Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A New Way of Seeing

Written by: on January 23, 2023

The term threshold concepts inherently speaks of movement and flow from one place to another. Learners have a “transformative” experience where they understand previously “troublesome” knowledge, often by “integrating” concepts from multiple disciplines. The result of this experience is an “irreversible” clarity that is nonetheless “bounded”[i]. If that definition was a bit opaque at first, thinking in terms of clarity helped me understand.

For years my husband had been suggesting that I needed glasses. Driving on the highway, he could see road signs long before I could. (“Wait, you can see that all the way down there?” “What? You can’t?!”) I finally gave in, and I will never forget that experience of putting on my new glasses for the first time. Without them, I could see. But with them, I could SEE! Everything was crisp, clear, and beautiful (ok, maybe not beautiful, I was looking out the shop window at the dingy city street). That experience brought a whole new meaning to the word clarity. Indeed, Meyer and Land say comprehending threshold concepts is “gaining access to a new way of seeing.”[ii]

There is, however, at least one area where the term “threshold” is a bit misleading. It would be a mistake to assume that this “crossing of the threshold” happens in an instant like walking from one room to the next or like putting on a new pair of glasses for that matter. Learners necessarily pass through a liminal state, and from experience I can attest to that state lasting a LONG time, depending on the subject matter.

My most significant experiences wrestling with threshold concepts have been in adapting to a new culture on the mission field. New missionaries are overloaded with troublesome knowledge.

“Say ‘bonjour’ when you enter a shop.”

“Don’t rush through your meals.”

“Independence is a vice, not a virtue.”

These might seem basic. Why would such simple advice be troublesome? To my own embarrassment, I could share personal stories of making faux pas and causing offense because I did not fully understand these threshold concepts.

At the same time, these concepts and many more were absolutely essential to my cultural adaptation. Like threshold concepts in any field, missionaries cannot be truly effective until they internalize certain keys ideas and practices.

Brené Brown quotes Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy’s succinct definition of culture as “the way we do things around here.”[iii] It took me nearly ten years to move through that liminal state to finally be (reasonably) competent in doing life in a French way; even now I still have blind spots.

While Meyer and Land offer a variety of suggestions to move learners through their liminal states, their focus on the affective state of the learner was particularly striking to me.[iv] Discomfort and ambiguity are inevitable in real learning. This is true in adapting to a new culture, in completing a doctoral program and of course we have all experienced this in our spiritual growth. The Holy Spirit uses “trials of every kind” to develop our faith (James 1:2).

Discomfort is not the enemy; it is a sign that we are learning. Metacognitive strategies can help move us through liminality. In other words, it helps to be aware of and mindful in the struggle. We can aim to be “a learner who believes they are capable of understanding new ideas (self-efficacy), who makes positive attributions in relation to their potential for success (optimism), who can monitor and re-align goals and the pathways to attaining these goals (hope) and who does not give up in spite of the difficulties they encounter with the new knowledge (resilience) may be able to cope with liminality more effectively.”[v]

If we’re wondering about the threshold concepts are that we will face as doctoral students, Meyer and Land share six areas, taken from the work of Kiley and Wisker (2009).

  1. Argument
  2. Theorising
  3. Framework
  4. Knowledge creation
  5. Analysis and interpretation
  6. Research paradigm” (p. 439).”[vi]

I admit feeling intimidated by that list. The doctoral dissertation process is  “a liminal journey, a passage characterized by ambiguity, uncertainty and crisis in which the candidate must overcome internal barriers for success.”[vii] Dare I hope that the tolerance of ambiguity that developed during years of cultural adaptation might serve me well in the doctoral process? Only time will tell.


[i] Meyer, J., & Land, R. “Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practicing within the disciplines.” London: Routledge, 2006. 7.

[ii] Ibid. 74.

[iii] Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. First trade paperback printing. New York, New York: Avery, 2015. 174.

[iv] Meyer, J., & Land, R. Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practicing within the disciplines. London: Routledge, 2006. 64.

[v] Flanagan, Michael T., Jan H.F. Meyer, & Ray Land eds. Threshold concepts in practice. Rotterdam: SensePublishers, 2016. 73.

[vi] Ibid. 156.

