Theory as Method

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One of the things I've been thinking about lately is the rather poor fit between what has come to be known as Theory (with the capital T, of course) and a course on research methods, like the one I'm teaching now. As I've told my students, we could easily spend a couple of courses on theory, not just a couple of weeks. And I'm struck by how difficult it is to reduce theoretical work to a formula that actually functions fairly well for the various methods I'm covering this semester--most weeks involve 1-2 "how-to" sorts of readings and 1-2 examples, and occasionally an "issues in/with" sort of piece. I don't think I'm being especially innovative when I say that I want them to see these methods from both ends, and in most cases, I think the readings I've chosen work well in that regard.

(Yes, I know I have yet to post the syllabus, as I promised to do. Patience.)

Complication #1 is of course the fact that so much of what we do is gathered under the heading of theory. It's a gigantic catch-all for scholarship that is not-the-other-stuff. And there's a case to be made that most of the other stuff is itself theoretical in certain ways. There have been attempts (and I appreciate many of them) to try and delimit our terms in various ways, but it doesn't ever feel like they've stuck. To my mind, for example, there are vast differences between theories of writing, theories of teaching writing, and theories of discourse. When I taught my network course a few years back, I really resisted calling it "network theory," because to my mind, the studies collected under that rubric hadn't really achieved anything that I would call a theory per se. So one problem is that we have no idea what we mean when we use the word, and we use it often.

Complication #2 is local, and that's that, in a freestanding writing program, we don't have the context of "literary theory" to assist us. Literary theory is no less problematic, I know, but at the same time, there's a facility with names, terms, and traditions that circulates in most/many/some English departments that does not here. It's not that we don't read, write, and teach theoretically informed work in our program, but there's no intro or survey in the department that might support that activity. I know that there are some who would count that a good thing, but I think it places an additional burden on our students to "catch up" on their own at times. Some of our students come fairly well prepared from their MA programs, but those who don't are largely left to their own devices.

The question for me becomes, how much of a methods course in our discipline should be given over to theory, and assuming that the answer is somewhere between zero and all, how do we go about doing it?

I know what I'm doing, although I have my doubts about what I can accomplish this way. I need to stop here, though, and work on some other stuff. More on this question in the next few days.


Probably rightly so, this makes me hesitant to ever use the T-word (or even the t-word) in my diss.

I'm gonna put it in there anyway, but only when I can't think of what I really mean, and then you can tell me what I really mean. :)

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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on September 23, 2007 6:02 PM.

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