Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Do I Have a Theory For You!

A colleague has just asked me to give a lecture to new social science research students, on the grounds that I’m “an expert in theory”, and so should be able to instruct students in the finer points of “how to choose a theory for their research”.

Requests like this, I have to admit, cause all of my inner anarchism to bubble to the surface. I want to deliver the entire lecture in front of a banner that reads: N. Pepperell – EXPERT – in theory. Or insist that students take the theoretical equivalent of one of those online tests of political disposition and bring the results with them to the lecture. Or tell students to ignore theory – don’t worry about it – just forget about it completely.

Oh wait – that last one I will actually do. Because the key isn’t the theory: it’s the question.

The research strategies course as it’s currently offered at my university has a very early section titled something like “positioning yourself on a map of social thought”. The students are terrified by it – and rightly so, because it sounds as though they have to draw this massive timeline: Plato – Descartes – Hegel – !!me!!… Some of the earliest readings tell students that they must identify their epistemological and ontological assumptions before they can do anything else – a demand that predictably causes most students to curl up into tight, self-loathing balls in the corner, regreting that they ever made the decision to undertake a research degree.

Some students, of course, will come in well-versed in philosophy or intellectual history. They’ll be quite happy to talk about their intellectual progenitors and their epistemological and ontological assumptions. And they still won’t, as a rule, be any closer to understanding how this relates to social science research than their intimidated and demoralised colleagues whom I’m still trying to coax out of their foetal positions.

So I tend to spend the first few weeks of the course teaching against the assigned materials (I don’t, incidentally, disagree with the fact that these materials have been assigned – they’re actually a productive jumping off point for the discussions I like to have at this stage). The overarching goal – but this will generally take the entire course (and, for some students, substantially beyond it) – is to get students to be centred in their questions. From unpacking the assumptions buried in the questions themselves, students can begin to tease out what their ontological and epistemological assumptions are – this takes some guidance, mainly in the form of getting students to see that other kinds of questions are possible. But this can be approached in the first instance immanently to their projects – which can then make it easier for students to understand whether and how more formal theoretical or philosophical training fits into their research process.

By contrast, starting with “theory” abstracted from a substantive question generally manages to convey the impression that choices among theoretical approaches are somehow aesthetic – essentially random and based on researcher preference, rather than having some determinate relationship to the phenomenon needing to be grasped. It also focusses attention away from what students struggle with the most, which is learning how to ask a good question, and then understanding the implications of the questions they have asked…

The strategy I’m advocating here, of course, is not something I would advocate for all students, in all contexts. It is a response to the need to communicate what are actually some fairly sophisticated theoretical skills to social science students who, due to the vagaries of the Australian higher education system, are unlikely to have, or subsequently receive, extensive formal instruction in theory or philosophy. With more time to explore theoretical traditions in detail, or when working with students where a certain theoretical background can be assumed, these issues can be explored at a more abstract level.

Still, there’s something about communicating the stakes of a theory – grasping that seemingly very abstract texts actually generally do understand themselves to be doing something very practical, very important in real-world terms – that remains important even when you have more luxury to explore formal theoretical approaches in greater detail. Theorists are driven by questions of their own – their theoretical choices motivated by the need to grasp the phenomena they are trying to understand, just as the theoretical choices of novice researchers will also need to be. This is something that I find students often struggle to grasp, even when they enjoy “theory” – that theory generally points to something, is wrestling with something, is not simply some kind of abstract symbolic manipulation undertaken for its own sake, or something that sits in a random, extrinsic relation to its object. This is the conceptual terrain I’ll have in mind in preparing the lecture.

I may still ask for that banner, as well…

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4 responses to “Do I Have a Theory For You!

  1. Carl May 3, 2008 at 8:08 am

    When I was at Cal State I had a student come from another campus and take the grad theory seminar from me because I taught it this way. More recently at MU I got kicked out of teaching the theory class because I taught it this way and our graduates consequently didn’t have a canned spiel on Comte when they got to their M.A. programs at the local credential mill. Well that and every time the chair complains to me about something, which is pretty much always, I do a debunking analysis of the situation using all that theory she’s supposed to know better than me. My bad. :-)

  2. N Pepperell May 4, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    I get strange reactions when people observe my teaching, if I’m teaching in the way I prefer to teach – which is, basically, relying on the students to have done a certain amount of reading, and just acting as a scribe for the first part of the discussion – letting them tell each other what sense they made of the text, while I make notes… Then, when things are dying down, if I really need to, I’ll ask some follow-up questions – it’s not usually needed. When people look on, I gather that the fear is that the students might not “get to everything” – that, working “just” from what they say, some important topic will be missed. But, first, this really rarely happens – and, second: how much chance does one have, in a short session, of teaching something that is so completely alien to students’ experience that it doesn’t even come up when an entire class is brainstorming on a reading? ;-)

    I take some flak for going so far back into history – for assigning readings that aren’t from this century (or the previous one)… ;-) Personally, I think that contemporary debates are unintelligible without this sort of historical context, but there is at least one class I am no longer teaching, because I insisted on teaching it that way… ;-)

  3. Carl May 5, 2008 at 2:45 am

    Wonderful! I sometimes take the notes on the board, especially when we’re brainstorming their papers. It’s amazing how they react to seeing their ideas in an organized form.

    Freire would say that the anxiety about ‘coverage’ reflects what he calls the ‘banking’ model of education, where the point is to jam as much information into students’ heads as possible. I was fully exposed to this during two years of public school in Italy and I think about it sometimes when I’m talking with mid-grade European intellectuals. They’ve got brains absolutely overflowing with data, but they couldn’t rub two thoughts together and get a spark to save their lives.

    In contrast, mid-grade U.S. intellectuals, steeped in ‘critical thinking’, tend to be great at grand wifty generalizations, but when it comes time to get down to cases they’re helpless. Of course, at the ‘top’ in both arenas are the people who have both depth of knowledge and conceptual skills. Assuming that’s what we’re shooting for, apparently you can get to it both ways. Perhaps this suggests a habitus antecedent to education?

  4. N Pepperell May 5, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    Yes – the reaction I get sometimes has to do with fear that I won’t “cover” everything – and therefore that there is a stock of material to “cover”. I think it’s also sometimes a fear that students just won’t step forward and *say* anything – people asking themselves what they would do, if they were confronted by silence. The issue here is that this never really plays out the way people fear it will – I always have fallbacks, things I can do to generate discussion, things I can do in place of discussion. And the discussion is never as unstructured (from my point of view) as it probably seems to someone looking on. So it probably looks a bit more hazardous, when someone is sitting there thinking that they’re seeing all I have – and then wondering what happens if that falls through ;-)

    But, yes, from the students’ point of view, I gather that the class sessions (when I’m whiteboarding) cause a sort of shock when everything “comes together” at the end – even though I’m organising materials as I write them (clumping related comments together, etc.), the logic underlying that order isn’t evident until I make that explicit toward the end of the session, once all the ideas are on the table and the students have gone as far as they can themselves. Not all classes suit this sort of teaching style, but I enjoy it when one does – I tend to leave with more energy than I brought in, which is my informal measure of whether the class “worked”…

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