The Spatial Metaphors of Transfer

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Association of Teachers of Advanced Composition


While transfer remains the dominant yet controversial metaphor for describing how learning from one context affects learning in another, writing scholars propose numerous alternatives better aligned with current models of learning in consequential transitions, boundary crossing, and threshold concepts; however, each shares a pervasive epistemic constraint: a systematic metaphor that frames transfer as transportation. Drawing on Lakoff and Johnsen, I identify four dimensions of spatiality as transfer’s experiential bases: physical, technological, social, and temporal. I argue that transfer entails metrics of distance biased towards unilateral transitions and traditional educational trajectories, and it objectifies learning, perpetuating outmoded theories of language, mind, and transfer. I support calls to replace transfer with a more generative metaphor, turning needed attention to pragmatic issues of uptake and circulation. However, contending that terminological change is not enough to mitigate its entailments, I propose conventionalizing mindfulness of the metaphor via existing processes and practices of disciplinary enculturation.