So what’s a theor-orgasm?
Well it’s a term that one of my friends used to use and I suspect she invented it, although I’m not sure. I couldn’t find it when I googled it so I think that she must have.
Her job involved her working as an industry/practice research partner with academics. These days, in the UK, she would be seen as being the person with whom knowledge was being exchanged.
She would often come back from partnership meetings with academics and, when asked how it had gone, would sigh loudly and say “Oh well, another theor-orgasm….” She meant by this that the academics had engaged in a lot of theoretical talk which was of no interest to her. She saw theory-talk as self-indulgent and self-pleasuring – in other words, and in fact the very words she used, she saw the academics engaged in theory-work as wankers and the process of theorising social phenomena as one of wanking. Theory was, she said, only helpful if it was practical; if it wasn’t producing any information useful in the professional contexts that she cared about and was representing, then she wasn’t interested.
When pushed, she did admit that she wasn’t actually theory averse and there was quite a lot of theory that she used in her work. But she said, what she didn’t want to be involved in was the generation of that theory. She thought that the work of theorising – producing specific languages, explanations and thus meanings that might be applied to phenomena – was something that ought to be done by consenting academic adults in the appropriate place (in universities). She recognised that the process of theorising could be intensely pleasurable, if one was so minded, but it wasn’t something that she wanted to do. She really didn’t want it foisted on her with an expectation that she would participate – as if she had given consent. And she certainly didn’t want to have to sit quiet and watch while the act was performed in front of her.
Now, her responses might be easily dismissed as both anti-academic and anti-intellectual, and that might be right. But that wasn’t all that was going on in her coining of the theor-orgasm term. In the rest of this post, I want to focus on the situation she was addressing – the work of partnership.
I work with some practice partners who don’t mind theoretical discussions – in my case these are artists. The work that they do is profoundly about ideas, and I know from long term observation of, and conversation about, what they do, that we have a mutual interest in understanding arts-education practice much better. My research partner Chris and I have, in fact, just had a wonderful day with a group of six artists talking about what they do, how they do it, and how it might be made sense of. I think it would be disrespectful and elitist to assume that they didn’t have an interest in theory.
However, it would be equally patronising for me to assume that these artists had read everything I have and that they have an interest in discussing the relative positions of various theories and theorists . They’ve been working away at their arts practices while I have on mine – research and teaching. So I don’t expect to sing, act or write as well as they do, nor do I expect them to have read shelf loads of philosophy, cultural studies, social science and geography. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a meeting place.
But there are things I have to do to make that meeting place work.
Academic practice in the social sciences is about generating theory as a means of producing understandings. When I go into the shared partnership space, I have an obligation to try to make my reading comprehensible and available for deconstruction, joint discussion and development. If I litter my conversation with names, book titles and too many new concepts all at once, then I WOULD be just wanking on. I would be setting up a conversation using my rules and my conventions. It would be on and in my terms. For me, partnership work requires a process of translation and interpretation, of moving from one genre of communication to another. I must come out of the privacy of my academic bedroom and into the shared public space of the partnership lounge.
Yes, academic-practice partnerships can be tricky. They need careful thought. Both parties may have to give up or modify their habituated behaviours in order not to piss the other one off (to put not too fine a point on it). Both are working to build something different together than what each does separately. So finding out expectations of what counts as acceptable conduct at the start is pretty important. The rules of engagement need to be considered and negotiated.
But it’s also worth remembering that practice partners are not all the same. Some partners are very focused on research that will help them do what they do in better ways (whatever better might be). Like my friend, they want the theories that are talked about to be put to work at the time rather than left without their practice connections being made clear. Other practice partners, as in the case of the artists with whom I work, ARE profoundly interested in producing better understandings of what’s going on in their contexts and in new ones we might invent together. They are happy to have conversations where there appear to be no immediate outcomes other than some interesting ideas being aired and shared.
This all points to the importance of choosing partners carefully. I would go nuts – and indeed have – if teamed up with a practice partner who just wants to know what works. Other academics that I know are pretty happy in this situation. But I need to work with partners who are interested in ideas per se. My friend and I couldn’t work in partnership together I’m sure.
I reckon the choice of who to team up with must always involve a consideration of the fit between the two parties – there needs to be some compatibility of purpose, process and some hope of mutual pleasuring. If not, the partnership runs the risk of only one party getting what they need, while the other squirms in discomfort at the time – and then rants after the event. We might get new terms out of these kinds of experiences, but not much else.
Superb Pat. For years I worked in the voluntary and statutory social services, holding relatively senior positions, and was probably not dissimilar in my outlook to your friend. Like her, I was not really either anti-intellectual or anti-academic, but needed to engage at a level that communicated in the world I lived and worked in. I found too much ‘academic’ content obscurantist and, when taken apart, shallow or obvious!
