Theory and theory

I guess that autumn has been a lot about CPD (continuing professional development) for me. I took a course in working into English B in August (held by Zoë Hewetson and Christine Adams, I can really recommend it) and then the SCIC (interpreting services of the European Commission) training for trainers course in September (it’s offered by SCIC to trainers at its partner universities, and it is definitely worth the effort). And since August I am also taking a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on “Surviving your PhD” by the famous @ThesisWhisperer Inger Mewburn of Australian National University. Now, I have already survived my PhD, but the course was also pitched at future and present supervisors, so I thought it might be a good idea, that plus the fact that I really like the Thesis Whisperer and I would get the possibility of taking my first MOOC.

Last weeks unit on Confusion talks about how PhD students grasp with new concepts and the struggle of feeling (or even getting) stuck as you understand and internalize new concepts. Meyer and Land (2005) call them threshold concept, and identify a few of them. Another researcher, Kiley (2009) found that (and now I quote Inger Mewburn from the course) the concept of ‘theory’ was another problematic threshold. In any discipline, theory allows for a greater understanding of the data beyond its local context. But some research students had trouble grasping and articulating the role of theory in their thesis. I had a personal revelation with this concept of theory quite recently at the training for trainers course which I would like to share.

Ever since I was 8 and started taking riding classes “theory” has always been part of my conceptual world. “Theory” were the classes when we out of the saddle on the ground learning all about riding figures, fetlocks and stirrups. Later in life “theory” was learning how to count a maintenance ratio of fodder or identify different illnesses of the hoof. Then “theory” became learning how to apply ideas of Vygotsky, Dewey or Montessori. Or trying to grasp Seleskovitch‘s”Théorie du Sense”.

Then I started writing my PhD… And suddenly “theory” was something that was far from set in stone. It was not as easy as knowing that a fetlock is a joint just above the horse’s hoof, that it also has a latin name and that there are certain conditions which can cause problems with it. “Theory” became vast, incomprehensible, mostly inexistent and always open for contestation.

Without my knowing “theory” had changed meaning for me, and I didn’t realize I was on the other side of that threshold until the last day of the SCIC course when I was being both insensitive and impolite due to my ignorance about my change. The question was: “do you think it was enough balance between theory and practice?” And my answer was: “there was no theory, but I did not come here for that”.

It wasn’t until I was on my way home that I understood what the question meant! In fact, we had a lot of “theory” on the course, but it was theory in my early understanding of theory, namely taking time out of the booth or the teaching desk to reflect on what we are doing and how. It was now theory in my new understanding of it, namely a (volatile) framework of ideas for my understanding of other concepts or ideas. Or as Wikipedia puts it theory is a contemplative and rational type of abstract or generalizing thinking, or the results of such thinking.

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