Why I’m Thankful for Theory

Recently I collaborated with a colleague on a presentation of a paper. In preparing for the presentation she was concerned about offering a theoretical discussion of our work because she thought it would alienate the audience.  Her rationale for this perspective was based in her belief that presentations should be “straightforward” and that a discussion of theory would complicate our message. My colleague is a historian and given her professional inclination to tell a story (in a straightforward fashion) her perception of my ideas to discuss theory was framed with a sense of reluctance. Perhaps her perspective was based on the idea that theoretical discussions can seem complicated and boring.  However, for me theory has always been an interesting way to explore life; another mechanism to examine self-proclaimed notions. In fact, some of my most profound learning and teaching moments evolved out of thoughtful theoretical consideration. 


Since our work was presented using Power Point I understood her concern for a succinct format, yet I felt strongly about dedicating a portion of the presentation to a discussion of theory. I don’t think a discussion of theory should be mundane. I believe it can be exciting and engaging if audience members can envision how the theory applies to their lives. 


From my perspective great theory is always simple and serves to facilitate a sense of intrigue in those who consider it. In my estimation, an appreciation for theory comes with the understanding that influential theories often have strong parabolic qualities. Like the idea of an apple falling on someone’s head to illustrate Newton’s law of gravity, I’m mindful of the delicate balance between intellectual capacity to study aspects of our environment and the variability that exists within it. An illustration of theory should involve an interesting story; or at the minimum serve as a platform for the telling of one. 


For doctoral students who study numerous theories and wonder about their applicability to research or practice, I encourage them to think about how theories might apply to their life experiences. Envisioning how theory applies to real-life issues removes it from the abstract and gives it a sense of purpose. Whether giving a presentation, editing a manuscript or having discussions with other colleagues, the theories we use to explore our work frame many other aspects of our lives. For new scholars this may be challenging to embrace. This might especially be the case for doctoral students who spend enormous amounts of time learning about theories in their fields and then must figure out how to create a lifestyle around their work post degree completion. 


The experience I had with my colleague highlights the various levels of consciousness scholars bring to their involvement with other scholars. I’m appreciative of the diversity of scholarship that exists within the academy. And to illustrate my capacity to relate the theoretical to the personal, during the holiday break this experience reminded me why I am thankful for theory.


Dr. Pamela Felder is a scholar of higher education. Her professional background includes teaching experience at Teachers College, Columbia University, The University of Pennsylvania and Camden County College, Camden City Campus.