Now I’ve changed sides and am in process of writing my doctoral thesis – something I never dreamed I would ever want to do, let alone actually be doing! A key lesson I have brought forward is that of accessibility and communication. Yes, I want to explore my interests in depth, but also in a way which speaks to the other world that I remain part of.
I think now researchers have to be kind of multilingual. We have different languages and genres that we use to talk about our ideas with different communities.
Lizit – that’s really interesting cos I’m in a very similar situation. I still work within a voluntary sector agency and am working part time on my doctoral thesis. I work within an agency that has umpteen requests to provide people as research fodder and have spent many years in rottweiler mode as I do my best to protect them. People can be seduced by academic language and end up being used and abused. I’m trying to work out how to tell people’s stories and to make them co-creators of my work without patronising or exploiting or getting off on my own ideas. Finding a practice partner might be one of the ways forward – or perhaps it’s about serial partnering?
When I was a head teacher Marion, we developed a policy specifying the conditions under which we would allow researchers into the school. We generally insisted on a reference committee for projects that we approved, and we only approved those that we thought would have benefits for kids communities or schools. Now I’m on the other side of the research I’m always keen to try to sort out the reciprocal benefits of the relationship. My doc students often work as unpaid teaching assistants in schools as part of their research arrangements.
We’ve put protocols in place but that doesn’t always make the decisions easy – I work with people who live with HIV and so have access to a particular group of people who probably won’t benefit directly from the research although it may have its own value. I think that’s where the dilemmas lie – for instance I facilitate a support group for African women living with HIV (in Scotland) and that group is frequently targeted by researchers who want eg to compare experiences cross culturally or indeed cross continents. My own position is different in that I have existing relationships – which brings its own ethical challenges of course. But you’re absolutely right – reciprocity seems to me to be crucial if we are to practise with integrity.
That must be difficult. My first headship was a school for kids who were school refusers, young offenders, homeless … I know the press for research access to them and the decision was always about the greater good rather than any benefit to the kids directly, and they had strong views about what they’d participate in too which had to be honoured.
My research is in the special needs area with a special focus on the Asperger’s/HFA domain. It’s an area I am deeply embedded in from personal experience, and what you are both saying resonates so much with me. A very real dilemma for me has been recognising the boundaries between what I do as a volunteer in this area and what I am doing as a researcher. There is something about the whole idea of co-creators – something I would love to explore further. One of the things that made me very sceptical of academia was the way accredited knowledge is privileged over other forms of expertise – now if there was a way of turning that on its head in a positive way through appropriate partnering….
Lizit – I wonder whether there would be a value in us continuing this conversation in a more private space. My email is email@example.com if you want to continue some dialogue.
If you’d both like to do a guest blog on this let me know. Looks like a very helpful conversation. I’d be more than happy to publish.
I’ve emailed Marion – let’s keep in touch on this 🙂
agh – spoke too soon! email failed. Marion can you tweet me @lizith and we can take this from there
There’s lots in this post and comments that resonates with me. I often feel frustrated by the sense in which I can feel myself prejudged, not just by work partners, with the assumption that as an academic I am necessarily going to be talking a different language and unable to engage with ‘real’ concerns and situations. I think it’s our duty to work at these assumptions through our research – to prove that we can communicate, and it is certainly one of the aspirations of up-close-and-personal research methods as I understand them. The ideal is guess is thinking about it as a conversation, one in which there may be several partners and everyone has a space in the dialogue. The other most difficult thing I have found with partnering is the critique. There’s never an easy way to go about developing a critical but supportive response to problematics. The comments above prompted me to think about the kind of dishonesty which I felt at times during my doctoral research. Reflecting on those first means of contact, perhaps the wording of a participant information sheet, or the manner in which I introduced myself and my interests, or the cagey moments during fieldwork when you’ve witnessed things that by various benchmarks could be considered inappropriate, hurtful, or oppressive, and a participant asks you ‘so, what do you think’. It was really quite surprising and almost disturbing to look back on those moments of self presentation and think about the effects they might have had in terms of shaping subsequent interactions. It was also one of the things that prompted me to share my fieldnotes with the teachers who’s classes I had been observing. Still one of the most unnerving experiences of my research career, both teachers were, quite understandably, pretty taken aback by the level of detail in the notes, and by the inclusion of things that seemed mundane or unimportant – fragments of conversations before classes, minute-by-minute accounts of their normal day-to-day routines. One teacher told me she felt ‘betrayed’ by what she read in some critical remarks I had made earlier on in the data collection when I was really just feeling my way around. Still I think it was an important thing to have done and learnt from, but it is something that rarely makes it into larger scale projects.
Maybe this is a post .. Maybe you want to guest write it?? If not I could try to incorporate these comments into one…