Chartership, and learning how to learn in a senior role

I completed the Cilip Chartership professional registration process last year and since then wanted to write something about how it can be used as a way of ‘learning about how to learn’ in a senior role, how that process has influenced my approach to learning and development, and some of its limitations. I was preoccupied working on another thing (here is a thread about that), and just returning to this now I have some time.

One reason I initially embarked on Chartership was because mentoring from a particular person was available through this route, and I decided to ask her directly. I expected, and found, this mentoring to be highly inspirational and motivating. However, as with any process of learning and development by the end I’d travelled some distance. On looking back, my view of things was very different when I compared my initial expectations of the mentoring process with what I had actually learned reflectively.

Briefly, the most important things I learned from this mentoring relationship are:

  • The centrality of reflective practice as a way of thinking and a method to inform one’s self-determined learning.
  • The importance of an interpretive awareness and about our wider sector and political contexts, in understanding how libraries can both support and shape our institutions’ missions.
  • The value of an authentic style of leadership counterbalanced with acknowledgment of the difficulties in enacting and maintaining such a style.

Below I will concentrate on the first two of these points, with the third on leadership style perhaps something for a future blog post.

What can Chartership do?

Interpreted as a set of tools, Chartership provides a framework for assessing and seeking the development needed to build one’s skills and knowledge in a structured way. Beyond the individual—or the personal—this knowledge includes one’s organisational contexts and, importantly, the wider sector and professional contexts we operate in. As knowledge of these organisational and professional contexts form two of the three assessment criteria for Chartership, this is baked-in to the process.

I think this wider understanding is key to building the awareness needed to be effective within more senior roles which are necessarily generalist and require a new, self-directed form of identity construction to grow into and inhabit. This generalist identity is one in which we need to make effective use of the in-depth knowledge we bring with us from those specialist roles we’ve held in the past, but is appreciative that our work within a wider context is a default mode of working. I think also this type of awareness is that which enables us to develop more wider-ranging structural critiques of our work and practice—the kind of critique which re-imagines new possibilities for practice or develops counter-discourses.

Within higher education, I’ve found this means being willing to develop understanding about other professional services’ work (for example, reading their professional and scholarly journals) and current awareness of debate in discussion within their areas. Interestingly, I’ve personally not seen that much importance placed on this type of wider awareness in development of leaders at assistant director or ‘head of …’ level. It seems more often the case our focus is on how library services support students’ learning and academics’ teaching and research, rather than seeing libraries as part of a professional services whole within the university. This understanding was, however, something I found particularly key to understand during Chartership.

Interpreted as a process, Chartership provides a framework for making reflective practice central to one’s own agentic, or self-determined learning. The latter is also called heutagogy, described by Stewart Hase and Chris Kenyon (2000) as an holistic model of learning that supports development of capability, rather than just competency. Personally, through this process I’ve come to appreciate reflection, and its expression in practice, as a core skill for lifelong learning that can be relevant to all library roles. Combined with focused reading of our professional body of knowledge (theory) and current awareness I see this as a key workplace information literacy skill for library workers to weave into their practice.

What I found particularly enabling within Chartership is a focused purpose for developing these abilities and applying them to practice. This is one thing that supports the ‘actually doing it’ of developing a theoretically-informed reflective practice. The core of the Chartership submission is the reflective evaluative statement with its very spare 1,000 word limit; this is supported by one’s selection of evidence. Much of this evidence required for the submission can be created by reflective writing, which the Chartership handbook characterises as,

“… your response to experiences, opinions, events or new information. It is a way of thinking to help you to explore your learning and gain self-knowledge. Most importantly it is your personal reaction to the situations you encounter and is invaluable when aiming to get the most out of your learning experiences.

Reflective writing is not pure description, judgement, or instructions.”

