Paper #4: Theories and Methods: Crossing Boundaries, Finding Focus

The Problem with Theory?

Without going into deep explanation, as many thinkers and writers far greater than I already have, I will suffice it to say at the beginning of this post on theory and methodology, that thinking and writing on the former has been replete with controversy (and probably the latter has been too, but I am not as schooled in that area).  From my days, many moons ago, when working on my master’s degree and sitting in Composition Theory, I recall the first chapter of Sid Dobrin’s book Constructing Knowledges from the huge course pack—are those still around?—about the postmodern debate surrounding theory with a capital T vs theory with a small t.

Somehow, a simple case shift would symbolize complex concern around theory becoming less than localized, a universal truth that would create a master narrative and, to be metaphorical, enslave us all, but Dobrin’s piece offers one of many memorable nuggets worth repeating that helps balance this theorizing about theory (quite ironic, right?).


Theory helps weave together multiple threads, in an organic way, like this design by totusmel

He writes, [M]ost often theory is organic, receptive to new observations, additional facts, further speculation.  Theory accounts for experience and allows new experience to alter or contribute to the evolution of that theory” (8-9).

Transfer Theories: Boundary Crossing and Boundary Objects

With that type of evolution in mind, I enter this post knowing and being comfortable with the fact that my experience—praxis if you will—will probably re-inform my theories in the future, for even since writing my PABs last week, my thoughts have started to shift, to some degree, on writing transfer. For instance, in my post about many of the current theories on transfer, I mentioned that I was not fully invested in any one of the theories on transfer, but as even the most aloof readers could easily detect by the length I gave to Perkins and Salomon in my reflection, I was leaning toward their work on motivation and transfer, and I still hold on to their theories, for they appear to be some of the most prominent theoreticians with regards to transfer.  That tidbit aside, in my reflection, I completely ignored Akkerrman & Bakker’s (2011) theories on boundary crossing, which, in hindsight, is strange, since Tinberg in his study uses boundary crossing as a coding category.  Maybe this disregard of their work was an oversight, or perhaps my theorizing has evolved.

Well, not to bask too long on the metacognitive, but Akkerman and Bakker, especially after reading their article, offer theories that seemingly align well with my idea of digital learning objects (DLOs) helping with transfer.


Transfer over boundaries may be difficult. What boundary object can help us cross? Source: WikiMedia

Citing Engestrom et al. (1995), Akkerman and Bakker define boundary crossing as ability to “face the challenge of negotiating and combining ingredients from different contexts to achieve hybrid situations” (134).  An example of boundary crossing might be using genre knowledge on analysis writing learned in a first-year composition course to then analyze the mental state of a public figure in a future psychology course. Seemingly, however, boundary crossing is not always without a compliment.  It can have an object attached to it. As Star and Griesemer’s 1989 work points out, boundary crossing can incorporate boundary objects, which are “both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites” (qtd. in Akkerman and Bakker 134). To elaborate, Star and Griesemer expand on the work of sociological scholars, Bruno Latour and Michael Callon, and their Actor-Network Theory, more specifically interessement, which indicates “the translation of the concerns of the non-scientist into those of the scientists” (389). While Latour and Callon’s version of interessement has a more top-down approach, Star and Griesemer attempt to make translation—a moving from one passage to the next—more pluralistic through cooperation in the workplace. Particularly, Star and Griesemer discuss the establishing of a natural history museum in the first half of the twentieth century, the creating of a system that allowed for communication and translation, and ultimately the pulling together of divergent perspectives from each person involved in the process of categorizing disparate elements of natural history. Boundary objects are what aided in the translation and communication. In this case, Star and Griesemer consider the following as boundary objects: “specimens, field notes, museums and maps of particular territories,” and they remark that “their boundary nature is reflected by the fact that they are simultaneously concrete and abstract, specific and general, conventionalized and customized” (408). While this scenario speaks more directly to workplace or socio-cultural transfer, the boundary crossing and boundary object could be adopted as part of an academic situation, and couldn’t my DLOs take the place of the zoological specimens and maps?

Expanding Theory

To be honest, I was not fully convinced, at first, that turning DLOs into boundary objects kept with the letter of Star and Greiesmer’s work, but after completing more research, I fell upon the work of Alexandra Juhasz and Anne Balsamo, two “femtech” scholars, who take boundary objects one step further, directly arguing for learning objects (e.g., articles, video, images) as boundary objects with a slightly altered moniker (discussed below) as a way of communication, translation, and understanding (certainly keeping with the spirit of Star and Greisemer’s work). Juhasz and Balasmo write, “In FemTechNet we refer to the educational materials [. . . ] as ‘boundary objects that learn’ (BOTLs). The pedagogical objects or collections of objects that will be submitted by members of the network will be considered through these theoretical perspectives.”  Since I have not documented my struggle previously in seeking theory on how I might argue that DLOs would aid in transfer, it may not be completely apparent, here, that this theoretical discovery feels like a large “win” for me. My behind-the-scenes research has run the gamut, looking at studies outside of English Studies on transfer with DLOs or the like, and while some may exist, none have completely spoken to me as this discovery does here.

