Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Teaching

“The Marx Week”

I’ve been asked to do a guest lecture on Marx for a large first-year undergraduate economics for social scientists course, which apparently spends its final three weeks on the general theme of “radical approaches to economics”. I’ve been invited, in other words, to cover “the Marx week”.

I suspect that anyone who reads this blog regularly (or who used to read it regularly, when I used to update it regularly – those regular updates will come again, I promise!) will have some sense of the dilemma this invitation will cause. The Marx of Marx scholarship is not the Marx of survey undergraduate courses – and “my” Marx is sort of an outlier even for Marx scholarship… I don’t want to give a lecture to a set of unwitting undergraduates that gives them an impression of Marx that would simply be unrecognisable in relation to the more conventional conceptions of Marx they are going to encounter elsewhere. At the same time, I don’t think I could give a good lecture about… someone else’s Marx…

So somehow I think I need to give a lecture that canvasses the Marxes students are most likely to run into elsewhere in their classes. And somehow I need to give a lecture that doesn’t endorse those Marxes.

I think…

And this isn’t for my own students, or for a course with which I have any other involvement. Which means I also don’t know how the classicals, or the Keynesians, or the Austrians, or anyone else has been explained. So whatever context I provide for Marx among the economists has to be relatively self-contained and intelligible as a narrative in its own 50-minute terms…

My initial thought was to focus the lecture around the organising narrative of the fascination for self-organising systems – perhaps talking a bit about the way in which self-organisation is taken as an intrinsic property of the market by certain classical political economists, and by later theorists like Hayek and Friedman (whose work is covered at least to some degree in this course, although I don’t know if this aspect of their work is emphasised at all). Marx comes along – a very, very, very simple version of “my” Marx – and says: markets are very old – and in most pre-capitalist societies, they do not exhibit the properties currently ascribed to them. Their “self-organising” property is therefore not really self organisation. It relies on something else – on a whole range of other sorts of practices, that must operate in tandem with markets, in order for even markets to demonstrate the characteristics we currently intuitively associate with them.

I can then say – broad brushstroke – no detail – that Marx then goes on to analyse those other sorts of practices that must operate in tandem with markets – everything from particular practices of self, to legal forms, to state institutions, to distinctive kinds of social conflict – and on and on. The idea was to come up with a much more complex vision of what it takes to make capitalism the “self-organising system” that it seems to be – to explain what complex arrays of practices are required for its reproduction – and to explain why this very complexity makes it very difficult for social actors to understand how everything hangs together to produce this aggregate result. One consequence of this complexity is that theorists can become bedazzled by the complexity – can loose track of what aspects of practical activity are generating what effects. When this happens, the effects appear to arise mysteriously – they appear to be intrinsic consequences of some smaller, less complex dimension of social practice. Like, for example, markets.

But markets aren’t the only thing mistaken for generating the whole aggregate phenomenon that is capitalism. Different sorts of theorists grab hold of different parts of the complex system – experiences of self, for example, or types of state formation, or kinds of social conflict – and make a similar move, taking the dimension of social experience that they favour, and arguing that this favoured slice of social existence is what intrinsically generates consequences that, in Marx’s account, actually require the tandem operation of the whole complex array of practices.

From here, I could – I think – move into how Marx has been received: into common perceptions of Marx, by adherents and critics, that over-emphasise what was intended to be only one dimension of a much more complex system. I think I can get from here to the most common images of Marx students are likely to encounter – while also giving them at least the nucleus of a counter-narrative or alternative image.

Or is this just a ridiculous thing to try to do in “the Marx week” of an undergraduate survey class?

Suggestions and alternatives much welcome…

The Things You Don’t Expect

One of the things that keeps teaching interesting – and, occasionally, makes it a little too interesting – is watching the often truly bizarre and unpredictable things that happen to the best-made plans, once they are let loose into the wilds of the classroom… Read more of this post

Email (mis)Management

I’ve just spent the better part of the last three days answering student emails. I’m responsible for some large courses this term and, due to the last-minute finalisation of my teaching schedule, my name is also attached in various ways to courses I’m not teaching, so I’m the proximate target for several hundred students trying to get their term organised and off to a smooth start. At a staff meeting yesterday, one of my staff members teased me that I’ve taught half the catalogue in my time here, so students reasonably think they can contact me about any course on offer… ;-P