Cilip (2014, p.15)

Over time, I found this requirement honed my ability to think and write reflectively as an ongoing part of practice. Sometimes I realised that I would need to write a reflective account about a particular experience primarily to use as evidence, which could become tiresome when I felt the potential for reflective learning and self-knowledge at hand had already been played out through reflective thought. Interestingly though, in having to come back to a problem and reflect on it further through writing, I always found new insights would emerge. I found this was particularly the case when reflecting on the various contradictions within practice, by which I mean ways in which in practise we are able to or fail to live up to the values we espouse. To clarify, by ‘thought’ I do simply mean thinking about a particular question, issue, or experience and working through critical questions about it to try to understand and problematise my assumptions about practice, and also to engage more imaginative elements of reflection—which is something I can combine with other activities like my commute.

Why this learning is difficult

I believe for leaders at all levels a commitment to place self-determined learning at the core of one’s development is important to grow within and into new roles. Although applicable at any level, I’ve found in more senior roles it becomes much more necessary. It may sound odd, but roles with more positional power often have more constraints and limitations in what is possible.

Firstly, there is the issue of availability or existence of training and development programmes for your area—realistically, what you really need simply may not exist or may not run regularly due to limited demand. (Sconul have created a directory of such leadership courses.) Additionally if a programme targeted to senior people does exist, it is safe to assume it will not be cheap which presents another barrier to access to many institutions. In this situation a self-determined and creative approach to learning, supported by self-efficacy, becomes necessary.

When I say learning is difficult, I mean the process of ‘learning about how to learn’ that comes with a new role that is a move us—about the work, our contexts, and our self-knowledge—is a difficult one. The second issue for those in senior roles in hierarchical organisation is with fewer people at your level you have fewer peers, and that the type of open, reflective conversations that necessarily include a sense of vulnerability become more difficult to have—perhaps impossible—with one’s own organisation. In this context, I became more aware of the limitations of individually-focused reflective thought that I developed within Chartership.

My focus is on critical reflective practice, which in its deeper forms normally implies group working because of the importance placed on learning through dialogue within critical reflection, for example the approach described in Jan Fook and Fiona Gardner’s work. This model of critical reflection is collective by design, but individually-focused reflection obviously lacks the social elements as enablers. I think therefore a key challenge is finding those networks and personal connections which are vital to enable such reflective conversations, whether structured or more informal.

Alongside the experience of being mentored, the single most valuable thing I found to facilitate this learning is getting different perspectives from peers that enable a collective approach to reflection that has reach beyond my own organisational context. To me this meant finding honest and open insight, within a trusted atmosphere that could support a willingness to share. I think this is one reason peer mentoring groups such as the Sconul deputies and new directors groups are so popular and valued by their members, though I also see similarities in the less formal support networks that Natasha Chowdory (2019) calls “library pals”.

On an individual basis this type of reflective learning is something I aim to support and enable colleagues to do themselves and develop as a habit of mind. Personally, I have been delighted to see colleagues use and benefit from reflective models, including critical reflection, in their work and read and share ideas from the literature. However, I do not think it desirable or even possible to compel anyone to do reflective practice. Firstly because there are many frameworks and models to inform reflection, I feel practitioners do best to assess them and understand which, if any, will work for them within their social context and environment. I also no longer recommend a particular model of reflective practice, having changed my mind on this during Chartership. This is partly because my own preference for critical reflection presupposes knowledge of critical theory to inform what should be changed as a result of reflection—going back to Paulo Freire’s description of praxis as, “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed” (2000, p.126). So, I don’t think it is possible to understand and apply critical reflection without critical theory at its core.

Moreover though, I don’t want to compel anyone to reflective practice. This is an ethical principle, but has a pragmatic element connected with reactance. Reactance is a psychological theory that explains that when an individual feels forced into a certain behaviour which limits or removes their freedom, they will react against it. On writing reflectively for Chartership, one of the conclusions I reached about self-directed and self-determined learning what that reactance theory could explain some of the antipathy toward unwanted impositions relating to learning such as being told to “do the reading”. Put formally, in a review of research and scholarship of reactance Benjamin Rosenberg and Jason Siegel note that, “People can also reduce the discomfort associated with reactance by showing hostility toward […] or derogating […] the source of a threat” (2017, p.3).

