Thoughts on teaching theory to undergrads

Jason Mittell's picture

Recently, my friend Annie Petersen took advantage of one of Twitter’s best functions for academics: crowdsourcing syllabus recommendations. Annie was looking for readings that provide a good introduction to semiotics, but are not impenetrable to novice students. I recommended this online visual essay by Tom Streeter (another friend of mine), which I’ve found quite useful for introducing students to key ideas and terms while remaining accessible and clear. In our brief exchange, Annie mentioned that she was entering this “vast uncharted space” in teaching theory at her new job at Whitman College, both for the students because the curriculum is more focused on history and criticism, and for her because she’s never taught a theory-centered course before.

This made me realize that I started at Middlebury exactly 10 years ago, and like Annie, found myself teaching my first theory course within a department that had not covered much theory before. I’ve learned a lot of lessons about how to (and how not to) teach theory to undergraduate students since then, and Twitter was inadequate to share some of those experiences with Annie, so I figured I’d broaden the audience to the blog and prattle on way beyond 140 characters. While my experiences are centered around teaching theory to undergraduates within the realm of media & cultural studies, I think the advice is broadly applicable to courses in a wide range of humanities & social science disciplines. As always, I encourage discussion & feedback in the comments.

So let’s set the stage. You’ve gotten a Ph.D., spending your most recent stretch of academia immersed with a cohort of like-minded intellectuals who get off from debating the subtleties of the most difficult things you can read. You’ve spent years in courses where the goal is to rip apart complex works, highlighting the flaws and inconsistencies in monographs written by people whose jobs you aspire to have. You’re surrounded by people who love this stuff—there’s probably some densely-packed theorist that you treat like airplane reading (mine was Foucault).

Now you’re on the other side of the seminar table, leading the discussion and crafting the reading list. The bulk of your teaching might be intro courses with predetermined textbooks or syllabi, or history/criticism/topics courses whose goals and scope are seemingly straightforward. But just maybe, one of the courses you get to teach is designed as a “theory course” – mine was initially awkwardly named “American Cultural Studies,” but has evolved into “Theories of Popular Culture,” the recent version of which is online here. While the temptation is to emulate the graduate seminars that may have provided years of intellectual rush, the undergraduate students in your theory course aren’t there (yet). So here are some lessons I learned through years of getting things wrong:

Explain what you mean by “theory.” Your average undergraduate, even the very smart ones I get to teach at Middlebury, probably don’t think of “theory” the same way that faculty and graduate students do. Theory might evoke something in math, or the “theory of evolution,” but it seems for most undergrads, theory implies a tentative hypothesis that has yet to be proven—more than a hunch, but less than a fact. So it’s important to explain what we mean by theory in the humanities: a framework or set of ideas that transcends the individual example, but that cannot be proven.

I find this lack of “provability” to be particularly irksome to some students. Undergraduates, especially the well-prepared & bright students I teach, like to learn the right answers. The American secondary school system puts a lot of emphasis on learning things that can be tested, so they try to figure out what is correct and how to follow the lead of such proven lessons. One of the main challenges to teaching theory to undergrads is getting them to understand that it’s not about coming up with the “right answer,” but rather exploring how any given theory helps provide insights and new ways of understanding. So it’s crucial define what “theory” means in your disciplinary context so students have a way to make sense of it & calibrate their expectations.

Theories are in dialogue with each other, and often contradict. Much of what I know about teaching theory I learned in graduate school from one of my mentors, John Fiske – I discuss that experience more here. One of John’s gifts was the ability to make theoretical paradigms and frameworks fit into a longer intellectual history, framing each new theory as an ongoing dialogue between theorists. I’ve tried to ape that approach in teaching cultural theory, meaning that I always contextualize where the main authors are coming from, what influences they were reacting to, and how they changed the way a school of thought worked. Providing such contexts helps students understand any theory as part of an ongoing process of discovery, not an absolute progression toward truth. I don’t treat these contexts as a bunch of facts that students need to learn in mastering a field’s intellectual history, but as part of a story, with characters who are products of their experiences and influences—I’ve found students enjoy thinking about these theorists talking to one another more than just as dead, dense words on a page. It’s particularly helpful to find a book that narrates such contexts for students—I particularly like John Storey’s Cultural Theory & Popular Culture books, in large part because his voice and approach reminds me a lot of Fiske (and when I met Storey a few years ago and told him this, he said he was honored by the comparison).