Student emails have cycles. One of the things that always strikes me about mails at the beginning of the term, is how many of them operate under the clear assumption that the only thing I do, is whatever I would do in relation to that particular student – that I teach only one course (and so the course doesn’t need to be specified) or that I only teach (so it should be obvious the mail relates to me as a teacher, rather than to me in various other roles). I spend hours sending out requests for additional information: who are you? what class are you taking? are you already registered? what are the details of your registration? This step then doubles the interaction, since they’ll reply, and I then need to respond to that. Sometimes we have to go round the bend again, if their response isn’t particularly forthcoming…

I’ve spent so much time on this, this term, that I’m seriously considering putting an auto-responder in place next term, that advises anyone who emails that I will need specific information before I can help them. This would prove mildly embarrassing when it responds to colleagues who are emailing for other reasons. But at this time of year, colleagues are perhaps 2% of my incoming email traffic – and presumably they can judge that I’m not demanding extra information from them before I’ll reply… ;-P

I’ve occasionally considered writing into my course guide that certain kinds of emails should never be sent. These are the ones that come later in the term: the ones that ask “Did I miss anything important today?” If the first type of mail causes me to want to go into Taylorist, assembly-line, auto-response mode, this second kind brings out my anarchistic tendencies – I’m always tempted to reply, “Well, there was a pop quiz worth half the course mark…”

But all this aside: I think mainly I’m just sort of shell-shocked at the quantity of email traffic generated while I am teaching. My inbox fills up – exceeds its capacity and starts bouncing messages – if I don’t log in and trim it every few hours… I type extremely quickly, but it still takes immense amounts of working time to slog through the backlog. There must be some better way of managing this… What do other people do?

Things I Find Myself Writing on Assignments

“We don’t usually have strong data on the start of mankind.”

Abolishing the Quant/Qual (and Other) Distinctions

So today was the formal logic lecture in our newly designed social research course. In the spirit of the best pedagogical traditions we established in our quantitative methods course last year, my esteemed colleague L Magee set out to instil in our students the virtues of rigour and precision with a thorough discussion of the connections between logical operators, variable types, and research methods. For reasons that quite elude me, the normally intrepid LM seemed however to stumble when it came to explaining to our students the culminating point of one of his slides, which confidently informed:

Interval – constant intervals between values.

Consider temperature:

Arbitrary starting point

But degrees are constant and fixed units

Values are additive: 10 degrees + 10 degrees = 4 days

I’m not clear what the problem with this conclusion is meant to be? Why else were you recommending Lewis Carroll during this lecture, were it not to equip our students to parse conclusions such as this?

Administered Uncertainty

We have this university online environment we are compelled to use for classes. Read more of this post

Back in the Day

Some of the folks teaching into the social science methods course were having a conversation today about how teaching ages you. Instantly. In the minds of your students, that is – students to whom you immediately achieve the status of a historical contemporary of whatever it is you are discussing in class.

My favourite instance of this was from a course I taught a few years back, where at some point I got into a joking side discussion with an older student who tended to enjoy testing me out. In this particular class, they made some joke about the French Revolution, I responded in kind – and then one of the younger students indignantly protested that they felt left out: “You guys have to understand that it goes over our heads when you do this! I mean, we weren’t even born back then!”

Social Research

So it’s been a somewhat gruelling couple of weeks, getting everything together for the two methods courses I’m covering this term. The undergraduate course, since it’s new and we were designing it from scratch, took the lion’s share of the time – although it was nice to be able to work alongside the ultra-competent (and ubiquitously sardonic) L Magee in pulling everything together.

The course is large enough, and massive lecture halls scarce enough, that we have to deliver two different iterations of the lecture – so we had one go at the lecture Monday morning, and will get another try on Friday. Most of the first lecture, necessarily, dealt with housekeeping and course mechanics. I’m currently trying to gather my thoughts from the lecture on Monday – I always learn something about the tacit logic of my own stuff, when I present it – there were elements of the tacit logic underlying the structure of the lecture, elements of grasping why I wanted to organise my bits the way I did, that I sort of “got” only when listening to myself give the lecture… We’ll see if this improves the reiteration of the lecture to be delivered on Friday.

