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Saturday, September 7, 2013

Assignments—Social and Cultural Theory Letter (Autumn 2013)

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Assignments"
One year ago on Round and Square (7 September 2012)—The Cortex Chronicles: Punting and Trolleys
Two years ago on Round and Square (7 September 2011)—Seinfeld Ethnography: Exploding Wallet

[a] Refined RF
Social and Cultural Theory 
Anthropology 206 
Autumn 2013 

Preliminary Writing Assignment 
Theory: The Letter

By choosing the letter format for your first writing assignment, I am asking you to build upon the skills you have already begun to develop in analyzing (and providing examples for) theoretical constructions.  You have already reached a point where you have some experience with “theory,” and your job will be to explain it to an intelligent non-specialist.
Letters from “the field” (or our modified “archive” of theoretical works in Moore) are a good way to refine your thoughts about ethnographic and historical study, and they are a useful medium for beginning the intellectual “framing process” that will accelerate as we move through the next two-thirds of the course. The letter writing exercise is especially useful while studying theoretical source materials. The nonfiction writer John McPhee explains to his students that a letter is often precisely the solution to problems of interpretation or clarity—when in doubt, write to mother, he says. In this case, it is not a plea of “send money” that the letter contains, but a reworking, rethinking, and contextualization of your work. You need not limit yourself to kinfolk, but you need to think about who the recipient will be (ideally someone who will welcome a letter about “doing theory”).

You owe it to yourself to listen to this long interview with McPhee. At the very least, listen to the first two minutes. It is the very purpose behind this assignment.

Now start writing. Toward that end, you should pay attention to the following issues.

1. The letter needs to be “long enough” to get you deeply into several issues regarding theory itself, particular approaches, and a few examples.  There is no absolute upper limit, but I am going to make a lower limit of 2,000 words (about six pages). Even if you are a very efficient writer (2,000 words is barely adequate), you will need this much “space” to give your reader a good picture of your work. Somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 words (six to ten pages) is just about right. Include a word count at the end of our paper (e.g. “2, 877 words” or Word Count: 2,877).
2. I am asking you to connect with a very specific reader, and to explain “theory” in a level of detail that she will find satisfying.  You are the expert, and your “audience” is the person who will be reading your letter (I will, of course, be reading over her shoulder).  I have found that this kind of assignment helps students to explain even abstruse matters, because the personal relationship they have with their readers demands an attention to patient explanation that is often lacking in more “academic” forms of writing, in which they assume that a professor already knows what they are writing about.

3. You may approach your materials from any angle that you like, but you will need to “cover” at least the following items, no matter what order you choose.

          a. You must discuss the “what is theory?” question. Provide your reader with 
              at least a few ways of thinking about it.

          b. Give your reader a sense of what you have learned up to this point about 
              how to “apply” theory. Use examples, either from the course or your own work.

          c. Finally, give your reader some sense of what it is like to “learn theory” by 
              discussing the literary and historical dimensions of some of our texts.  It 
              might be useful to think of the “pragmatic/historical” dimensions that are 
              explained on the syllabus.
4. The best way to approach the writing process is in three parts (this is a friendly suggestion). First, jot down some notes for each of the “sections” of your letter. Second, using those notes as a guide, write a rough draft of the whole letter. Third, revise, polish, and refine. Voilà you will have something not unlike what Alexis de Tocqueville might have written about understanding a complex, foreign culture that baffled and enticed him 180 years ago. While your letter won’t be as long as Democracy in America, it is likely—if it is done well—to be much like Tocqueville’s rich and evocative letters back to his family about encountering people, texts, and institutions in a strange land called the United States. 

You get the idea. If you don't, just raise your hand and ask me (or send me an e-mail message). I'll be happy to help.

Letters are due (in hard copy form) outside my door 
by 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 29.

Add the word count and your box number to all papers!
[e] Balancing RF

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