Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

What Theorists Do

I haven’t posted much this week, as classes have begun, and I always require more preparation time when I haven’t seen my students yet, and am preparing lectures or tutorials for an unknown audience. The first teaching and tutorial sessions are always a mixed bag – some flat moments; hopefully a few successful interactions to build on over time. But I did enjoy some of the exchanges in a Planning History and Theory tutorial in which the goal is to assist the students in thinking more theoretically about their planning practice – which necessarily means first getting them to think more practically about their planning theory.

In this case, I started the tutorial with the question of whether the students (who have all completed at least a work experience stint to provide them with some practical background in the planning profession) could provide an example of planning theory in relation to their professional work. I would have been happy if someone had provided an example, but I was much happier when no one did – the best reaction, from a pedagogical point of view, is the one I received: students looking back and forth at one another, laughing out loud at the thought that planning theory could have some immediate resonance in their workplace.

We moved fairly quickly to a discussion of actual practice stories – what is right, what is wrong, what they would improve if they could, who (if anyone) had the power to make improvements, and how. Once in this realm of the familiar, the students were articulate, incisive, and insightful. They were also theoretically-savvy – although the trick is to get them to see this.

The goal of the session – which will continue to be the goal of the course – is to communicate that theory isn’t something that philosophers do behind ivory towers: it’s a general proclivity, for which “professional” theorists have developed a specialised vocabulary and set of shared concepts to assist them in elaborating and communicating theoretical ideas.

So, every time a student says, “This is how x works”, they have generated a theory.

Every time one says, “This is how x ought to work”, they have generated a critical theory.

(Self-reflexive critical theory is probably a bit more specialised – it’s a bit harder to find a spontaneously-generated practice story where someone says, “I believe that x ought to work this way, and my belief can be explained by the following historical or social potentials generated within my own social context.” But anything is possible… 😉 )

The goal will be to keep pushing that theory really is this basic, and to get the students to keep this in mind as they read academic theorists, so that they grasp how these theorists are actually engaged with their own practice stories (however technical and abstract their descriptions of them), and so that the students can then interrogate the usefulness or shortcomings of these theorists with reference to practice stories and counter-theories of their own.

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