I thought I’d post a few notes here on the lecture and course concepts – with the caveat that I’m always a bit cringe-y when I expose pedagogical material publicly. There’s a strong exhortative dimension to teaching – things get simplified, not simply or straightforwardly to make them easier to learn, but with the goal of trying to rouse something, trying to pass along a certain contagion about why this stuff can actually be exciting (er… realising that what I’m about to write may not… er… have that effect on terribly many people – I don’t claim to be a rousing lecturer – quite the contrary (really strongly the contrary) – my skills lie much more in leading discussions – but there is still an element, in lecturing, of wanting to communicate affect, and not simply content, of wanting to share, somehow, that the very abstract sort of material that I generally teach, can be deeply meaningful in its strange way – and something about what I do, to try to communicate this, never seems to me to translate well when I write about what I did – instead, what comes through is the simplicity of the content, all the ways I would qualify it, all the ways I disagree with it… And yet… There’s a reason that stuff gets left out of the lecture in the first place… A reason that doesn’t prevent me from being fairly self-conscious about reproducing lecture concepts outside the shelter of the lecture hall…)

The course is titled “Social Research: Qualitative”, and the structure of classes here gives you twelve weeks to somehow meet whatever expectations such a title engenders. Last year, the staff member who took this course decided that twelve weeks simply wasn’t enough to give a meaningful introduction to something as broad as “social research” and so decided to drill closely down into one research method (discourse analysis), to try to give the students some in-depth experience with mastering a particular method, from which they could hopefully extrapolate when orienting themselves to other methods in the future. In earlier years, the course has been taught with a heavy NVivo focus, with all the students doing the same research project – again with the thought that students could extrapolate their experience with that project, into other sorts of research they might conduct in the future.

We’re equally dismayed, I suspect, by the jarring disjoint between the expansive course title, and what can reasonably be covered in twelve weeks in an introductory methods class for second-year undergraduates. Something – lots and lots of somethings – have to “go”, to make the course possible.

We’ve channelled our dismay, however, in a slightly different direction: while it is certainly true that any individual student is going to do some specific form of research project, and neglect others, we’ve decided not to pre-dictate either the method or the project itself. There will no doubt be plenty of project-deflection over the term, as students choose topics that are too vast – or illegal, dangerous, or inappropriate in other ways… ;-P But in principle we’ve left it to the students what they want to study, substantively, and how they intend to study it. Although we will do a bit with “method” in the “to do” list sense in this course, we’ve decided instead to focus on the most basic elements of the research design process – becoming curious about something, asking a question, looking around to see whether anyone else has ever asked something similar, trying to figure out what you need to do, to answer the question you’ve asked, and then being accountable for your question, what you’ve done to answer it, and the answer you’ve put forward, in a public sphere.

This approach means that we can’t dictate method, because we’re telling the students in a very strong way that their method has to derive in some quasi-logical way from their question. And we can’t dictate question because… well… we’re telling students that research is about straddling that strange space between personal curiosity and public accountability – and it’s a bit out of place to tell other people what they ought to be curious about… ;-P

So we bookended this first lecture with two videos, designed to mark out two possible extremes in conceptions of social research. After some brief transitional comments, we opened with the first six minutes of this video of the Milgram experiments:

What the students saw, was a man in a white lab coat take an authoritative role in a highly artificial experimental setting, where the stated purpose of the exercise was to test a hypothesis in carefully controlled circumstances. I did warn the students there was more to this experiment that met the eye (we’ll return to this video again later in the course) – but the parting image they were left with was of what looked to be a research subject with a heart condition, strapped to a chair, awaiting progressively nastier electric shocks if he failed in a memorisation task… (They laughed… Hmmm… I responded by telling them we would trial this method in their tutorials…)

So this is one extreme – not, in this case, for the distressing nature of the experiment, but for the highly artificial, controlled, hypothesis-testing orientation of the study. The video with which we ended the session was this one, on Sudhir Venkatesh’s anthropological work on a Chicago gang (the embedded video below is only an excerpt – the full program is here):

Venkatesh’s piece was chosen for a sort of maximal contrast to the fragment of the Milgram video that we showed: a research scenario in which the field strikes back, takes its researcher captive in the most literal possible sense, rejects the researcher’s “expert” knowledge, and tells the researcher how to conduct the (radically uncontrolled) study.

We will do other things with these and other video materials through the course but, for purposes of this introductory lecture, the point was simply to mark out two extreme points, suggest that there is a continuum of possibilities between them – and that all of this, the whole continuum, could be defended as some form of “social research”. A continuum of social research along which the students would have some opportunity to begin situating themselves in the course of the term.

In terms of other content, this blurb from the course guide gives the gist of how we are approaching the course:

Many people, when they think about research, think of something done in a special sort of place, like a laboratory, a library, or a “field site”, by a special sort of person, like an academic expert who has spent years acquiring a vast specialist knowledge of what they are studying, and on a special sort of topic, which is important enough to count as a “research question”. Thought of this way, research can seem a bit intimidating and removed from our other concerns: we can struggle to think of ourselves as being the kind of people who might do research – surely we aren’t qualified or we don’t “know enough”? We can struggle to imagine what research might look like, if carried out in the sorts of settings where we spend our personal and professional time – surely research doesn’t tackle the sorts of experiences we have in our everyday lives? We can doubt whether our questions and concerns are “important” enough to count as research questions – surely research investigates something more removed from our everyday experiences or personal passions?

