Teaching theory in history (part two of some) – or – In Theory podcast meets Typhoid Mary

Big theoretical concepts can help us to see the world in new ways.  Big theoretical concepts can help us  see historical events in new ways.  This is especially important for methods classes like the one I am teaching now, since these courses seek to bridge the gap between history as a set of stories that someone else tells, and history as a practice that students themselves can engage in.  We want students to leave these classes loving history as much as when they came in, but we also want to destabilize the idea that there is one, “objective,” “true” narrative to be told about each historical event.  We want them to think about how to select evidence, put that evidence in conversation with other scholars, and offer an interpretative framework for that evidence that nets something beyond arguing that a thing happened in a place and at a time.  Theory helps with that framework.

Undergrad-me would not have believed that current-me would someday be singing the praises of theory.  Luckily, a compatriot of undergrad-me was more prescient than I – Maria Cecire and Noorain Khan are responsible for the In Theory Podcast, which seeks to “raid academia for the the most fascinating and relevant social, cultural, and scientific theories, and use them to help make sense of this beautiful mess of a world we live in.”  It is excellent.  You should listen to it.

I’ve especially enjoyed using In Theory in the classroom.  I’ve generally found teaching theory in history to be one of the more challenging parts of undergraduate pedagogy.  This isn’t because students are incapable of understanding, or even enjoying, theory.  However, I do think that it is difficult to understand the value of theory in the abstract (at least, this was true of me in my theory-adverse undergraduate days).  This course features several weeks on classic theory for history, but this semester I found that pairing the In Theory podcast with a classic in historical scholarship – Judith Walzer Leavitt’s Typhoid Mary – helped to illustrate the ways in which theory can be useful generally, and useful in historical scholarship in particular.

How it worked:

First: I assigned pairs of students different episodes of In Theory.  As they listened, they were asked to identify (1) the theories engaged with in the episode (2) how the podcasters apply those theories to everyday life and (3) other things to which they might apply that theory.

Second: In class, the groups diagrammed their notes on the board, focusing on one particular theoretical concept from the assigned episodes.

Third: Each group presented on their theory of choice, and then each student went around the room and commented on how they might use one of the theoretical concepts outlined in class to further their own research.

Fourth: For the next class, students were assigned chapters from Judith Walzer Leavitt’s Typhoid Mary.   Each chapter takes a different perspective on Mary Mallon (the first silent carrier of typhoid fever, colloquially named “Typhoid Mary,” and imprisoned by the state of New York until her death).

Fifth: Armed with their knowledge of how different theories help us to understand different aspects of the world we live in, students dove into Typhoid Mary and undertook the same kind of diagramming they had done for the In Theory podcast.

Sixth: Each student once again commented on how they might use the theoretical concepts used in Typhoid Mary to further their own research.

By the end of this two class arc, students had two different examples of the application of theory in concrete ways.  Next time I teach this class I am going to have a more defined section on theory, and probably build in an additional class and assignment that recapitulates the different theories the students have been exposed to.  Nevertheless, I think the concrete application of theory evinced in the In Theory podcast and in Typhoid Mary really helped to clarify theory for students.

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