Theory Really IS a Toolbox!

    When I was going through my undergrad comm studies degree (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), the concept of theory truly didn’t exist for me. As I recall, it wasn’t even taught as such. Oh sure, the nuts and bolts, the basic framework of information was all there. But not labeled as theory.

We learned about how broadcast regulations worked, or didn’t. We learned how the basic communication model of sender – noise – receiver functioned, but the names of Shannon and Weaver weren’t attached to it. Lots of bits and pieces, but not a lot of cohesion.

Fast forward 25 years. A long career in television as a producer / director, as well as stints as a military public affairs officer, and freelance documentary maker and journalist led down a somewhat winding and often confused road, to an MAEd in adult education. No shortage of theory there!!! It was often a wall that I continuously banged my head against. What the heck was the matter with these people, I often wondered? Where is the practicality of this stuff? What was the point of debating angels and heads of pins? I was dragged down the theoretical road kicking and screaming. Loudly. And no doubt obnoxiously, if you asked my profs. (Being a person of a certain age with a significant amount of experience is not always conducive to accepting things meekly and wholesale! I argued. Every inch of the way.)

But a funny thing happened about two thirds of the way through my degree. I distinctly remember the occasion. We were looking at Jack Mezirow’s transformational theory of learning, which basically says that we tend to learn best when our meaning frames – what we use to make sense of our world – are disrupted. A diagnoses of cancer. The death of a loved one. Someone you would never have thought of as helpful going out of their way to get you out of a jam. All ruptures in the status quo that make us view our world in a slightly different way. This I could not only understand, but accept. It made sense to me. In its own way, it was a transformational learning experience.

No longer was I drowning in a sea of theory; I began to see the linkages between them, and I remember saying to a fellow student that I felt I was now floating on a sea of knowledge, and couldn’t wait to dive in.

Fast forward the coursework for my PhD in communication. Drowning again. Big time!!! It had been a lifetime since I had thought of communication stuff in any but a practical sense. Semiotics. Structuralism. The posts (postmodernism; poststructuralism; postcolonialism). The Birmingham School. Practice Theory. It went on and on and on and on. And on!

Then one of my profs, Paul Attalah, said the magic words: “Theory is a toolbox. You take what you need to support your argument, or to look at a specific research question. The rest of it may be interesting. Or not. But don’t let it bog you down. Take what you need, and move on.”

Hallelujah!! A drowning woman had been thrown a lifesaver.

So that’s exactly what I’ve done since then. I’ve found ridiculously useless theories. Blindingly obvious ones too. Even one or two that have changed my life. But it doesn’t scare me any more. The more you read, the more you begin to see that all theory really is, is an organizing framework for ideas about the way things (in this case, communication) work. The connections become clearer. The foolishness that some academics put forth does too. The emperor is often revealed to be not wearing any new clothes at all!

So as we work our way through this course, my one piece of advice to you is this: Don’t be intimidated by what you’re reading. Argue with it. Think about it. Get frustrated and wrestle with  it. Agree with it. But don’t be scared of it. There is a point. Really (trust me on this). You’re just starting to fill your toolbox, and it will stand you in good stead as you build this degree.


One thought on “Theory Really IS a Toolbox!

  1. Paula, this was enormously helpful and encouraging to me as I’ve been quite daunted by the language and level of thinking of my first theory course in 22 years (said another person of a certain age).
    You reminded me of words of encouragement from a Comm Planning professor at UVic: “At some point, the penny will drop, and you will see how a typical comm plan weaves together and depends on the other parts. The penny hasn’t dropped yet for most of you, but have faith, it will come.” And it did!
    I have enjoyed exploring the first of many theories…. after a while! There is something to be said for reading more and more when things don’t make sense.


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