Thursday, July 14, 2005


In June, I did an independent study to help some of my department's graduate students meet the theory requirement in our Master's Program. Often, our students meet their theory requirement in a seminar that is taught in a different department, but in this case, because of a serious misunderstanding with the professor of the seminar, the students dropped out. To help them graduate on time, I stepped in to help them meet the requirement.

By the time they showed up to my office in June, these students were pretty discouraged by the theory requirement. They did not understand theory and they strongly disliked their former professor of theory. They hungered for a more telegraphed approach in which the professor would help them understand what was in the text, as opposed to implementing the amorphous format of having graduate students dominate the discussion with what they considered to be half-baked, biased or partial readings of the material. They wanted to understand theory and did not understand why this and other professors in the department seemed so reluctant to just lay it out. Some of this frustration might be attributed to the fact that these students are Master's students who do not plan on going on to a Ph.D. degree. I suppose that one could say that their investment, as working people seeking an M.A., is not the same as the investment I felt when I was a student in a Ph.D. program, and attribute their complaints to a lack of intellectual drive.

But wait a minute... I too had had this experience in my Cultural Studies Ph.D. program. And when I taught theory in my literature seminars at Famous U, with ambitious Ph.D. students with alot more academic experience, they complained of the same thing! For this reason, my detailed discussion of key passages and the outlines I prepared were warmly received. But I went a step further--I challenged theory while I taught it. When teaching queer studies, I included conservative critiques of identity politics. When discussing postmodernisms, I set marxist readings against poststructuralist ones, essentialist arguments against decentered ones. I used comics and t.v. shows and Blade Runner (of course) to make theory fun. Most importantly, I tried to communicate to my students that theory was not a generic, agreed upon secret club of forbidding codes, but a vital debate with real and distinct positions. I agree with Scott Kaufman and Jonathan Mayhew, among others, who are prodding theory in a similar way in their on-line writings.

I won't mislead you: I'm not very theoretical. My work has been praised by colleagues in the field (reader's reports) for clarity and a resistance to jargon. My work is very historical and I enjoy "painting with words" more than self-consciously engaging theory in my work. I tire of drawn out theoretical debates because I need things to be still so that I can grasp them or put them into focus. And I can't be passionate about theory. I don't believe in it. For me, theory at best guides scholarship to a different object, like scaffolding falling away from a structure when it begins to take shape and acquire stability. For these reasons, and most especially my difficulties in absorbing theory in graduate school, I have been able to "get into" theory when I've had to teach it. My students have forced me to discover and understand theory, so that I could help them be less afraid of it. Unburdened by the insecurities and weird dynamics of graduate school, and energized by the creative freedom my position afforded me, I was able to teach theory to myself and enjoy some of the results in the classroom. It also helped that I could appreciate, and mostly anticipate the difficulties students had with theory. A little empathy went a long way.

My days teaching traditional graduate students are over for the foreseable future, and so it is with a twinge of sadness that I see some of the opportunities for pedagogical and intellectual growth that I had at Famous U, like teaching theory, come to an end. Now, my M.A. students offer me a very different kind of professional and personal reward than the pleasure and affirmation of seeing a mentee finish a Ph.D. and go on to be a success as a university professor. (I never had that experience and may never have it.) So this independent study on theory brought some of the memories of that other life back, and reminded me of how necessary it is for professors to really guide their students through the labyrinth.

The problem with theory, in my opinion, is not theory itself, but the refusal to face it square on. The inert, unfocussed discussions of a few graduate students among themselves in a theory seminar, with minimal intervention by the professor, propagates apathy, resistance or tremendous insecurities in what may be the majority of students. Such pedagogy fosters the "impostor syndrome." And the continued dissemination of theory as a heavy, compact object (like those awful, expensive theory anthologies that are used in seminars) rather than as a cacophony of voices best understood in individual, separate and often contradictory strands, makes graduate programs in literature more difficult and painful than they have to be.

That's what I think, but I'm not much of a theory-head.


At 6:04 AM, Blogger What Now? said...

Such an interesting post! I hated the theory courses I took and got almost nothing out of them, unfortunately, and I think this lack of basic theory competence is the basis for most of my academic fraud feelings now. (Of course, if it weren't theory, I'd probably feel fraudulent about something else.) Sounds like I would have learned a lot in your summer course; wish I could have taken it! I like your approach of taking more of a leadershp role in the class and of challenging theories as you teach them, which I think must help to demystify a body of work that is often (to my mind) treated as an "insider" world that keeps other people out.

I like the cat photo as well.

At 9:08 PM, Blogger Frank said...

I hope that when I go back to grad school, as I plan to in a few years, I get a professor like you to teach me theory. All this blogging lately about theory has me in a tizzy.

Your cat has a nice tushie, too. *LOL*

At 12:51 PM, Blogger J. Otto Pohl said...

I also don't have much use for theory in history. I tend to adhere to a fairly conservative methodology. Trying to fit facts to existing theories in a deductive manner seems ahistorical. I much prefer narratives composed of empirical inductions. That is make the interpretation match the facts.

At 1:03 PM, Blogger Scott Eric Kaufman said...

The problem with theory, in my opinion, is not theory itself, but the refusal to face it square on. The inert, unfocussed discussions of a few graduate students among themselves in a theory seminar, with minimal intervention by the professor, propagates apathy, resistance or tremendous insecurities in what may be the majority of students.

It also produces logorrhea, at least in the few students who speak with any regularity. There's something to be said about learning how any system of thought works by discussing it--esp. when the conversants are, well, conversant (or at least competent) enough to hold up their end of the conversation. But you're right: the lack of professorial intervention is a direct result of the idea that these ideas belong to a "toolbox" and need not be seriously scrutinized for logic, rigor, compatibility, etc. (At this point, I'm just going to start repeating my argument in the afore-linked post, so I'll stop.)

At 9:51 PM, Blogger genevieve said...

This is a clear indictment of everything theory was supposed to do away with, no? And how refreshing to hear someone admit it is difficult, and that difficulty for its own sake is a waste of everyone's time.

Very sound to examine the different strands in the quivering mass, too, as your students emerge knowing something 'about', and far less anxious (which in itself can complicate difficult material even further.)

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