Finally, the learning that I took from the Chartership process that has proved most enduring are those lessons, summarised above, where I’ve been able to ‘triangulate’ a particular settled position. By triangulation I mean seeking out, listening to and hearing different views on the same concepts and ideas from different theoretical perspectives and traditions, and from colleagues working at different levels and in different roles. This adds to and enriches, rather than replacing understanding drawn from lived experience, and speeding this process up is another reason I feel peer mentoring networks are so effective. In summary, do consider Chartership.

References

Chowdory, N.S. (2019) ‘Support networks aka library pals’, Infopro Tasha, April 8. Available at: https://infoprotasha.wordpress.com/2019/04/08/support-networks/

Cilip (2014) Chartership: a guide for members. Available at: https://www.cilip.org.uk/resource/resmgr/cilip_new_website/professional_registration/chartership_handbook_070314.pdf

Fook, J. and Gardner, F. (2007) Practising critical reflection: a resource handbook. Maidenhead: Open University.

Freire, P. (2000) Pedagogy of the oppressed. 3rd edn. London: Continuum.

Hase, S. and Kenyon, C. (2000) ‘From andragogy to heutagogy’, Ulti-BASE In-Site, December [Online]. Available at: http://pandora.nla.gov.au/nph-wb/20010220130000/http://ultibase.rmit.edu.au/New/newdec00.html

Rosenberg, B.D. and Siegel, J.T. (2017) ‘A 50-year review of psychological reactance theory: do not read this article’, Motivation Science, 4(4), pp.281-300 [Online]. doi:10.1037/mot0000091

Addressing Barriers to Student Success Conference

On 13 February I attended a one-day conference held to disseminate and share learning from the Office for Students (OfS) funded Student Attainment Project 2 (SAP2) at the University of Derby. This project recently concluded, with Derby as lead institution for this work and Solent University and University of West London (UWL), where I am Director of Library Services, as partners.

At University of West London, the purpose of SAP2 is to narrow and eliminate unexplained degree-awarding gaps between different groups of students with an initial focus on:

  • The gap between White and Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students awarded a 1st or 2.1 degree classification
  • The gap between students from the most deprived areas compared with least deprived areas awarded a 1st or 2.1 degree classification (‘deprivation’ is measured using the Index of Multiple Deprivation or IMD, for England)

The project at UWL concentrated on implementing interventions that had been found to work effectively at Derby, and “scale up” Derby’s success. If you want to know more about this Eirini Tatsi, Academic Lead for the project at UWL and Esther Darby, Head of Academic Planning at UWL have written about this in our in-house journal in an article on ‘Addressing the gap‘ (2019).

These gaps are more commonly called attainment gaps, but following Dr Gurnam Singh’s critique of this term as a ‘critical friend’ of the SAP2 project, I use degree-awarding gaps and strongly recommend this video ‘From attainment gap to awarding gap‘ explaining why:

The focus for the conference was the unexplained degree-awarding gap between White and BAME students as a whole, and especially between White and Black students where this gap is most pronounced. This degree-awarding gap is both long-standing and complex, and represents a deep inequity within higher education. In this context, the conference provided a series of reflection-on-action pieces from colleagues involved with this work, from students across the partner universities, and stakeholders which for me spoke to both the urgency of the necessity for positive change.

The format of the conference included traditional presentations, small group ‘Talking Circle’ discussions mixing staff and student participants, and several performance pieces by students. The main performance was a powerful spoken word piece by students from London College of Music at UWL, who performed words taken from interviews with BAME students across the three partner universities about their experiences of exclusion and racism within higher education. This was recorded, and will hopefully be made available widely.

For me a question raised during the introduction to the conference, by Professor Malcolm Todd, Provost (Academic) from University of Derby, was to ask why we find the presentation of the things we already know—those plain facts of degree-awarding gaps—as ‘challenging’.

This theme continued for me during the presentation by Kirsty Johnson, Access and Participation Manager at OfS, who spoke twice during the conference. The view Kirsty gave from our regulator is that we need to understand better what is effective in raising attainment—in understanding what works and what does not in different contexts. Rather than simply widening access to higher education, OfS have a keen interest in addressing unequal outcomes for different groups of students throughout their course of study—this includes for example inequality in admissions, and differentials in progression and retention, and in academic attainment.

