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Learning and teaching theory… (part 2)

February 16, 2010

See part 1 here


What Rafael Nadal and I have in common
…and where we differ

What is practice theory?

Theoretical approach centred on practices (not on interactions, individuals, structures, systems…)
Bourdieu, Giddens, de Certeau, Schatzki… search for theoretical middle path between extremes of holism and individualism
Practices = sets of regular embodied activities that people carry out with varying degrees of skill, commitment and flair
In sum, practice theory is a body of work about the work of the body
Fields of practice = social domains with their own unique logics, laws and games in which variously positioned human agents compete and cooperate over field-specific rewards (symbolic, financial, social, physical…)

Academics are practitioners

Conventional terminological distinction in higher education between ‘theorists’ and ‘practitioners’ is unhelpful: both scholars and non-scholars working teaching in academic settings are practitioners – albeit in different fields of practice (art, sociology, journalism, biochemistry…)
Both learn how to operate within their specialist fields after long years of practice and secondary socialisation
Like other field practitioners, academics are invested in the ‘illusio’ of their field, the belief that learning how to play the game well is worth the long-term effort (Bourdieu)
They practice their craft both in regular time-geographical ‘stations’ (Giddens 1984, e.g. seminars, journals, libraries, mailing lists) as well as in irregular ‘arenas’ (Turner 1974, often stations that have temporarily morphed into sites of conflict) where a prevailing paradigm is challenged and eventually replaced (Kuhn).
Like any other embodied practice, scholarship can be performed with more or less skill, commitment, and flair. Sometimes scholars may even experience ‘flow’, that ‘mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity’ (Csíkszentmihályi)

Implications for theory teaching and learning

If academics are practitioners of a particular kind – what are the implications for the process of learning and teaching theory? A thought experiment: Let us imagine an organisational blank slate – the freedom to reinvent our degree courses and modules from scratch.

* Students would be taught academic skills not in a field void but through an understanding and recreation of the academic field and its ‘games’ (this could be fun, come to think of it); students as junior scholars. (Yes, we already do this to an extent; what I’m suggesting is a more explicit, game-based approach).

* To attain such an understanding, students would start by learning about the specific history, struggles, collaborations, logics and games that have constituted their field of study, e.g. media studies, sociology, art.

* They would then simulate the operations of the field, e.g. by embodying and practising the positions of various field agents with differing amounts and kinds of capital (symbolic, epistemic, social, financial…), e.g. aspiring author, journal editor, research blogger, academic publisher, funding committee, etc, playing different academic  ‘games’.


Summary and recap.

Rafael Nadal and I.

Q & A

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 17, 2010 10:07 pm

    Excellent seminar, thank you.

  2. February 18, 2010 12:01 am

    Thanks Sue, much appreciated.

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