What are the dominant (some may say governing) principles of your field or world view?
Don’t worry, we’re not going to end the discussion of theory tonight, but I do want to clarify the subject a bit. Each of you has a theory for various practices and assumptions. Based on your experiences, you draw conclusions or make predictions or perform some act because your theory directs you. For instance, you might have noticed that when trying to win an argument, yelling and ridiculing the other party is not the best way to convince him or her that your point is correct. Instead, you might notice that affirming the other’s point of view provides a sense of common ground, making you appear to be clear minded and not brash or hotheaded. Therefore, your theory of argument might be to persuade by addressing the other’s point of view positively (thus, projecting a middle-of-the-road ethos) and then offering an alternative.
The above is what I’ll call a lowercase-t theory. In contrast, we have capital-T Theories that can be considered Grand Theories that seem to govern natural, social, and even mechanical phenomena. For instance, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is an accepted Theory governing contemporary Physics. A basic definition of the Theory is that the Laws of Physics can be measured uniformly by observers in relative positions (i.e., traveling at the same speed). Yes, there is much more to this theory, but this example is trying to highlight a capital-T scientific Theory.
Additionally, from a social science/humanities perspective, Feminism can be considered a capital-T Theory based on understanding the social and political differences (including discrimination) between men and women. Feminist Theory, therefore, seeks to expose nonegalitarian situations that patriarchal societies consciously and unconsciously impose on women. This Theory* is intersubjective because many individuals agree upon enough tenets (not all) to point to common perspectives or, simply, common assumptions.
*(well, more accurately, these Theories)
Those of you who study Women’s and Gender Studies will immediately recognize a problem with seeing “feminism” as a capital-T Theory because feminism rejects monolithic narratives that claim absolute or essential qualities mediate thought and practice. Feminism is pluralistic, which is really the argument of Postmodern Theory because postmodernism doesn’t believe in grand narratives. Instead, postmodernism shows us that a plurality of realities is possible–there is no grand narrative or universal capital-T Theory. Still, though, postmodernism isn’t just an individual’s condition but a culture’s reality. Postmodern theory has dominated Western culture (and, by default, non-Western cultures that deal with the West) for decades, influencing our perceptions of major institutions–government, law, religion, education, marriage, entertainment/media, etc.
A Critique or Two
Of course, I think this critique is too simplistic, but you ought to be aware of it. Some claim that theory is just a distraction from more important practical concerns. Academics are often charged with dealing in abstract ideas that have little to do with reality. Although I’m sure examples of that exist, I think a more serious criticism is that academics tend to try to support our theories by selectively choosing what evidence to use. For instance, many studies on student writing conclude that the assignments given were able to accomplish the course learning goals in place. Never mind the fact that the professor of the class could be the researcher (full disclosure: I have analyzed student writing from classes I taught, and I’ve also analyzed writing from classes I didn’t teach…my response rate was higher in the classes I’ve taught). It’s difficult to be objective if you have a predetermined conclusion already worked out. Also, these studies tend to over sample honors students, who are more likely to please their professors.
Understanding Arguments in the Postmodern
Ways of knowing or, more accurately, ways of arguing often get supported by the following:
- Tastes and convictions
Truth is often defined as facts, so the above list is ranked from more personal knowledge (1) to most socially accepted knowledge (4).
Where might “statistics” go?
How might we further complicate this by discussing the theory of relativism? Relativism is the idea that there are no absolutes (which, paradoxically, is an absolute statement); what one believes is relative (based on) an individual’s experience and, especially, his or her cultural construction.
So after you assemble a theory based on the fragmented cultural menus from which you borrow, you usually do (action) or assume (believe) something. In this class, we’re concerned with doing (and occasionally assuming) how you put your theories of design into practice. In your memos, I want you to explain why you made the design choices you made. In explaining, you’re describing your theory of what you think is a best practice. Don’t worry about trying to relate your theory to capital-T Theories, but it is possible to do such an analysis.
As for “praxis,” this is the fancy term for putting a theory into practice or, more simply, enacting a theory. It’s also the name of the ETS teacher certification exam.