Getting to Grips With... THEORY (In Theory)

So I'm the first to admit that I've never been the biggest fan of literary theory, or any sort of theory for that matter.  In fact, the single worst part of my musical education (in my opinion at least) was not the arduous task of learning countless sets of scales and arpeggios, but the requirement to achieve Grade 5 in Music Theory before moving on to the higher practical grades.  However, as I've progressed from a wide-eyed and bouncy A-Level student to a #permanentlyexhaustedphdstudent (yes, I enjoy tedious hashtags, this is something you are going to have to come to terms with), I've frequently found myself needing the tools that the theoretical world has to offer.  

Foucault got me like...
This is another one of those circumstances in which 'Imposter Syndrome' rears its ugly head: everyone around you seems to be reeling off accounts of their grand adventures on the backs of their favourite theorists, while you nod, smile, and try to internalise the fear that you will be forever on the back foot because you have not yet mastered the complicated terms which go rattling by.  Ok, if you haven't felt this, then that's all very nice for you.  HOWEVER, I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only person to have ever been in this boat.  So here are a couple of things which have recently helped me to get to grips with some bits of literary theory.  Not saying that they'll be a fail/fool-proof set of guidelines, but I'm pretty pleased with how things have been working out, and perhaps someone else will feel that way too...

Step 1: Read the Book
Yes, this is pretty vague.  To be more specific, read the work (feel free to interpret work as a particular book/essay/article, or the entire theoretical corpus) of whichever branch of literary (or other!) theory you are investigating.  Take notes.  Don't worry if not a lot of what you write down makes sense.  Leave pleasing doodles/stars/annotations next to bits that you DO understand. 

Step 2: Read the People Who Read the Book
I've found that the best way to get to grips with theory is to put it to work.  Unless you happen to be following the example of a particularly newfangled underground branch of theory, there's a good chance that someone else will have done the leg work for you and used the same approaches/principles in their own work.  This is where we encounter the beauty of the CASE STUDY.  Again, take some notes-see how their work aligns with the core principles you noted down from reading the ACTUAL BOOK.  Again, leave pleasing doodles/stars/annotations next to things that you understand.  After all, what's life without a bit of positive reinforcement?

Step 3: Read the Book (Again)
Finally, having seen evidence of theory in practice (shameless chuckle), go back to THE ACTUAL BOOK, and see if you can follow its stream of consciousness more successfully than before.  See if you can imagine how your own work would develop and unfold if you followed the same approach to your chosen theory as your case studies.  If not, repeat steps 1 & 2.

Again, I would like to stress... this is by no means foolproof.  Hey, in a few days, weeks, months, years, I might have totally reconsidered my approach to my theoretical inadequacies, and this post may find itself on the garbage heap of the depths of the internet.  Also, I might just be entirely wrong and never realise... But, for now, just a few things I've found helpful over the past week or so... 

Elaine Over & Out


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