Making Theory Stick(y): Suggestions for Teachers and Learners

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I remember my first encounter with theory. My Intro to English professor assigned two readings early in the semester: excerpts from Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World and Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture. I assumed these were novels (albeit with strange titles). That night, I read the words on the page, but they washed right through the sieve of my understanding. We never got around to discussing the texts next class. I decided theory wasn’t my thing.

Fast forward several years: today my relationship with theory is complicated. I love what it makes possible—with theory we can frame and reframe, uncover, trace, compare, hedge, consider, map, link. I want to share these tools with my undergraduate students. I want to help them access some of the big ideas that have shaped (one version of) intellectual history. But I also understand students’ resistance when I assign readings from Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed or Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. This isn’t what they planned to do in a writing course, and theory can be difficult and alienating. It’s often like that for me, too.

So I want to offer a few suggestions for making theory sticky. This is an idea I’m borrowing from Muriel Harris, who borrowed it from Chip Heath and Dan Heath, who wrote Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Their basic premise is this: if we want an idea to stick in someone’s mind, to become “sticky,” then we need get at its core. A sticky idea, according to Harris:

  • Is compact and profound

  • Avoids complexity

  • Prefers simplicity

  • Builds on positive schemas

  • When necessary, replaces old schemas with the schemas we want to stick (49)

The Heaths are even more direct in their book, using “SUCCES” as a (misspelled) acronym for the six core ingredients of stickiness. In order to stick, they claim, concepts must be:

  • Simple

  • Unexpected

  • Concrete

  • Credible

  • Emotion-evoking

  • embedded in Stories (I consider this last one cheating, but I guess it’s stickier.)

Two potential objections come to mind after I read these lists of sticky qualities. First, any teacher knows it’s not easy to package dense theoretical concepts into compact, simple ideas for the classroom. Second, I’m always wary of mnemonic devices and other corporate-sounding strategies for shaping human behavior.

But hear me out: theory’s difficulty and complexity, its inherent rigor and struggle, are part of its value. Students need to grapple with these texts. Scholars, teachers, learners need to grapple with these texts. I would be shortchanging my students if I offered them some version of “critical theory for dummies” without grounding it in the theoretical reading itself. But once students push through that initial reading encounter, then teachers can work on the sticky part: finding strategies that strive toward concretization, simplicity, and emotional investment, even if these are unattainable ideals. So here are a few sticky tactics that have helped me, as both a teacher and a student of theory.

Tactic #1: Getting Visual

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This might seem obvious. In a culture as image-obsessed as ours, students (and teachers) often can’t see the dense layers of meaning embedded in a theoretical formulation until they map it out for themselves. Images are often much stickier than printed text, I’ve learned. Drawing what the panopticon looks like—or better yet, turning the classroom itself into a mock panopticon—has a high potential for stickiness. Creating an image of tree, complete with the different “branches” of Aristotelian rhetorical theory, can be sticky. The goal is to create or collaborate on something so vivid that it stays imprinted in a student’s mind after class ends. There are unlimited ways to do this: I’ve asked classes to compose visual representations of theory using clipart, infographics, post-it notes, timelines, and apps like Wordle. We’ve drawn cartoons and solar systems and theoretical webs. Using iMovie or even a simple program like Screencast-o-matic, we’ve created theory “trailers” with mass audience appeal. Whatever you can do to get students seeing a visual manifestation of the words they’re reading on the page—that activity has the potential to stick. Maybe not for every reader, every time… but it will usually work for some of them.

Tactic #2: Getting Dialogic

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If visual aids aren’t your pedagogical strong point (I’ve done some truly regrettable things with dry erase markers at the front of a classroom), then vivid conversation and re-articulation can also help theory stick in students’ minds. Two of my favorite strategies are asking classes to translate theory, and asking them to put theory in dialogue with other theory. In the past I’ve had students take a tough concept like Bakhtin’s “chronotopic lamination” and write multiple definitions of it, with different audiences in mind: a five-year-old, a college student, and a professor of art history, for instance. I’ve asked them to perform a theoretical debate, writing back-and-forth retorts between Stanley Fish and Vershawn Ashanti Young about language and difference. Sometimes I even get into meta-teaching territory, inviting students to come up with an assignment or a project that will help everyone grasp the theoretical concept in question—and then making them facilitate that activity in class! (Bonus points for student-directed learning.)

Tactic #3: Getting Emotional

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Finally, emotion is one of the most effective pedagogical tools for stickiness. If we want our students to care about a text or an idea, then they need to feel something in response. Research in education and writing studies has long advocated for helping students create and recognize emotional connections to what they learn (Swalwell; Boler; Winans). It can be difficult, though, asking people to form an emotional attachment to a reading when they’re lost in the dense thicket of its sentences. So I’ve often used emotion as a magnifying glass in the classroom, casting it as an interpretive strategy: Where do you see the writer getting angry in this piece? Where do you notice the expression of yearning? What do you think brings this author intellectual joy? What is the end goal or lifelong dream or worst nightmare for (insert theorist here)? On the flip side, students can also bring a theoretical lens to bear on their personal experience, as I ask them to do in a revisionist literacy narrative assignment. They consider how a complex framework of learning and language development, drawn from tricky prose of someone like James Paul Gee or Lev Vygotsky, links up (or contrasts) with their own educational history. It’s hard not to feel an emotional pull when you turn inward, when you look back on your own life.

So there you have it. This is just a quick snapshot of tactics; I’m always taking ideas from other teachers to add to my pedagogical toolbox, and I’d love to hear more of them. I think bringing theory into the writing classroom is the kind of tough work that requires collaboration and lots of support. So in that spirit, I will leave you with my final, fool-proof strategy for getting complex ideas to stick: Never underestimate the power of the Venn diagram.

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Thank you to Dr. Rachel Azima for introducing me to the concept of stickiness, teaching me how to make my cross-departmental communication stickier, and just being generally fantastic.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. New edition ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. Print. Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print. Boler, Megan. Feeling Power: Emotions and Education. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print. Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30 Anniversary ed. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2000. Print. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Print. Harris, Muriel. “Making Our Institutional Discourse Sticky: Suggestions for Effective Rhetoric.” The Writing Center Journal 30.2 (2010): 47-71. Print. Heath, Chip and Dan Heath. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. New York: Random House, 2007. Print. Schwartz, Barry. “In ‘Sticky’ Ideas, More is Less.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post Company. 17 January 2007. Web. 15 March 2016. Swalwell, Katy. “‘With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility’: Privileged Students’ Conceptions of Justice-Oriented Citizenship.” Democracy and Education 21.1 (1): 1-11. Print. Winans, Amy. “Cultivating Critical Emotional Literacy: Cognitive and Contemplative Approaches to Engaging Difference.” College English 75.2 (2012): 150-170. Print.

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