Contextualizing Social Theory with Collaborative Timelines

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Nicholas Anderman, Geography

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2019

In Geography 112, a challenging, upper-division course, students read canonical social theory (Marx and Engels, Antonio Gramsci, Franz Fanon, etc.) alongside historical texts that show how these thinkers’ key concepts emerged out of particular events. A key learning outcome of the course is that theoretical concepts like “imperialism,” “neoliberalism,” and “capitalism” have concrete histories and geographies. As a GSI for the course, I observed students struggling to think concretely about abstract concepts. Instead, many students engaged in what I call “theory talk,” wherein conceptual language is used haphazardly, with little reference to context. Early in the semester, I made a point to call out theory talk when I heard it in section or encountered it in students’ weekly reading responses. But this corrective approach had little impact. Not only were my students unable or unwilling to think concretely about theory, but they didn’t seem to understand why they should bother to do so in the first place. I was faced with a pedagogical challenge: how to teach students to think about social theory not as a timeless, all-encompassing description of reality, but as a set of historically-constructed concepts rooted in actual events.

Addressing this problem required a two-part solution. First, I wanted students to understand that concepts are not free-floating abstractions. Rather, they emerge at particular moments and in response to particular events. Second, I wanted students to understand why it is important to account for this context when deploying social theory in discussion and in course writing. In section I drew a horizontal line across the middle of the chalkboard. I explained that this was a timeline for the term “imperialism,” and that we would spend the day charting that term’s development. I organized the class into small groups, and asked each group to answer the question, “where did the term imperialism come from?” In the subsequent class-wide discussion, each group was tasked with adding key dates, theorists, and historical events to the timeline. In this way, with my guidance, the students situated major thinkers of imperialism (Hobson, Lenin, Gramsci, Polanyi) alongside key historical moments in the term’s history (the Boer War, the October Revolution, World War II), thus enabling them to see clearly how the concept had developed in relation to concrete events.

I next asked students to consider how and why each theorist on our collaborative timeline conceptualized imperialism differently from one another. Encouraging students to pay attention to subtle variations among extant theories, I had each small group generate a simple definition of imperialism from the perspective of a particular theorist. Students were required to cite passages from relevant texts to support their definitions. The definitions were subsequently added to the timeline, prompting a lively discussion about the relationship between historical events and the development of theory. By the end of section, it had become clear to my students that (1) the concept “imperialism” is complex––it has meant different things to different people at different times; and (2) these differences must be accounted for when we deploy the term today.

After section, a number of students told me they found the collaborative timeline exercise to be very helpful. Consequently, I repeated it for other theoretical concepts throughout the remainder of the semester. It proved to be a very effective teaching tool. In a preliminary short paper and other early work, my students had used theoretical terms vaguely, with little reference to historical context. After we began constructing collaborative timelines regularly in section, student work improved significantly. On subsequent papers, in weekly reading responses, and on the final exam, I observed theoretical clarity and precise concept usage. Many students wrote final papers detailing the concrete histories of the very social theories for which we had constructed timelines in section, demonstrating deep understanding.