Atkinson, Dwight. “Between Theory with a Big ‘T’ and Practice with a Small ‘P’:  Why Theory Matters.” Practicing Theory in Second Language Writing. Eds. Matsuda, Paul Kei and Tony Silva. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2010. Print.

  • A. starts by acknowledging that the English teacher is often an individual that socializes students into a particular world view.  As such, they should attempt to link this charge with a reasonable ethics and politics.  Most especially this involves “helping people ‘know what what they do does’ (or may do)” (Foucault qtd. on 5).
  • In this essay A. attempts to link the theory and practice of L2 teaching in order to understand better what he does in the classroom and, perhaps, what what he does does (6).  In short, A. argues that theory doesn’t necessarily inform practice and practice doesn’t create theory; rather, they are mutually constructive, combined in a “lively and necessary dialogue.”  But, as A. notes, theory is not a “panacea”; rather, it is often a spark or irritant.
  • A. argues that a distinction needs to be made between different types of theory and different types of practice in our field:

  • Theory with a Big T:  this includes a “system of principles, ideas, and concepts used to explain, understand, or predict some phenomena or phenomenon” and can be divided two ways:  1) scientific theory – positivist objectivism; and 2)  social macro-theory – grand attempts to explain how the human world works (7).  Examples of social macro-theory include capitalism, Marxism, positivism, deconstructivism, etc.  Examples of Big T theory in L2 writing are predicated on the concept that “all language learning requires some level of conscious noticing or attention to form” (9).  Examples include William Grabe’s work on L2 writing, the Monitor Model (Krashen), and Focus on Form theory (Michael Long).  On the social-macro end A. offers examples of neo-Marxist critical pedagogy that highlights the role of literacy in class inequity.  Theory with a Big T often consist of metanarratives.
  • Theory with a small t:  “a speculative approach to something.”[1. I wonder if this roughly corresponds to Kant’s minor tradition taken up in the work of speculative realism?]  These theories engage relative/localized locations because they are contingent and rhetorical – bound to the contours of any given situational ecology.  A. uses examples like Foucault’s work on interventions in prisoners rights in France.  Theory with a small t claims that some of the metanarratives from Big T can be “modalized” or operationalized for particular situations and contexts.  This is a space where what what we do does can be discovered utilizing some of the Big T theory for small contexts.  A. uses the example of “coherence” and Bartholomae’s work on the expert discourse of the academy as a place to consider the metanarrative of purpose in Writing to reveal particular material pressures. . . like the pressure of moving from material to immaterial production (13).
  • Practice with a small p:  This refers to customary or habitual action and “attempts to capture what people, including teachers, do when they assume a “ccommonplace” view of reality” (8) or a “this is what’s in front of me – I’ll respond to it”).  In some senses these are routinized actions ( ).  This can be seen in the instrumentalization of teaching for practical purposes like standardized testing and the influence of our experiences and attitudes toward teaching in our pedagogies.
  • Practice with a bit P:  “outward-looking, reflective, and open to formulation” (8).  A. has a difficult time defining examples of big P practice as it tends to be localized and contextual.  As such, he provides it as the counterpart to small-t theory in the Practice-theory dialectic (they are dialectically informative for one another).  This is the Practice of teaching as mediation . . . our pedagogies are mediated by the theoretical and practical contexts/influences that we’ve encountered over the course of our professional lives.  As such, P practice is informed by t theory.  As A. notes, “By developing and using thinking tools which are local enough yet flexible enough to allow connections to be made between the classroom and the world, teachers involve themselves in the dialectical fashioning of knowledge – of small narratives” (11).  [2. A key question for your WAB presentation involves this intersection/interaction between P practice and t theory.  How does t theory operate at the level of P practice with respect to the T theory of translingualism . . . or is translingual language policy inherently t theory?]
  • A. argues that we must delink theory and practice by adopting t theory in relation to practice as this is the way we can get outside the current possibilities offered by practice toward the generation of new t theory p practice.  (16)  He links this process to the work of Horkheimer on “critical theory” or theory that will help us better envision our role and place in the world outside the constraints of our current observed practices.

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