How to Read Theory

Nikki Usher
4 min readOct 6, 2015

When I was in college, reading theory was trial by fire — it might have been where I went to school, or simply that just over ten years ago, everything was just so much more inaccessible that no one thought to give any guidance about how to make reading theory easier. I should have written this for my students earlier, and I am sorry I did not, but it only just occured to me thanks to this class that reading theory is something that should be taught because this wasn’t taught to me.

You can’t just throw theory at someone and expect them to have a meaningful experience, if they aren’t so inclined. And you want students to leave the reading feeling inclined toward theory, not frustrated, so basically my pedagogy until now could use some improvement (though I have some converts).

Here’s how I do it/did it/do it — maybe this will work for you:

  1. Think about the historical context. History will help you. I tried to give my students just a few sentences before they began. (Adorno and Horkheimer were Germans who escaped from the Nazis only to find themselves in Los Angeles….) With Habermas, think about European history and the Age of Enlightenment/Revolutions.
  2. Print it out if it’s a PDF or an electronic link. Otherwise, use a pen to underline or a highlighter. Unless you’re really good, you’re going to want some sort of tactile experience underlining and highlighting stuff, and you’ll want to be able to easily flip through things (without the distraction of reading something hard, going to Facebook, and then forgetting what you just worked so hard to read).
  3. Take just a few pages, or if its your first time, just a few paragraphs. Maybe don’t worry about the whole thing at once. Break it up. 10 pages at a time, 1 page at a time.
  4. Look for commonly appearing words/synonyms in the text — is the word “culture industry” used over and over again? Or words like “sameness” and “replication” or “mass production” and “mass culture”
  5. Figure out what those commonly appearing words are, and try to figure out the sentences that surround the phrases you keep seeing. Chances are if you can unlock this, you will have unlocked the biggest part of your theory.
  6. Don’t expect to understand every word, or every reference. The discipline of philosophy (and comparative literature, and to some extent English and other fields) exist in part so people can parce every word of a theorist and try to slice, dice and understand what it means. A lot of times these texts were written in obscure times, or even in times you don’t remember that were just a short time ago. If you have time, sure, Google Greta Garbo, you should know who she is, but don’t worry if you don’t catch every reference to every composer, as long as you can guess that Shoenburg was, most likely, a composer.
  7. As a corollary, don’t expect to understand every sentence. This stuff is often translated, and even when it is in English, sometimes it is written to be purposely obscure (it seems). Judith Butler, a famous rhetorician and gender theorist, regularly wins the “Bad Writing Contest.” The editor of Philosophy and Letters wrote in the award announcement for 1998, “This year’s winners were produced by well-known, highly-paid experts who have no doubt labored for years to write like this.”
  8. Figure out the structure of the theory. The trick about theory is that you never seem to know where that key paragraph will come. By try using visual cues in the text, for instance. Or try looking for moments in the text where those key words change from one theme to the next (“culture industry, sameness” to “labor,” “economics” “work”) — and you’ll start to realize there are different parts of the theory, and maybe you can start to identify where key points are being made, and what those points are.
  9. Be patient and don’t panic before class. You are reading this theory because it is literally supposed to change the way you think. It’s difficult, but rewarding, and don’t necessarily expect to get it on your own. It needs to be read, and reread, and discussed. As a corollary, though, try to read as much as you can before class, because that lightbulb moment is awesome, and you will feel so validated if you did understand what you think you did
  10. Most important: Remember why theory matters. Maybe I didn’t do the best job ramming it over the head, but theory is important because it helps explain social reality. Theory helps us understand how we think and perceive the world, giving us a language to speak about our common experiences. Theory gives us ideas that allow us to critique our experience, and to understand everything from the dynamics of power (most contemporary social theory) to how we might perceive the color blue (Hume). There’s big theory, like Adorno and Horkheimer and Habermas, and then there’s mid-range theory, like theories about objectivity, that help explain why a particular field or concept or experience is the way it is, and then there’s grounded theory, which emerges from empirically grounded research and may be both of those, or none of these, and speaks back to ways to describe the patterns and processes of observed experiences. Theory will, I promise, make your life richer if you take the time to understand it, even if you never had any intention of reading any of it.
  11. Suggestion 1 (by Deen Freelon, American U) — read other people who have written on/commented on the work: For instance, the John Durham Peters’ piece on Adorno & Horkheimer, or Craig Calhoun’s take on Habermas, as I offered to some in the class. Yes, that is a lot more reading, in some cases, what some professors might assign as an entire other day. But do it, if you want to really get this.

I am continually refining and retuning my teaching, and Medium has become a place to rethink pedagogy, so here is what I wish I knew to write five years ago, and am writing now. Hopefully this will be useful, and I hope for recommendations from others.



Nikki Usher

Associate Prof at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Studies news, politics, technology, and power with a humanistic social science take.