As I suspect is the case for many members of the Section, my identity as a social theorist is inseparably tied to my identity as a teacher of undergraduate and especially graduate courses on sociological theory. Certainly, my engagement with and commitment to especially classical sociological theory has been deepened by my experience teaching the first-semester theory course to incoming graduate students at the University of Michigan almost continuously now for well over a decade. The task of brushing the dust off of canonical texts and making them sparkle anew for fresh recruits to Sociology – whether or not they see themselves as inclined toward theory – is an exhilarating challenge that defines the fall for me as much as shortened days and turning leaves.
Two-thirds of the way through the semester, the students had dug in, and I was losing faith that there was any value in my approach to teaching theory. I set aside a class period in which we could critically discuss the construction of the sociological canon, hoping to air the tensions, engage them constructively, and get back on track to finish the semester. But instead of dissipating the tensions, the session amplified them, and the classroom erupted in expressions of fury and despair that had no precedent in my teaching career. In the lingo of college teaching, it was a “hot moment” – or more accurately, a “hot two hours.” What affected me most was the pain students reported experiencing upon reading many of the texts I assigned in the course. I told them that the texts were painful because the world they reflected – and constructed – was in fact full of pain, and that as sociologists we couldn’t avert our eyes from the ugly reality of a social world built on hierarchy and exclusion. But of course, I was well aware in saying this that, for me, reading Locke, Malthus, or Marx was an intellectual exercise; I did not feel personally assaulted by these texts and their silences. I realized I had to grapple with a gaping chasm between my experience and what my students were experiencing in encountering the classical canon.
“Inhabiting the space between ‘blind reverence’ and ‘outright dismissal’ is easier said than done...”
What to do? As the semester concluded, I began to contemplate what a different approach to teaching theory would look like. Those ruminations continued over the following year, and into this fall when – with considerable trepidation – I rolled out a new version of the course. Here is how I explained the objectives of the course – and my approach to teaching it – on my syllabus:
Inhabiting the space between “blind reverence” and “outright dismissal” is easier said than done, but I followed several guiding principles that have made this possible. First, rather than approaching these texts in terms of their context of production, I have attempted to situate theories by examining their conditions of possibility. It is perhaps a subtle shift, but I think a critical one. By “context of production,” I mean an analysis of the particular circumstances in which specific theorists wrote, including the conventional ideas available to them at the time they fashioned their ideas. This of course is the bread and butter of theoretical exegesis, and in certain respects it is essential to interpreting the meaning of a text. But there is the temptation here to explain too much away, giving theorists a “pass” by suggesting that we ought not judge them by moral and social values “ahead” of their own time. Instead of engaging texts from this angle, I focus on the historical “conditions of possibility” that determine the production and selection of these texts as “canonical,” as well as the exclusion of other texts from this elevated status. Put differently, the emphasis here is less on celebrating or condemning particular theorists for what they did – or did not – write, and more on developing a sociology of knowledge that helps us to understand how the ideas that underpin the discipline gained their position of privilege.
A second orienting principle is to seek continuous dialogue between canonical texts and perspectives that are implicitly or explicitly excluded from those texts. In my reconstructed syllabus, I do this by systematically pairing readings: we read Locke’s Second Treatise of Government against Patricia Williams’s essay, “On Being the Object of Property”; we interrogate Adam Smith’s musings on the division of labor against Paula England’s critique of dichotomous thinking in economics; we study Marx’s historical materialism against Cedric Robinson’s early formulation of “racial capitalism”; the Marx of Capital is read against feminist writings on care work; Weber’s “Bureaucracy” gets placed side-by-side with Joan Acker’s and Victor Ray’s attempt to “gender” and “racialize” organizational theory, respectively; Gayle Rubin’s “Traffic in Women” is situated in a global context by virtue of an encounter with Kimberly Hoang’s Dealing in Desire, and so on. In each such pairing, the question is whether a particular exclusion is integral to the text, or merely incidental to the author’s argument and meaning. If we re-narrated the theory fully attending to social difference, would that theory operate in basically the same way or would its architecture and logic be fundamentally changed?
“...the emphasis here is ... on developing a sociology of knowledge that helps us to understand how the ideas that underpin the discipline gained their position of privilege...”
The third organizing principle of my revamped course is the concept of “repurposing”: we consider whether and to what extent theories that are built on problematic foundations (when considered from the vantage point of race, gender, sexuality, the non-Western world, and so on) can nevertheless be directed toward ends that are different than those imagined by their originators. There are many instances of such repurposings in social theory. Perhaps my favorite such maneuver is Gayle Rubin’s appropriation of Claude Levi-Strauss and Sigmund Freud in order to build a feminist theory of the origins of gender subordination. Rubin observes:
Of course, repurposing theory is no simple exercise. As Rubin notes later in the same essay, “Levi-Strauss and Freud write within intellectual traditions produced by a culture in which women are oppressed. The danger in my enterprise is that the sexism in the traditions of which they are a part tends to be dragged in with each borrowing.” Herein lies the key conundrum posed by attempts to repurpose theory: can we lift concepts out of their original contexts and shape them to new ends, or are those concepts forever contaminated with the mark of their origins? There may not be one answer to this question, but I appreciate the formulation offered by one of my students this fall: “You eat the meat, and throw away the bone.”
“...can we lift concepts out of their original contexts and shape them to new ends, or are those concepts forever contaminated with the mark of their origins?”
As the semester draws to a close, I do not feel I have resolved all the issues involved in teaching theory in the transformed landscape of the present, but I do feel like I’ve learned some things – and will continue learning with the assistance of my students. Since I know from conversations with colleagues across the country that I am not alone in facing new challenges in the theory classroom, I’ve organized the program at next year’s ASA to engage in and reflect on these challenges.
With best wishes to all for a peaceful and prosperous New Year!
 Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex.” In Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 34.
 Ibid., p. 58.