Confronting My Fear of Theory

Sometime during my first year of my Master’s program I decided I was “not a theory person.” I don’t remember exactly when or why this happened. Maybe it was because my classmates seemed so much more assured of the readings than I did. Perhaps it was the way I struggled to write about theory. Or maybe it was when I started wondering why most of the theorists we were reading could get away with penning page-long sentences and I couldn’t.

Regardless, by the end of my first year, I decided that theory was not my forte, and that I was a no-nonsense, practicum-based scholar. That perception would shape my work for years to come, from my decision to work in museums, especially smaller institutions that demanded a hands-on role in exhibition installations and other activities, right down to my research interests when I decided to return to graduate school. After all, in my personal statement, I emphasized that my interest in art and infrastructure developed from my museum work, specifically my experiences with exhibition transport. In the parlance of digital humanities, I was a hacker rather than a yacker.

But here’s the thing: you need theoretical frameworks for the dissertation because scholarship isn’t neutral. Every piece out there, whether it’s a scientific experiment or a history of cardboard, has a point of view, and as a scholar it’s your responsibility to make your perspectives evident to your reader. Theory enables you to do that because it provides the framework or lens through which you’ll be expressing your particular interests, whether your focus is on race, gender, class, ecocriticism, all of the above, or something else.

That doesn’t mean embracing theory is easy though, and it’s one of the things I’ve been working through with this prospectus. Indeed, it’s only recently that I’ve finally started to understand the usefulness of theory. As a Master’s student, I thought theory was primarily for showing off, a way of using big words and concepts. In actuality, when employed well, theory becomes helps articulate different observations or phenomena, whether it’s the use of critical race theory when addressing urban poverty, or gender studies when exploring workplace inequality and the division of labor. At its best, theory helps to clarify rather than obscure our observations or ideas.

This may sound obvious, but I really didn’t begin to understand the usefulness of theory until I came to William & Mary, and even now I’m still working to push myself to use it more. One thing that has helped has been the quality of new scholarship. Scholars and activists, particularly women and BIPOC writers like Roopika Risam or Marisa J. Fuentes, use complex theoretical frameworks in their writing, but emphasize clarity as a form of activism. For them, intentionally long, virtuosic sentences or paragraphs serve as a form of academic gatekeeping, meant to intimidate and detract rather than enlighten or inspire, so they make a point in writing with clear, accessible language so that a wide variety of readers can access their ideas. Seeing scholarship that is both theoretically engaging and accessible helps me better envision myself as a writer working with these complex ideas.

Talking with others about theory also helps. One of the most beneficial things I’ve done for myself is to join a dissertation writing group, where we talk about what we’re working on and suggest different approaches or texts to each other. I’ll admit, it’s always been challenging to me to share my work in an unfinished state or barely-even-started state, but that is exactly what I do with this group every week, and it’s already benefitting my research. Because my colleagues work on different projects and have different interests, they bring perspectives to my work outside of my own, and help me think about my work in new ways. Hopefully, I do the same for them.

Reminding myself that I’ve already worked with theory is also important. During my written exams I engaged a wide range of writers and perspectives, from Derrida to Foucault, and managed to write something coherent. Even at Williams, I discussed Lacan, Merleau-Ponty, and other theorists, even if I didn’t think I was doing it very well at the time. Probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done academically is present W.J.T. Mitchell’s What Do Pictures Want? while he sat in on our class right across from me (in all fairness I didn’t think he was going to show up when I volunteered to discuss his work that week), and I survived that, so I can probably stand incorporating theory into my own work.

This doesn’t mean that my fear of theory will dispel overnight. Rather, it will likely be an ongoing process, with my colleagues and advisors encouraging me to push myself further. But academia is as much about the process as it is the finished product, so I’ll continue thinking and engaging theory as I move forward.

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