Theory as a Map

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Gretchen Purser, Sociology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2003

Problematic: “Think of theory as a map!” exclaimed Professor Burawoy in his fiery first lecture to the students of Sociology 101AB: History of Social Theory. This is a profoundly exciting and useful metaphor. Yet, one of the problems I encountered while teaching was that, although my students were incredibly adept at learning the intricacies of these theories, even with such difficult theorists as Marx, Gramsci and Foucault, they expressed profound insecurity, even paralysis, when asked to apply these theories to concrete, real life problems and situations. Not unlike Dante in the first canto of The Inferno, the students “found [themselves] within a shadowed forest,” clutching these maps, but unable to translate the signs, symbols, and pathways of each map to the actual structures, systems and institutions that make up the social world. My primary task thus became figuring out a way to get my students to feel comfortable using each theory as a navigational device, as a lens through which to envision the world.

Teaching Strategy: As soon as my students expressed to me how inept they felt at applying the theory to the world around them, I decided to change their weekly, one-page response essays, which had, up to that point, aimed at covering the central theses or core concepts of each theory, into a mini-practicum, in which they would have to practice using the theory to interpret and explain an event, text, or real-life situation. To ensure that the students kept their responses tightly and concretely wedded to the theory, I provided them with guiding questions and insisted that they use quotations from the text and back up their interpretations with page numbers. For example, after going over Marx and Engels’ understanding of the (natural) division of labor (forces of production and relations of production) and its consequences upon both the individual and society, I gave them the following assignment:

In this assignment, you will need to make an attempt at applying the theory you are learning in class to a real-life case scenario. I have photocopied for you an interview done by the famous oral historian, Studs Terkel. In his book Working, Terkel compiled dozens of interviews from working folks across the country. For this week, I ask that you read the story of Phil Stallings, a spot welder at the Ford assembly plant outside of Chicago. While reading, pay attention to the ways in which his story relates back to the ideas and arguments of Marx and Engels. What might Marx and Engels say to Stallings? After reading this story, try answering the following: What does Stallings himself say about the division of labor, its consequences and its contradictions? To what extent and in what ways do Marx and Engels help us understand the feelings, thoughts, and concerns of Stallings? Are there any intriguing issues which Stallings raises which Marx & Engels either ignore or fail to do an adequate job of explaining? If so, what are they and how might Marx and Engels’ theory need to be revised if these issues were taken into account?

Assessment: Having them practice applying the theory to the world around them in writing ratcheted up the quality of our in-class discussions, as students felt more comfortable spontaneously applying the theory to other situations. Many students, of their own accord, started bringing in newspaper articles and telling the class how they thought the article fit in with our discussion of a particular theorist. My teaching evaluations were full of comments about how well prepared the students felt for the midterm and final exams, thanks to these weekly assignments. And most importantly, in my view, the students expressed an ever-growing passion for, and confidence in their own ability to use the theory as a lens through which to see the world and envision alternatives.