On Teaching Theory

This short exchange with Michael Burawoy offers some thought-provoking reflections on teaching social theory. He identifies the major traditions of teaching theory within American sociology, before outlining his own ethnographic approach:

  1. The Survey: surveying extracts from a comprehensive range of social theorists, each one treated as an instance of a broader category. Essentially disconnected and decontextualised. Teaching theory in an essentially general way.
  2. The Interpretative: placing theory and theorist in their life and times, seeing the specificity of their work as a response to equally specific circumstances. Teaching theory in a essentially particular way.
  3. The Synthesis: selecting extracts based on a distinctive theoretical vision, using those selections to articulate a theoretical approach which presents itself as grounded in the classics. Teaching theory in an closed but generative way.
  4. The Ethnographic: using shorter extracts from a selected range of limited texts in order to facilitate reconstructive critique. The students are gradually encouraged to situate themselves in relation to the theory, criticise it from the inside-out, learn to apply it to the world around them and relate it to other such theories.

There are interesting critiques that can be made of how this approach works in practice (see the response from Alan Sica in the attached article) but I love the exercise he uses:

Apart from the classroom discussion, there are also discussion sections, 20 students in size, led and organized by brilliant, devoted and above all creative teaching assistants who have collaborated with me in developing this approach to theory. Along with one-page reading memos due every week, each semester we assign a ‘‘theory in action’’ paper (no more than a thousand words) that requires students to choose current events or their own experiences to illustrate a theorist of their choice. In addition mid-term and final exams consist of three short 750-word take-home papers (once again less is more) that assume the form of an exegesis of a given theorist, a comparison of theorists, or an application of theory to real live situations as defined by an article from a newspaper or magazine.

The course culminates in a 20-minute oral examination with their teaching assistant in which each student has to reconstruct the entire course as a conversation among the theorists, again in answer to a specific question given ahead of time. They are encouraged to include images, pictures, drawings, in what essentially is a poster presentation. The posters they produce amply demonstrate to what extent the various theorists have become part of them, whether theorists have become different mindsets that they will take with them into their future lives

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