I recently finished my teaching at Ravensbourne in London and thought it useful to reflect on my experience. Part of my role there was to find a way to integrate theory with practice. It was never difficult to talk to students about ideas or to show them work and speak about that work through theory. What was more challenging was to think about the relevance and need for joining these things together.
For students who take photographs as part of their undergraduate course (in other words for students of photography), there is an argument against theory, which often begins with muttering something about only being interested in taking pictures. These kinds of statements can’t simply be dismissed. After all, for some students, this is exactly what they thought they were going to spend the next three years of their life doing. However, as I have expressed elsewhere, to study on a three-year degree programme is not the same as learning skills by attending a night class or watching instructional videos on YouTube or Linda.com. To commit to studying a degree in photography is necessarily to commit to an engagement with academic and theoretical discussions about what photography is and how it functions.
What is most exciting for any undergraduate student today is that these discussions are not limited to photography itself. Instead, their horizon stretches across the breadth of a cultural studies programme and engages with how and why things are organised and constructed as they are. It is my belief that photography and photographs play a crucial role in this structuring of our lives. There can be few people living in the 21st Century who have not been either the subject of a photograph or a photographer themself. Similarly, there are very few experiences that remain un-recorded, or un-mediated if we are to use a more theoretical term. These reasons alone set the foundations of why practice needs some form of theoretical engagement.
Theory at Ravensbourne is forward thinking and entirely student centred. It delivers to the students the building blocks of their engagement with their individual practice. The theory modules are taught to all courses and while the broad themes are consistently structured each is focused on the core interests of the courses the students are studying. This model for embedding theory makes perfect sense. It engages student interest and highlights the relevance of theory within practice.
For me, the place of theory is not about a location. Instead, it is the moment I have come to in order to deliver teaching of a particular kind. Reaching that place is not about arriving at a given destination but about becoming the person who will eventually get there. I consider that during my time at Ravensbourne, what I learned about both theory and photography is that they both have the capacity for being always new.
Perhaps we might consider how, in the past, theory and practice structure a relationship of division: each has maintained the distance of the other. I suggest that attempting to resolve the antagonism is the wrong approach since it implies that either one can only be useful when in support of the other. Instead of this subordinate structuring, I suggest, building on the approach being developed at Ravensbourne, that a new way to consider practice and theory is not to proceed as if there were some certainty in their union. Instead, we should examine, take risks and embrace the consequences of theory and practice as an incompatible alliance. In this way, the struggle of theory and practice and the frustration of their respective positions allows us to frame a new set of questions about the purpose of each.