Lessons Learned About Theory Building 

So one lesson so far is that theory can propel and stall further practice and research on an object of study.  As Newton pointed out centuries ago, we stand on the shoulders of giants and can see further.  Likewise, the theory that precedes any of our research certainly informs how we might move  with more certainty (or not) into our work. Still, with all good scholarship comes the problemetizing of the object of study and that also includes the theories behind it, so sometimes we must also leap off the shoulders for a while to the ground below. After all, terra firma often offers more solid grounding that trying to balance on sinew and bone.


Now, I do not mean to short-shrift methods here, but theory is where I’ve placed most of my recent thoughts. That said, I have written extensively elsewhere on methods surrounding the study of writing transfer (see: Paper 3PAB #4.1; PAB #4.2).  To sum, methods from Wardle, Tinberg, and Yancey, et al include case studies of small populations (usually under ten students mentioned in the study), based on interviews and assessment of writing samples.  An additional number of students may be surveyed or assessed, but the deeper level of study falls on smaller populations.  Both Wardle and Tinberg engage in a naturalistic study, observing the environment in which they teach “as-is.”  Yancey, et al., however, creates a more controlled environment by narrowing the study to three courses, each with different content, to see if curriculum aids in positive transfer.

One takeaway I’ve had in examining the methods used to study transfer is that, in following Yancey, et al. and the narrowing of their study, I was thinking that what I haven’t seen so far in investigating transfer is study on specific skills that transfer within writing. Perhaps an approach that narrows the scope of study to specific items of concern, such as quality of research, process, or genre, might be more conducive. Performing a number of smaller focused studies may bear out different and missing results than what current scholarship now offers.

Works Cited

Akkerman, Sanne F., and Arthur Bakker. “Boundary Crossing and Boundary Objects”. Review of Educational Research 81.2 (2011): 132–169. JSTOR.  Web.  29 Oct. 2015.

Dobrin, Sidney I. Constructing Knowledges: The Politics of Theory-Building and Pedagogy in Composition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Print.

Juhasz, Alexandra, and Anne Balsamo. “An Idea Whose Time is Here: FemTechNet – A Distributed Online Collaborative Course (DOCC).” da: a Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 1 (2012). Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Perkins, D.N., and Gavriel Salomon. “Teaching For Transfer.” Educational Leadership 46.1 (1988): 22. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Star, Susan Leigh, and James R. Griesemer. “Institutional Ecology, ‘translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39”. Social Studies of Science 19.3 (1989): 387–420. JSTOR.  Web.  29 Oct. 2015


4 thoughts on “Paper #4: Theories and Methods: Crossing Boundaries, Finding Focus

  1. This is so interesting. I know so little about transfer theory though it is a “hot topic” and seemingly has been for quite some time. I believe that Kevin DePew teaches a class on transfer theory and I hope to be able to take that at some point. It’s one of the things that I would love to be able to have a better grasp on as part of my own pedagogy.

    One method that might be related and I have studied a bit about is Jack Mezrow’s theory of transformational learning – that without moving students out of their comfort zone, all new knowledge will fit in their existing frames of reference. By pushing them into even potentially frightening or awkward awakenings, they can find new ways of thinking and learning. I wonder if this might be tangentially related to transfer theory.

    My own method was cooperative learning, which helps students attain and hopefully retain knowledge, but this makes me thing – what does it do for transfer? Anything? Just because students learn something in my class through cooperative learning, does that make them any more prepared for learning tasks in other classes? Admittedly, I am now puzzled and concerned about my lack of an answer to this question.

  2. I like how you discussed the role of theory in meaning making, emphasizing how it is adaptable. I had never heard anyone discuss DLOs as boundary objects that help with transfer, but that makes sense. I’m trying to translate these ideas into my more praxis-oriented mind and think about how DLOs or BOTLs (love that acronym!) help do that work. Is there any research showing that certain kinds of DLOs or BOTLs are more helpful in promoting transfer than others?

  3. Thanks so much for stopping by, Amy, and for sharing your own insights. Transfer literature is abuzz, and many theories exist surrounding its effectiveness. Some even say transfer doesn’t happen at all. I was aware of Dr. Depew’s class on Writing Transfer, and certainly, it would be an interesting one to take. When I spoke with him the other day about the topic of transfer, just in passing, he quoted Dr. Phelps–and I paraphrase here, of course–saying the hardest thing about studying transfer is knowing its origination point.

    Your question about cooperative learning’s promotion of transfer is interesting. Just reflecting on the reading without doing additional research (although I did run a cursory search and found on transfer and cooperative learning but not about writing speficially), I wonder if cooperative learning would be closely tied to Perkins and Salomon’s (see their 2012 “Knowledge To Go” article) view on transfer that posits motivation as pivotal to the “pull through.” Working with others often does produce motivation for students, so I do wonder if cooperative learning might, indeed, correlate with transfer through that level of theory building.

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