Thinking the theory across disciplines 

By Karen Herland

Valérie Cools and Mirella Vadean help coordinate Thinking the theory. Magnifying glass

Valérie Cools and Mirella Vadean help coordinate Thinking the theory.

Graduate students often find themselves allied with their individual supervisors when exploring the realm of their particular discipline. ‘Thinking the theory’ is a reading group that gives young researchers the opportunity to push the theoretical boundaries of their research in a collaborative, non-hierarchal context.

"Not enough attention is paid to theory. I wanted something that would encourage us to move beyond acquired knowledge," says PhD student Mirella Vadean, who proposed the idea of an interdisciplinary, interuniversity reading group a year ago within the Département d'Études françaises. With logistical support from the department and three other students, the group was born.

Vadean was aware the process of completing a PhD can be solitary work. After a year or two of course work, "we end up isolated, trying to understand and cope with difficult questions raised by our subjects."

She points out addressing these questions is the real crux of doctoral and post-doctoral work. Her own research in the Special Individualized Program combines literature, philosophy and musicology to address the mythology inherent in Tolkein's Lord of the Rings.

An early ally was Valérie Cools, who was finishing her MA in the Département d'Études françaises. Since then, she's become a PhD candidate in the Humanities program, combining elements of literary and cultural studies with art history to study Japanese manga as a transnational cultural form.

The group has grown to include 35 PhD and post-doctoral level researchers representing the four Montreal universities, but goes well beyond our city. Thinking the theory also includes the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, Université Laval, and institutions in France and the U.S. Members' theoretical approaches include communications, cultural studies, literature, translation, art history, anthropology and sociology.

"Our strength is in the exchange, which is necessary in an interdisciplinary context," says Vadean.

In the year since the group began, they have established a website to facilitate ongoing consultation and collaboration. Members frequently use the site to seek feedback, try to find references, bibliographies or ideas from members in particular fields to complement their own research. The site gets 1 700 hits a month. "I've gotten some really great references for my own work," says Vadean.

Each month, the group sets a reading list and date for a lecture/discussion. They try to get a speaker to lead each discussion. They have maintained their international membership by cobbling together links via Yahoo messenger or MSN to be able to meet virtually in real time.

"It's hard to come up with a subject of interest to everyone across so many fields. Just doing that is an exercise in interdisciplinarity," says Vadean.

The group has developed presentations for the upcoming 77th conference for the Association francophone pour le savoir (ACFAS) and is planning a symposium for November. They are also thinking more about publishing. They were offered the current issue of Post.Scriptum, an interdisciplinary research magazine on text and media.

"We had five weeks to put together a special issue. It was a great motivator," says Cools. She also credits the collaborative process with sustaining the project. As one of the seven committee members keeping the project organized, she stresses "we are all on the same level. Being on the committee is not about power, it is about getting the work done."

As the project gains momentum, it has also increased its financial support. In addition to resources from the Département d’Études françaises, the project currently has funds from the Concordia branch of Figura, Centre de recherche sur le texte et l’imaginaire, the Faculty of Arts and Science and the Office of the Vice-President, Research and Graduate Studies.


Concordia University