Incorporating Theory in Scholarly Writing

By Casey Bolt, English B.A. student


On Wednesday, January 25th in Corbly Hall 408, the Graduate Programs Committee sponsored a workshop entitled “Using Theory in Scholarly Writing” presented by Dr. Margaret Sullivan, a professor here at Marshall University. The lecture provided great insights on how to use the different theories (e.g. feminism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis) in scholarly writing, especially writing that looks into the deeper meanings of all sorts of mediums of texts.

At the beginning of the workshop, Dr. Sullivan asked the audience what our difficulties were when it comes to incorporating theory in our writing. Most of us agreed that it was deciding which theory was best to use when analyzing a text as well as wading through all the different articles associated with particular theories.

Our difficulties gave her the opportunity to bring up her fundamental moves in using theory. Her first move, which answers the audience’s difficulty in narrowing down theory, is to focus it. To focus on a theory we need to explore our chosen topics to find what we want our point to be. After this we should condense the theory we want to use down, and then find what we want to be the centrality of our piece and theory. Another suggestion of hers to help with this process is for a person to write like they are writing to a sophomore in college, which means that everything needs to be clarified and easily understood but not overly simplistic as to be redundant.

In her fundamental moves in using theory, her second suggestion is to “own” the theory. When she told her audience this, she explained that it meant to say something about the theory and the text that has not been said before. It is possible for a theory and text to never have been discussed together, but it is only useful to discuss if the theory helps the text and doesn’t just simply “apply, apply, apply.” According to Sullivan and Alexander Doty, an author she quoted from, the text and theory should interweave together and work with one another. This is her last fundamental move in using theory, which is that weaving theory with textual details is key.

She then answered a few questions on what her process is and what she has done. A good starting off point, she said, when using a theory–especially one that you are unfamiliar with–is to read what other people have talked about with the theory. One suggestion she made is to outline the textual material and theory, though she acknowledges that everyone should find the method that works for them. However, she also pointed out that after you have begun writing and you keep writing, sometimes you find a different conclusion than the one you started with. No matter what, though, keeping stuff you have written can be useful, and she says the process of exploration is sometimes an important aspect to finding pieces for your writing. She is not saying everything will be publishable, but that you can learn from the stuff you did not use.

Lastly she did an exercise with us that involved explaining queer theories in Mad Men. She showed a clip from the show and then asked us to give a textual detail and then apply the theory.

Dr. Sullivan did an excellent job giving suggestions and helpful steps on using theory in scholarly writing.


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