Monday, August 06, 2007

Theory Camp Reflections

Theory Camp was a good idea. Rather than working with one student all summer on a research project, I spent two weeks with five students working through one substantial book, Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies. This is a great fat book, about 1000 pages altogether, and we were zipping through parts of it to read it all in two weeks. Still, for a group to set aside that amount of time to work through one idea is a rich experience.

We ate together outside of camp at the beginning, in the end, and several times in the middle, to talk about all manner of things. The core task, though, was to read an assigned hunk of Collins each night, then discuss it for two and a half hours each morning. Naturally, we met the the coffee house. I enjoyed the buzz of life around us as we talked, but then enjoying the buzz of life is one of the things that makes people become sociologists in the first place.

Collins' theory, as I have been detailing in recent posts, is that the greatest moments of creativity come when a small number of competing networks gather around a common problem and push one another to argue through to a richer solution. He says that for this competition to be fruitful, there need to be a minimum of three, and a maximum of about six positions gathered around the "attention space." It occured to me several times as the six of us gathered around the table, with Collins' fat volume in the center, that we were enacting this idea in miniature. Except that we weren't really competing. And we didn't have fully differentiated arguments, much less networks, backing us up.

Still, the students brought their thoughtful selves to the discussion. We each had done enough different substantial things to bring a body of experience to think with to the table. We didn't have shouting matches like some that we read about -- Centre is not that kind of place. But we did seriously bring our somewhat varied experiences to bear on understanding and using Collins' rich argument.

At our last celebratory meal we thought about what should be added to theory camp in the future. The biggest idea that came through was that each participants should write a "main point" statement to bring to each session. This might be simply the main point that they took away from that night's reading, or the main idea they had thought of while reading it of how to use that day's concepts. As usual, Centre students rose to the challenge, and thought of ways that the project can be made more challenging.

I am looking forward to theory camp next year. The likely book: Jeffrey Alexander's The Civil Sphere.


Anonymous said...

Did the students receive credit for this? If so, how much? Were you able to offer it as Pass/Fail?

It sounds like you had a lot of fun.

Gruntled said...

Not credit, but money. I used the collaborative research money the college normally grants and gave them stipends. This not only was to cover their living expenses, but to make up for the summer jobs they quit in order to study.