Social Theory as Puzzle: Piecing Together Conceptual Definitions

Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Samuel Kieke, Sociology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2020

Challenge: Over the past three semesters that I have taught social theory, I have noticed that most students come into the course with the expectation that they will not be able to understand the texts. Most recall horror stories from their peers in previous cohorts about the incomprehensibility of Marx, Foucault, Gramsci, or Parsons. Of course, one of the first things I try to do is convince them that this is just not true (albeit with Parsons they may have a point). They can in fact, with the right critical reading strategies, learn to read even the most challenging of social theory. While I try to tailor my reading advice to different learning styles, there is one method that has proven to be consistently crucial: teaching students how to engage with texts as if they were puzzles. Students generally have no problem quickly identifying “the double movement” as a key concept in Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, but immobilizing panic slowly creeps in as they read page after page without encountering a textbook-style definition. Whether it be Durkheim’s “organic solidarity” or Wright’s concept of “real utopia,” teaching students how to piece together clear and complete conceptual definitions out of disparate parts of a text is how I kick off all my social theory sections.

Teaching Strategy: On the first day of discussing a theory text, I ask them to tell me what the main theoretical concepts are from the text and I write them on the board. I then ask them to define one of them for me. After 30 seconds of obligatory awkward silence, one or two people may venture a guess, but they are generally very vague or repeat a particular phrase that they picked up on somewhere in the text but can’t really explain. I tell them that this is completely normal and what I expected. I say that the theorist never actually says “By ‘X’ I mean…”, but rather it is up to us to mine the text for pieces of the conceptual puzzle and build our own definition. I have found putting this to them plainly at the start of the semester can relieve much of their anxiety about engaging with the text since they now know that it is not that they are missing some crucial definition, but will just have to think differently about how they read.

I then try to model how to engage with the text. I first ask them to point to any specific part where they think the theorist discusses a key characteristic of the concept being discussed, an example of it, or where they discuss its relationship to other key concepts. I have each student read their passage aloud and we discuss together what that particular part tells us about “X” and I write it on the board. Over the course of the section, we construct an intricate map of the conceptual puzzle together, including key quotes detailing characteristics of a given concept in chart form and arrows or other symbols connecting it to other key concepts, indicating some relationship between them. If the piece involves some notion of historical change, I’ll integrate a timeline alongside the other components. At the end of class, I explain that this is how I encourage them to approach the text for the rest of the semester; to think of each as a puzzle that we have to decode by constructing various sorts of visual representations. I also say that there is not one way to construct a conceptual representation and that they should be creative and find out what works best for them.

Evaluation: Over the course of the next several sections, the prolonged silences between questions and answers cease. Students come to section with a clear idea of the initial conceptual questions we will be discussing for each reading and feel prepared to more effectively participate. This also means that we can much more easily move on to more theoretically rich discussions of inherent assumptions, critiques, and connections to past theorists we have read rather than having to devote all of our time to decoding the theorist’s key concepts and ideas. Students have consistently identified this conceptual representation approach to critically engaging with theory texts in my evaluations as something from which they have really benefitted. I also see many students bring their own visuals to office hours or class throughout the semester to use while framing a question for me or explaining to a peer what they think the theorist is getting at in small group discussions.