Another key part of this dialogue is conveying the contradictions between schools of thought. I’ll often draw charts or tables on the whiteboard to map how different theorists might respond to a similar issue or text, providing comparisons and contrasts. In doing so, for instance between theories of culture industry, ideology, and hegemony, I’m not trying to argue that one of these is inherently more “right” than another, but that each provide different ways of thinking about a cultural object. Students want to be able to figure out what’s the correct or more valued approach, but I try to present each theory on its own terms in the best light, and then allow them to figure out what works best for them—and, most importantly, which theories are best suited to tackling a particular text, object, or cultural formation.

Theories are meant to be applied. My graduate program and background emphasized theory as a tool to be put into practice, not an object of study on its own. I remember taking a Comparative Literature course that treated theoretical writings as aesthetic objects to be admired and studied, where my attempts to actually “do something” with a theorist was skeptically regarded as not being “true” to the theory. Not surprisingly, I’ve found that undergrads respond much better to applying theoretical writings than trying to appreciate them on their own terms. So when I teach a given theory, I always try to assign a three-part combination: an overview reading that summarizes & contextualizes the theory (like Storey’s volume), some excerpt of the theoretical writings from the big-name theorists themselves, and an example of the theory as applied to an accessible cultural object. In class, I ping-pong between laying out the contexts & the ideas of the theory, and applying them to a new example where we can collectively make sense of a video or image in the style of today’s theorist. A class meeting where we’re not using a theory to make sense of a cultural object is usually an unsuccessful day.

Likewise, my assignments are always about applying the theory more than recapping or summarizing it. In fact, I strongly discourage students from quoting from theory—a strong essay explains the relevant aspects of a theory in the student’s own words and through their analysis, not by retyping the words of a great theorist. (And if you read my own academic writing, you might notice that it’s far less quote-heavy from other academics than most, as I try to model this approach and would much rather read work without wading through other people’s greatest hits.) In crafting assignments, I always give students free choice in what they analyze, because I want them to be inspired to rethink cultural objects that interest them through the lens of the theories we’ve read—it’s hard enough to digest and apply dense theory that they should have the comfort of writing about their own preferred topics. Because of this, I’ve gotten to read analyses of a huge range of popular culture, thus expanding my own knowledge of eclectic topics like sneaker collectors, jam bands, and the “Will It Blend?” videos.

The perfect object of analysis can make the theory work. I sometimes think 90% of getting a class meeting to work is finding the right object of analysis to use to apply a given theory, and thus it is important to always be on the hunt for examples to pull into class (being a voracious consumer of pop culture helps!). Sometimes these objects are simply perfect to illustrate a theory—in the early 2000s, I was looking for a video I could bring into a class where I was teaching Adorno & Horkheimer’s theory of the culture industry, so I set my VCR(!) to tape a showing of MTV’s TRL, thinking it would illustrate how the media packages & sells musical artists. By pure happenstance, the episode featured two videos that encapsulate the theory perfectly: N’Sync’s It’s Gonna Be Me, with the band literally seen as plastic figures to be bought & sold, and Eminem’s The Way I Am, a rant against being packaged and sold by radio & MTV. Not only were the videos perfect, but the way TRL frames them and portrays fan affections & passions provides a comprehensive illustration of so many concepts from this essay: standardization, pseudo-individuality, predigested consumption, popular culture as social cement. It’s so perfect that I’ve been using it for 10 years, and will probably keep using it long after students can remember TRL or either artist.

Another important use of examples is as a thread running throughout a semester. In my Theories of Popular Culture course, I start the semester by screening the film High Fidelity. We come back to it throughout the semester, thinking about how a wide range of theories might help us understand it, both as a work of popular culture and as a representation of people’s relationship to popular culture. I hope that by the end of the semester, students understand that since no single theory can explain everything about this film, what critics need is a range of theoretical tools and approaches to be able to answer specific questions and address particular issues, rather than treating theory as dogma in which we’re all seeking a single belief system to apply universally.