[vii] Ibid. 155.

About the Author


Kim Sanford

8 responses to “A New Way of Seeing”

  1. Jennifer Vernam says:

    I am so glad you called out “the way we do things around here” as an indicator of when you have crossed the “threshold”. I wrote about culture or worldview in my post as well. You and I have spoken before about how where you feel at home has changed since you have moved to France… “home” is now nuanced.

    Maybe that nuance is also an indicator that you have crossed into a different level of understanding? I had to fight the urge to say more advanced understanding, here as it seems like this new viewpoint is different rather than better?

  2. mm Tim Clark says:

    I’m super interested in whether your cultural adaptation as a missionary serves you to more easily cross threshold barriers in the doctoral program. Almost as if that experience could be a sort of “master key” to some of the other barriers you may need to cross…or at least that you are more comfortable with the liminal space.

    I’m curious if the study that Meyer and Land mention that researches why some students navigate liminality well while others struggle to (or are unable to) do so, would show that environmental factors (like upbringing) and experience (like becoming a missionary) plays into the equation.

  3. Scott Dickie says:

    “Discomfort is not the enemy; it is a sign that we are learning.” Great line–particularly for our comfort-driven North American culture. I agree with you (and the threshold concept in general) that learning–at least deep learning–is almost always at minimum slightly uncomfortable.

    From a psychological perspective, the “Cognitive Dissonance Theory” of change would suggest that discomfort is actually the starting place for change–that we as people will only be motivated to grow/learn/advance when we are sufficiently motivated into action by the growing discomfort of our continued inaction.

    So it seems like some degree of discomfort is along for the ride from beginning, through the middle…until we reach the end.

    Until we need to adapt and change and do it all again!

  4. mm Russell Chun says:

    I have to confess that this book was “torture” for me to connect with. I am so glad I am surrounded by a cloud of saints who dredged up elements of the articles in a way that helped get a glimmer of insight.

    If discomfort is not the enemy then I have ARRIVED. Especially in trying to get Zotero to work with word.

  5. Travis Vaughn says:

    Kim, what ways of doing life and family in France have become more tacit to you and your family as you move through the portal of cultural adaption there? Is there a single “something” that comes to mind? With the language of threshold concepts now a part of our studies, I wonder what other analogies you would use among your friends and church family if you were to explain ten years of being “over there,” only to return to the states for the rest of your lives. I have more questions…like, what questions do you find yourself asking today, now that you’ve experienced life in France, in a place where the spires of Christendom perhaps don’t cast as long of a shadow as they perhaps do in, say…Illinois? My response here is probably just going to keep being questions, so I’ll stop here. Great post, reflecting on your present and past-decade experience.

  6. mm Kim Sanford says:

    Travis, I can answer your first question easily. The French relationship to food has become second nature to us. We’re reminded of the stark differences whenever we visit the States and families are snacking ALL THE TIME. In France, I’ve heard kids as young as 12 months told, “Yes, you’re hungry. That’s ok, snack time is in half an hour.”
    As for your other questions, I’ll have to think about them a bit more.

  7. Jenny Dooley says:

    Kim, Your opening statement really caught my attention, “The term threshold concepts inherently speaks of movement and flow from one place to another.” I immediately had the image of a beautiful dancer gliding gracefully across a stage. Back to reality! I can’t dance! But maybe I can move through this long process a little more gracefully. Living in a culture different from your own is taking on the challenge of living daily in a threshold space with multiple new concepts to master. How are you being gracious with yourself as you navigate that 24/7 experience?

  8. Kally Elliott says:

    It is so true that to cross a threshold concept takes time! I am now looking at the entirety of my life and the many many years it has taken to cross so many thresholds. I am not the same person I was at 35 (thank God).

    In his blog post from Monday, October 12th, 2015, on the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr quotes Jung, saying “One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening become a lie.” He goes on to talk about how in the first half of life we are building our sense of identity and security, what he calls the “false self.” He continues saying that inevitably we discover, often through failure or loss, that that self is not really who we truly are, it is only the “acceptable self.” Our second half of life is when we find out who we really are, at a much deeper level.

    Some threshold concepts take a life-time to discover!

Leave a Reply