Thursday, April 20, 2006

is theory the enemy?

I haven't blogged in days - I just dug myself out from under SO many papers, responses, honors theses, etc. (I had to chew off my left foot, but that's okay - it'll grow back, just like a snow crab...) - I made a mistake and gave my students an extra week on their paper not realizing that it would coincide with honor thesis reading. That plus prepping for classes equals no Medieval Woman for a while!

Here's what I'm reflecting on at the moment (as well as getting ready to get the charcol grill up and running tonight) - how do you deal with students' BAD use of theory in their papers? This happens at least once a semester - but it's never with a topic or theorist that you'd assume (like using feminist theory for Margery Kempe, which is fine if you know what you're talking about). In this case, it was a student who did a really great paper for the first one (so they can write pretty well -it's not the prose per se) - but then for this paper, they had obviously read a little theory (probably in some theory class they're taking) and then they just slapped it on patchy and thick - it was like tarting Chaucer up to go out to the theory ball!!

There were so many things wrong with it, I didn't know where to start. First of all, I've noticed that students who use theory inelegantly, 1) NEVER define their terms at all - it's like the little globules of Jameson or Foucault that get stuck to their papers just explain themselves - like little blobs of mustard on the page; 2) they deliberately mystify their own prose, language, argument in addition to not indicating how they're understanding the theoretical text they're using and explaining why it's important to use Lacan to discuss The Life of Saint Margaret (just an example); and finally, 3) students who use theory badly in their papers get VERY touchy and defensive when you give comments like, "you need to explain this term you're using here." It's like they don't want to be told that they don't really understand it well. I can tell them that they need to work more on their paper's structure, or thesis, or whatever and they're fine with it - but say something about their grasp on post-structuralism and watch out! Indeed, I had a student once who reamed me on my eval because she said that I was a medievalist, not a theorist and didn't have a right to critique her paper. Unfortunately this girl wouldn't know Judith Butler's work from a hole in the ground - or maybe she did but she didn't *demonstrate* it.

And therein lies the rub - one might understand a theoretical text (or most of it) but I think it needs to be internalized in a more significant way in order to be able to use it well in your work. All this is to avoid what I've begun to call "the slap-dash effect" - laying it on with a trowel and believing that the chartreuse color will just explain itself.

I'm not sure what the answer is, but I'd love to know what others think. I want to treat it like any other paper challenge, but it's like a hydra with most students - cut off one head and five more grow in its place. It's definitely beyond the scope of the paper, that's for sure!

Off the topic of undergrad theory and in a much happier zone (I think I'm a tad exasperated and I need a beer) our tulips are finally blooming and spring has sprung!

P.S. There is the BIGGEST bumble-bee I've ever seen cruising around my office like a great, fuzzy DC-10. He keeps bumping (bumbling?) into things and Furballs 1& 2 are watching him like slow-motion tennis played with a honey ham. I don't know how the heck he got in here, but I have to figure out a way to evict him without hurting him or me....maybe a glass and a magazine to trap him...must act fast....



At 7:40 PM, Blogger History Geek said...

I've been guilty of laying it on thick without explain myself, but thankful my beta/editor smacked me over the head a few times.

A wasp manged to get into my condo last weekend and the kitten swatted the thing out of the air. She was trying to make a snack out of it before I manged to kill the thing. The kitten also eats flies.

At 8:14 PM, Blogger Bardiac said...

Theory is GOOD! It's undergraduates who only slightly understand a theory that are the problem. But at least if they're thinking overtly about theory, they might at least be slightly considering their approach, and that can be really helpful, no?

At 8:41 PM, Blogger medieval woman said...

I absolutely agree that theory is good and I don't know that I'm necessarily that good at using is wisely in all my stuff! (That's why advisors are so great sometimes!)

I think that perhaps it's just been the specific students I've tried to talk to about their use of theory? Maybe I struck a nerve with those individuals. Or perhaps it's the way I'm approaching it (although I never say "you're using this without understanding it!" to a student) - maybe I'm not conveying my comments very well...hmmmm....I have read so many writers who use it so wonderfully - I've always been really impressed with that - but perhaps using theory well is a greater challenge than doing a good close reading, etc. I will keep plugging along and hope that when I mention it to another student, they'll wanna talk about it.

History geek, I hope the kitten didn't get stung!! I safely evicted the bee before dinner...

At 9:24 PM, Blogger La Lecturess said...

a) I've had two (or maybe it was the same one?) enormous bumblebees in my apartment in three days. I don't know where they came from, and I've never seen them in my area before. A new plague?

b) My students don't use theory much, at least not conciously (I'll get them slipping in jargony terms that I know they learned somewhere, but there's never a consistent or clear theoretical approach), but I have a similar problem with students who want to make connections across texts. . . and they just don't do it well. I just got a paper on justice in a Shakespeare play that tried to compare/relate it to Aristotle's theory of justice. This *might* have worked, but just didn't--there was no real explanation of why this theory was meaningful for the text in question, nor even a particularly careful or coherent comparison of the two. Instead, it was like two three-page papers on somewhat related issues that had somehow got stuck together.

And in theory I *want* to applaud this kind of thinking, since that should be what a liberal arts education is all about, but in practice it's just so much easier to say, "do a close analysis of three related scenes." (Focus, focus, focus!) I do believe that this is the best approach in a survey-level class, but sometimes I wonder whether it isn't, also, taking the easy way out.

At 10:07 PM, Blogger History Geek said...

The kitten wasn't stung, just slighty miffed at mommy for taking away her new toy.

Little Matlida likes living up to her namesake with bravery.

At 9:18 AM, Blogger Pilgrim/Heretic said...

I was really getting into the theory discussion, but then I ran into "slow-motion tennis played with a honey ham" and I can't stop laughing. That totally makes my day.

At 9:29 AM, Anonymous Laustic said...

I agree that theory needs to be internalized and thoroughly digested to be used effectively. But I guess I would applaud any student (esp. any of my first-years) who made a halfway decent attempt at engaging a theoretical approach, rather than desperately searching the annals of social history for the "answer" to a text. And it seems like you do that already by inviting these brave souls to confer with you about their extracurricular readings.

Really, I shudder to recall the kinds of trowelling I did in my undergrad career.

At 5:50 PM, Blogger medieval woman said...

Thanks for the great responses to this post - It's something that I think about a lot with my students (both with using criticism and theory) and I'm glad to know that other profs are having the same challenges!


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