Don’t worry about the theoretical nuances. It’s vital to remember the goals for such a class versus the goals for a graduate theory course. In my undergraduate courses, I’m not training academics to be able to write publishable scholarship—although that sometimes happens, as with my former student Ioana Literat’s recently published piece on Trapped in the Closet that first emerged as a term paper in my narrative theory course. I see an undergraduate theory course as having two main goals. First, I want to introduce students to the range of theoretical thinking within the field, offering a sampling plate of tastes to get a sense of what might fall under the umbrella of cultural theory and potentially stoking their interest for further study. More importantly, I want students understand what it is to do theoretically-informed analysis, making the connection between broader frameworks and specific criticism. Most of my students will not go onto grad school in the humanities, so I don’t expect them to become expert practitioners of theory or criticism, but I do hope they come away from my class with more awareness about their own underlying frameworks and assumptions that they use when they consume (and produce) culture. Even if they never actively “use” the theories we read, whenever a former student watches a film and thinks about how it is ideologically addressing him/her, or skeptically questions assumptions about passive viewers absorbing a television program’s messages, that is an indication of pedagogical success.

These goals require very different choices than a graduate theory course. Most importantly, it necessitates simplifying complex theoretical ideas to make them accessible for undergrads, an approach that may be particularly galling to newly minted Ph.Ds who have spent recent years focused on the complexities and nuances of theories. I try not to “dumb-down” theories, but rather emphasize the core concepts and arguments over the more advanced nuances and subtleties that typically thrive in advanced seminar discussions—I think Streeter’s online essay is a model for such distillation and exploration. I’ll happily discuss such nuances with students who care about them, but I try to avoid delving too deep into the weeds in a full-class discussion. It’s more important that all of my students come away with the central nuggets of a given theory than that the small minority who care about theoretical subtleties emerge as fully engaged with any theory’s complexities and nuances. A student who has the passion for theory will find a way to dig deeper on their own or in future studies, but my courses strive to be a place where everyone gets a solid foundation without being alienated from the conversation by getting too deep into nuance.

Share your passion for theory without making them feel bad for not getting it. If you’re teaching a theory course, you probably love talking and thinking about theory—that passion and excitement is your secret weapon in such a course. Most students will be resistant to theory at first, as it’s hard to read, often seems pointless, and can challenge their core assumptions and beliefs. Your job as a theory professor is to convey your passion without dismissing the students’ skepticism and resistance. You’re a tour guide to very foreign lands with passengers who’d rather be home in their comfort zones. So you need to show them how exciting theoretical ideas can be, especially when applied to cultural objects they care about. I often geek out on theories as I’m teaching them, showing my excitement about how a concept like the arbitrary relationship between signified and signifier changes how I see the world—I think (some) students find that excitement a bit contagious, and want to work through the readings in order to find similar passions of their own. I remember my own lightbulb moment when I first studied semiotics as an undergraduate and realized this is was a conversation I wanted to participate in for the rest of my life, and I aim to help my students experience similar revelations (even if they don’t end up going down the professional academic route).

You also need to acknowledge how difficult it can be as an undergrad to make productive sense of this stuff on the first read-through, and reiterate that difficulty throughout the semester. Usually I have a couple of theory jocks in every class, and it’s important to avoid turning into each meeting into a conversation between me and those students who are really into it, making the students who don’t get it feel lost and dumb for not being able to engage at that level. So I make sure that everyone is participating in the conversation, celebrating seemingly “stupid questions” that help ensure all the students are getting the basic ideas, and trying to shut-down the more advanced conversations. I explicitly tell students that it’s okay to read a theoretical piece and feel like you have no clue what it’s about, as we’ll work through it in class to unpack the argument. Online discussion forums are useful for getting broad engagement, as they can discuss the readings amongst themselves and give me a sense of who is getting it and where we need to clarify in class. Few things are more gratifying as a teacher than to see a student who started as resistant to and lost in theory find a foothold and get excited about a particular concept or approach—that’s the joy of intellectual discovery that teaching undergrads facilitates, and what keeps me going through the grading and busywork.

OK, that was clearly way more than 140 characters! I’d love to hear from other people’s experiences, whether from the prospective of faculty teaching theory to undergrads, or your own experiences as an undergraduate learning theory. What works and what doesn’t, and what frameworks can we detach from our own personal experiences to make such courses succeed?

Filed under: Academia, Media Studies, Middlebury, Not Quite TV, Teaching Tagged: cultural studies, pedagogy, theory

Jason Mittell

Publication date (from feed): 

Sat, 18 Aug 2012 21:47:44 +0000