An Audible Longing for Theory

While there is certainly still value in presenting theory that has the primary goal of getting an audience to think differently, there are at the same time pressing issues that theory should be mobilized towards. Both points are valid.

An Audible Longing for Theory
Thinking of winter, though it is not quite winter along the Front Range. 

Introduction

Over the past few years, I have been taking a strong interest in presenting theoretical research to the emergency management and wildfire communities, as well as to the software community on a few occasions. Experience has taught me lecturing on theory is a more novel concept in emergency management and wildfire than it is in the realm of software. For this reason, this post will focus on the presentation of theory to emergency management and wildfire practitioners.  

Theory

While it may not be different from yours, my process begins with the submission of an abstract born out of some theory I am thinking through at the time the call for submissions opens. The finished abstract is situated off in the future at a location I think my understanding might evolve to over the months leading up to the conference. This introduces some creative tension into the process that drives it forward. Sometimes the research goes where I anticipated when I wrote the abstract, others it ends up somewhere unexpected. I have learned the value of vague abstracts several times over. Each presentation is a research project in and of itself. Typically, I do not write a paper. Instead, I'll fill notebooks as I pull together different narratives seen through the lens of my own interpretation and bring them together towards the conference theme. The resulting presentations are the research. I have been asked if I will write up my lecture and submit it to a peer-review journal. While I do have an interest in this avenue, I believe the more direct route to take is to give an idea, tool, or an understanding, and see what happens. Of course, all while keeping in mind, "First, do no harm." I am working on publishing a paper now and am of the opinion that we do not have time for progress completely hinged on peer-reviewed journals. With that being said, it needs to be acceptable to read from disparate narratives, pull them together, and produce insight that can help address the problem or develop theory out of experience.    

Theoretical research has, or maybe could have, an important and interesting role in the emergency management and wildfire communities. It is valuable in its proposition that the audience think differently about something through the introduction of new concepts, relationships, and language. There is value in saying, "We can and should think about this differently so that we act differently." While the presenting of theory that has the primary goal of getting an audience to think differently has its benefits, there are at the same time pressing issues that theory should be able to be readily mobilized towards through deliverables. Both points are valid. Yet, in the context of conferences attended by individuals tasked with reducing human suffering and protecting property and natural resources, perhaps the point of "How can what you are saying be used to help us today?" is the more salient one. There is a need for more than think pieces.

When I started to present at conferences, I mistakenly thought the practical implications of the research would be obvious. At the end of my first talk, members of the audience asked questions to try and discern what they should now do after having heard the lecture. This was a valuable learning experience. Even at this early stage in my work, there was this detectable longing for theory. But theory was just the start. What was wanted was theory that could be readily operationalized to address a problem being faced in the real world. There was a longing for theory that can do something. Experience tells me that openness to theory is not assumed to exist in either community by others. This is a missed opportunity.

Longing - An oil painting by Rajasekharan Parameswaran

A Longing for

The experience of attendees taking a driven interest in the presented theory and seeking guidance for its application has repeated itself several times over. All the while, I have continued to work to respond to the longing for theory that could be put to use. I have been fortunate that I have seen some of the same people at each presentation I have given at conferences here in Colorado. Following my second lecture at one of the Colorado conferences, the emergency manager from Pitkin County told me I was "getting closer" to something that was readily useable. I have been fortunate to continue receiving signals that I am headed in what I view as the ultimate direction: Fulfilling the longing for practical theory. Plenty of people have told me "that was really interesting." This is both a compliment and a signal that a lecture I just gave was not quite there yet.

The Goal

The goal then is clear: The production of theory that can be readily integrated into the work of others and improved upon and evolved through its use in practice. I have been keeping this at the forefront of my mind while developing my upcoming presentation "Who we are and who we want to be: A look at organizational change" for the Colorado Emergency Management Conference. In pursuit of the goal, I have been pulling together tools from past research projects and presentations that will sit at the core of the lecture as takeaways that can be readily applied to their work, all of which have been derived from theory.

Empirical formal research is valuable, but there simply is not time for a strictly empirical approach to the problems facing the emergency management and wildfire communities.  While this is not a call to abandon formal quantitative or qualitative studies, it is a call to include approaches where theorizing is at the center where it can be put to use and tested.