Theories. The one word that possibly strikes more fear in the hearts of students (and academics) than the word “exams”, for understanding them is often seen as being complex.
There is a misconception that theories only belong in universities or books — where they are learnt, tried, tested, challenged or debunked.
As a full-time academic and a self-proclaimed free-time filmmaker and leisure-time columnist, I witnessed the importance of theories at a working event in Indonesia. As a speaker, I shared the stage with a famous Indonesian cinematographer.
A student posed a seemingly fundamental question to the cinematographer, “How do you know that a shot is well composed?”
The cinematographer immediately whispered, “Adrian, can you answer this for me?” I replied, “No, you should.” He countered, “I don’t know how to answer this as it involves theories.”
I proceeded to answer using “theories”, and when I was done, the cinematographer pointed to me and said, “Yes, whatever he said”, and added on somewhat abstractly, “and when I see that a shot is nice, then it is nice”.
In academia, when writing a theoretical framework, many prefer to adopt models and concepts instead of using theories. This happens in both postgraduate studies and research.
This leaves much research void of theories and it becomes descriptive and atheoretical, for such research lacks theories that would allow the researcher to critically understand an issue or subject matter.
Without theories, the researcher cannot fully observe, understand and explain the relationships between concepts and contexts. When a theory isn’t used, the researcher doesn’t have a tool to correctly and critically identify and discuss an issue or context.
I, too, feared theories and preferred non-theoretical subjects as a student. What could be more complex than picking up a camera and shooting whatever I wanted? Unknowingly, this too is guided by theories.
Perhaps it is the language in which theories are discussed. But even if a theory is presented in the German language, it would be translated into English. Still, I found them challenging to understand, perhaps due to the importance given to studying English.
Maybe it is because the Malaysian school curriculum never truly exposed the students to the importance of reading for the sake of reading and understanding, or the importance of critical thinking and thinking critically. Often, we are only taught how to pass exams.
Many of my students feel the same way about theories. Eventually, many accept the importance of theories when they realise how the theories allow them to better understand issues and contexts, thus making their research or creative projects more critical. I often remind my students that everything must have a reason, purpose and meaning when making or studying a film. Also, it is necessary to understand the contexts in which the film was made and the guiding theory behind them.
When I point out errors in their films, many cheekily remind me how I have taught them to “break the rules”. They, however, remain silent when I ask them which rules they are trying to break.
To recall another example of the importance of theories, I once judged a film competition with some seemingly impressive films involving car crashes, overturned vehicles, explosions and other special effects.
When I asked the filmmaker about the issues discussed in the film, the answer was, “What issue? I never thought about discussing issues in films”. This situation was a classic case of a film being all form without substance — an impressive film void of critical discussions, for there was no guiding theory.
This aligns with Immanuel Kant’s statement, “Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play”. This quote reminded me of something a former colleague had mentioned, that there is “nothing more practical than theories”.
I initially thought of it as a snide remark. But upon pondering, I realised how our actions in our daily lives, either as industry practitioners, academics, students or Malaysians, are guided by theories.
Without running the risk of sounding too theoretical, one also shouldn’t be too theoretical in academia. Theories need to be put into practice by applying them in our professional and daily lives.
At universities, students should learn how to be critical of issues and contribute to society. That is because universities are not factories churning out graduates on a conveyor belt for the working world.
Universities should remain spaces that allow for theories, ideas and issues to be discussed and challenged through research and practice. Universities need to continue being institutions that produce graduates who can think critically and positively impact society.
Hence, theories don’t just belong in universities or books. They belong in a society where they are applied and put into practice in our daily and professional lives to make positive changes and improve the community.