. CE, Jan. 2021. Posted 03/31/2020.

Kurtyka, Faith. “Standing at the Threshold: Metonymic Generalization and the Social Penalties of Being a Conservative Woman on Campus.” College English 83.3 (2021): 235-57. Print.

Faith Kurtyka investigated the learning pathways students follow when they encounter “threshold concepts,” which, for composition, include those discussed by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle in their 2019 book, (Re)Considering What We Know: Learning Thresholds in Writing, Composition, Rhetoric, and Literacy. Kurtyka works from these authors’ definition of threshold concepts as “concepts crucial for epistemological participation in disciplines, the lenses learners must see through and see with to be successful” (qtd. in Kurtyka 235). Kurtyka investigates students’ “lived experiences” as they grapple with the “liminal” moments important to this learning process (236).

The author contends that little composition research has considered the encounter with the threshold concepts from the students’ perspectives. In particular, she reports, little research has focused on how activities and relationships outside of academia affect these encounters (236). Moreover, in Kortyka’s view, much research tends to foreground teachers’ efforts to teach the concept rather than the ways students experience their learning (238).

Kurtyka is interested in the ways that students develop prior beliefs and knowledge before encountering academic concepts and how these prior understandings affect their engagement with their college lives. Noting that threshold concepts have been characterized as introducing what, to many students, may be “troublesome knowledge,” Kurtyka cites scholarship in which knowledge and experience that students bring to college is seen as interfering with their ability to engage productively with the new points of view college will present (236). She cites research on how teachers address religious resistance to academic environments, but maintains that less effort has been put into investigating how conservative political beliefs may impact actual, lived encounters with the college context (238).

To address this gap, Kurtyka interviewed eleven women who identified as conservative in the age range 18-23, all white, in order to capture their narratives of engagement with the college environment (240; 255n1). Her interest lay not in the women’s beliefs per se but rather in the development of their beliefs in the light of progress toward threshold knowledge (239). She writes that as a white woman with a background including evangelical religion who similarly found her values and beliefs influenced by the college experience, she provided her interview subjects with a “safe” environment to express feelings they may have felt better left unsaid in other contexts (239). Political science research with these voices, she writes, tend to focus on “concrete, organized locations such as schools an women’s clubs” (238). In Kurtyka’s view, this research cannot capture the nuances of women’s lived experiences in what she describes a “kairotic moment” when important components of identities are being newly established (239).

In Kurtyka’s view, the women she worked with were moving toward the threshold understanding in composition that “writing enacts and creates identities and ideologies” (236). She presents interview excerpts illustrating women’s realizations on the path to this concept that “multiple viewpoints exist on political issues” and that “one has agency in and should take responsibility for developing one’s own beliefs” (236). Her appendix provides a summary of her research process.

An opening question about the construction of beliefs before college found women attributing their belief systems to family influences and friends. In the excerpts the women report both encountering and voluntarily exposing themselves to “outlier voices” that led to reflection on their beliefs (241). Faced with challenges to their views both in classwork and through friendships, the women report doing their own research to shape their responses to issues. The women assert that, contrary to claims that conservatives resist conversations with people who don’t share their views, they seek out and respond to discussion on difficult topics (243). Kurtyka reports these  comments as indicative of the women’s recognition that multiple viewpoints exist (241).

Her research codes for “fear and courage” as interviewees discuss their discomfort with expressing conservative viewpoints on campus (244). The women contend that speaking up leads other students to reject them or even “erase” them as people; their choices may be to remain silent or to limit themselves to campus conservative organizations (245). Research on religious students suggests that for women, drawing attention to unpopular beliefs is a greater burden than for men, because of what Luna Dolezal calls the “constant body visibility” of women, resulting from the social tendency that encourages women to see themselves as “an object for a present or imagined third-person spectator” and thus to conform to socially approved roles (qtd. in Kurtyka 247).

The reluctance to speak Kurtyka discovers through her study is, in her view, a function in part of what she calls “metonymic generalization,” in which audiences assume that a person holding one tenet of a set of beliefs endorses all other beliefs in that set (246, 251). For example, one student notes that even identifying as conservative leads other students to make automatic assumptions about her voting behavior (245). Kurtyka’s interviewees’ responses indicate that silence is the better policy and that only members of like-minded groups shield students from the loss of friendship and social welcoming that the students fear (246).

In Kurtyka’s view, metonymic generalization and the resulting search for social safety deprive students of important tools for exploring the full ramifications of their own and others’ points of view. Scholarship Kurtyka cites suggests that these factors may limit students’ ability to assimilate threshold concepts because of the importance of a community that is both supportive and wide-ranging as students negotiate troubling new knowledge (244). Quoting Matthew Forgarty et al., Kurtyka argues that only in a “cacophony of others’ voices” can students learn to articulate their beliefs and explore their ramifications (252).

Kurtyka argues that teachers reluctant to give space to bigoted or racist beliefs might consider whether they are practicing metonymic generalization; classrooms, she contends, should be “spaces where beliefs can be disaggregated” and nuances discovered (253). Moreover, she maintains that teachers can recognize that in the “liminal” experience of encountering new concepts, student identities are “in a formational, information-seeking stage,” open to “mov[ing] in many directions,” a process encouraged by sharing views (253). Helping students explore the sources of their beliefs, Kurtyka suggests, is one way to facilitate this growth (251).

She also suggests more research on the emotional burdens involved in the formation and development of political beliefs, citing students’ concerns about relationships with family and friends, burdens which she posits affect women more acutely than they do men (254). In addition, more fruitful research could be done on students’ progress toward threshold concepts outside of academic settings, in which students may be mouthing rather than fully understanding difficult ideas (254). In Kurtyka’s view, the ability to “openly process what’s happening to them” as they enter college can enable conservative students’ progress toward rich engagement with threshold concepts and prevent them from “fall[ing] back on familiar knowledge or retreating to settings where everyone agrees with them” (253).