academia: September 2007 Archives

Theory as Method, Part 2

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Always more to say...

Okay, so this week, I asked the class to read three "theoretical" articles, each of which dealt at some length with Foucault's work (MF being a fairly safe bet in terms of familiarity): Hayden White's review of The Order of Things from Tropics of Discourse (Amazon), Amanda Anderson's chapter on Foucault and Habermas from The Way We Argue Now (Amazon), and Gail Stygall's "Resisting Privilege: Basic Writing and Foucault's Author Function." (CCCOA) My thought was to provide a range of disciplinary backgrounds, textual strategies, and genres associated with Theory.

One thing that I didn't really realize until I got into them was that, according to North's taxonomy of research, each of the three represents a different "method." It's possible to argue that White is functioning in his review as a Critic, discussing OT's suitability for an unspoken canon. Stygall treats the author function as a (Formalist) model that she applies to the circumstances of basic writing. And Anderson operates in her chapter as a Philosopher. And that's really the trouble with relating Theory to Method--it cuts across all of the categories in North's book, and it would be silly to suggest that the other methods we look at in my class are somehow atheoretical.

And yet. There is something specific to what I tend to think of as "conceptual work" (as opposed to theoretical) that keeps it from simply being a matter of treating it as transmethodical. For me, there are a couple of specific values that matter to me in the work that I do and the manuscripts that I read that aspire to this kind of work. The first comes from D&G's What is Philosophy? and remains one of my all-time faves:

Philosophy does not consist in knowing and is not inspired by truth. Rather, it is categories like Interesting, Remarkable, or Important that determine success of failure. Now, this cannot be known before being constructed. We will not say of many books of philosophy that they are false, for that is to say nothing, but rather that they lack importance or interest, precisely because they do not create any concept or contribute an image of thought or beget a persona worth the effort (82).

Which is not to say that other methods aren't also held up to those kinds of standards, but I can find value in projects that to me are not particularly interesting or remarkable or (one of my fave words) compelling. If conceptual work doesn't strike me as compelling, then it's going to be tough to convince me of its value.

The other value that I tend to promote (and try to abide by) is precision. There's a passage in North that I admire quite a bit. It comes right after he's ripped apart the introduction to a Braddock Award winning essay (ouch). He writes:

Nonetheless, my original question stands: By what sort of logic are these studies being strung together? Witte seems to handle the results of these methodologically diverse investigations as if they were so many Lego blocks: standardized bits and pieces of 'knowledge' which, whatever their origins, sizes, or shapes, can be coupled together to form a paradigmatic frame within which his own exploratory Experimental study will fit" (346).

I'm sure that there are times where I don't meet my own standards, but there are an awful lot of times where I see conceptual work turned into interchangeable Lego blocks, and to me that's a failure to be precise about how writers are using language. It's tricky, because I don't always think that "original authors" have their own ideas lined up correctly, nor am I opposed to the occasional twist or nudge of an idea or concept. But still. There are times where I've seen thinkers yoked together because they use the same word, even when they mean radically different things by it. And there are times where I see complex systems of thought reduced to shorthand phrases, and then the shorthand phrases reinflated to stand for the whole of that person's thought. There are times.

And I don't mean to come off sounding like the Theory Thought Police here. But I think that we lose sight sometimes of the fact that what gets called Theory is writing, done by other folk, done in particular times and places, for particular purposes beyond the Legonomous nominalization of the academy, y'know? The distancing that comes with the capital T tends to warrant a great deal of abuse, and I'm sure that I myself have been guilty of some of it. I know that a certain amount of decontextualization is at once the benefit and the cost of the increased circulation that the capital T provides, but still.

I'm not sure that being precise and/or compelling necessarily qualifies conceptual work for the status of method, and it's not like other methods necessarily produce results that are sloppy or unremarkable, but there's something to this activity that sets it apart, even if only slightly, from some of the other methods that populate Writing Studies.

I've got more to say, but also other things to do today. So that's all for the moment. Stay tuned for part 3.

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.



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This page is a archive of entries in the academia category from September 2007.

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