While it is very common to think of research as this kind of specialised, rarefied expert activity, this image of research is highly misleading. Research, at its most basic, involves cultivating the very opposite of expertise: it entails a process of opening ourselves to what we don’t know – of taking seriously our own curiosity and desire to learn more – of asking questions. Because research crystallises around a question, the research process is driven precisely by our lack of expertise – by what we need to learn. In the research process, we all position ourselves as explorers and investigators, rather than as people who already possess some kind of mastery over our subject matter. Because research operates in this space of exploration and uncertainty – because it takes the form of quest to learn something new – it is impossible to have all the skills and knowledge you will need for the research process, before you undertake the research itself.

While some of us may have a bit more practical experience with research than others, all of us have some experience with the core skills required for the research process: we have all been curious, asked questions, set about finding answers, and debated with other people about each step in this process. On one level, then, we are all “researchers” in at least an informal sense. At the same time, no specific research project – formal or informal – begins with a special creature called a “researcher” who already possesses all the skills and knowledge required to carry out a research project, before they start asking questions and working out how to answer them. Researchers are created, not born. And what creates them is nothing more than the process of actually doing research. You become a researcher: you do this by carrying out research. All the skills that research requires, and all the things you need to know to do research successfully, are learned through the research process itself.

This doesn’t mean that formal study is not essential to the research process: it is. It means that this formal study more closely resembles the process of apprenticing in a craft, than it does the process of committing to memory some fixed body of information. Research is a practical activity – an art, albeit one undertaken with a scientific spirit. Every question, every method, every researcher brings something subtly different to the research process – meaning that research is never learned ​abstractly, as a skill that could be pursued separately from its various practical applications. Instead, your research question is what drives your formal study, providing a meaningful context within which you can work out what sorts of formal knowledge and skills you need to have, why you need to have them, and how you can learn them most efficiently. Your research question therefore grounds other sorts of study you undertake – which is why we will start this course, not with an abstract set of knowledge or skills we think you need to memorise, but with activities that will help you work out a research question that can organise the rest of your work in this course.

From this starting point, we will then guide you as you undertake a quick apprenticeship in the major stages of the research process. There are of course many different types of research. The research carried out by a journalist, an activist, a market researcher, a government, or an academic researcher will differ in significant ways, for example, due to the different end goals and audiences for the research. Nevertheless, certain elements are common to any sort of research process. Those common elements will provide the focus of our work in this course.

A Draft Life

I’m still assembling material for the undergraduate social science research methods course L Magee and I will be coordinating this term. I stumbled across this lovely story in one of the works I was reading:

As we were preparing this second edition, Booth got a call from a former student who, as had all of his students, been directed again and again by Booth to revise his work. Now a professional in his mid-forties, he called to tell Booth about a dream he had had the night before:

You were standing before Saint Peter at the Pearly Gate, hoping for admission. He looked at you, hesitant and dubious, then finally said, ‘Sorry, Booth, we need another draft.’

From: Booth, Colomb & Williams (2003) The Craft of Research, second edition, Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press, p. xiv

I find myself wondering what it might be like, having what I am now living as, you know, just a draft life… Something I might revise and resubmit after a bit more background in the literature, in-depth research – maybe some experimentation here and there…


So it’s looking as though L Magee and I (with the assistance of others who just might be lurking, and who are welcome to out themselves if they so choose ;-P) will be responsible for a second-year undergraduate social science methods course, with an emphasis on qualitative research. This is the sister course to the quantitative methods sequence we took on a couple of years ago. This time around, we have considerably more time to design and prepare for the course (a colleague laughed when I said this, but in relative terms, this is true… I tend to get… rather little notice of what I will be teaching…). My hope is that this wealth of preparatory time might help us avoid the occasional difficulties we experienced last time around, particularly in coming up with concrete examples that are… pedadgogically appropriate

Which brings me to a bleg. If anyone has favourite websites, readings, syllabi and other materials they would like to share, for an introductory social science qualitative methods course: love to see them. More specifically, I am particularly interested in developing very bounded, small-scale projects or activities that will help students obtain a hands-on feel for particular methodologies: the tentative course design concept is that, over the term, students will design and carry out one primary research project – but that, before they do this, they will first do a series of micro projects/activities that will give them at least a gestural sense of a range of research methods.

If anyone has ideas that have worked well for them in the past, materials, readings – would be much appreciated if you could share…