Theory Diarrhea: When crisis mode takes over

Thanksgiving is 3 days away.  You’ve been up since yesterday afternoon practicing for Mock Trial and the 14th draft of your senior thesis is due today at 6:10.  You just went to a discussion section where only 4 people showed up because most people only made it to page 617 of Middlemarch (about half of the assigned reading).  The fire alarm just went off in the middle of a meeting with your advisor and everyone evacuated before she could tell you whether to take Vertebrate Biology or Gendered Controversies.

This is about that time in the semester where you feel overwhelmed and deflated, both by the sheer amount of work you have to do and the level of analysis required of you.   It’s hard, if not impossible, to prevent this anxiety from affecting the way you work.  You start writing papers about readings you just couldn’t get to, disguising uncertainty with jargon and unnecessarily complicated sentences.  (If your papers are sounding anything like those on The Postmodernism Generator*… it may be time to take a step back.)

The only antidote to what I will call “theory diarrhea” — a slew of quasi-meaningful, qualified sentences hallmarked by disconnected allusions to canonical theories/ists — is a frank, casual conversation about your ideas.  By talking to someone about what you are trying to say, you ask yourself questions that force you to root your analysis in, well — reality.  What do you really mean when you use the phrase, “subject experience”?  What is the relationship between sexuality and consumerism, and where do you actually see that connection happening in the text?  How does Foucault’s biopower theory apply to you as a twenty-something student in New York City, at Barnard, in 2012?  The truth of the matter is that if you don’t know what you mean (and, consequentially, why it is meaningful), your professor probably won’t, either.

What you may find in this process is something you can carry throughout your life: the authority of not knowing.  No one wants to read a paper full of answers.  A paper is more likely to engage with a “multifaceted, consequential idea” (to quote Wendy Schor-Haim, Associate Director of the Writing Program) if your analysis grows from a question that cannot be easily answered.  This doesn’t mean you should approach a paper without having read the text at all — unfortunately, there is really no way around that part.  But knowing that you don’t have to have it all figured out not only takes the intellectual pressure off, but changes your relationship to the text, or whatever it is you are writing about.  Revealing how you, as a student, engage with the course material makes the whole thinking process more exploratory, giving you access to a more creative mode of thinking.

So make things easier on yourself.  Think about what you know, ask questions to deal with what you don’t know, and work from there.

*Before you start using essays created by The Post-Modernism Generator as secondary sources, please read the disclaimer: “The essay you have just seen is completely meaningless and was randomly generated by the Postmodernism Generator. To generate another essay, follow this link.”

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