It is significant for English higher education that OfS is a regulator rather than the funding council Hefce, which it replaced. What came through for me in Kirsty’s talks was the way in which OfS staff are still getting to grips with their new role as a regulator with significant power to effect change using what are termed “policy levers” or “regulatory levers”. A realistic view for me is to expect the new regulatory approach to inequity in attainment and outcomes to be heavily driven by metrics and data. We expect OfS to create and publish datasets that provide both a national picture of degree-awarding gaps across English higher education, but that also have regard to how individual universities are performing. As education workers, I feel we need to think about how a metricised approach will affect our interactions with students who will know all about inequality within our universities and what we are doing, or failing to do, to address it.

From the National Union of Students, Amatey Doku, Vice President (Higher Education), gave an account of barriers to student success that asked us to first think about our context. Amatey asked us to consider the academy’s role in and responsibility for knowledge creation, in that it was the academy that created and legitimised knowledge such as ‘scientific racism’ which birthed and now continues to reproduce structural racism. Inequity in higher education cannot be thought of as a simple fault to be resolved, as we might think we can fix a burst pipe. Instead what is needed is a ground up re-evaluation of everything the university does. This is both difficult to achieve and also exciting as there is such far-reaching potential for positive change.

Amatey made a point I have heard many times from Black academic and student leaders and which I feel bears repeating: BAME students and staff cannot solve inequity in education alone. It is unfair to assume or ask this, as it represents a ‘double disadvantage’ for staff and students who experience structural inequity within education to shoulder this workload and responsibility alone. Amatey also spoke on the Black degree-awarding gap at the AdvanceHE EDI conference in 2018, I very strongly recommend watching this:

Eirini Tatsi of UWL spoke as part of the panel discussion for academic leads from the three partner universities, and as the SAP2 project is concluding, she concentrated on looking forward to how we can embed cultural change within academic and professional services practice. Eirini’s point is addressing degree-awarding gaps is not solely about assessment or what happens in the classroom, but demands a cross-institution approach—this may be familiar in mirroring contemporary approaches to widening participation activity in general as ‘whole institution’. Eirini noted some work we have started in Library Services to consider how students’ diverse identities can be represented within course materials or reading lists, as just one aspect developing an inclusive curriculum and also spoke about the need to reflect diversity and inclusion work in our priorities at a more strategic level.

Dr Gurnam Singh of Coventry University offered a critical perspective as a social work academic on the need to understand the complexity of learning experiences. Coventry has not been involved with SAP2 as a partner institution, but as I noted Gurnam has been an influence throughout its duration. Personally, I have found him to be a particularly inspiring speaker and a compelling theorist of critical pedagogy—he has a skill in blending citations to lived experience alongside theory and ideas which is, to me, incredibly convincing.

As with Amatey Doku’s talk, Gurnam reiterated the longer-term work is about transforming the university, not just fixing a broken element that is holding certain groups back—in fact as might be suggested in the title of the conference. Degree-awarding gaps are a scandal, and a telling sign that our processes and practices are not fit for purpose. Another way of framing this is degree-awarding gaps are symptomatic of universities breaking ground in widening participation, so we need to maintain focus on developing this work and trust that it will be judged positively.

Other speakers on the day had discussed intersectionality, but Gurnam showed what good citational practice looks like in action by tracing intersectionality to its genesis in Black feminist scholarship, including citing Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) who introduced and developed this theory. In raising this Gurnam criticised and made problematic many of the oversimplified criticisms of intersectionality, including those that claim socioeconomic status, or social class, as the most powerful axis of oppression, and those that centre feelings of White guilt and helplessness to effect change.

Gurnam’s analytical take is degree-awarding gaps reflect a problem with a complex system, and changing one aspect of learning can lead to unintended negative consequences. Over time, our analyses of degree-awarding gaps have become more nuanced and have left behind discourses that model deficit in students, however they have not yet really addressed complexity in students’ learning experience. The danger is that as learning relationships are dynamic and can be non-linear, in making a particular ‘intervention’ we may accidentally reinforce the problems we seek to disrupt and overcome.

A key challenge for me was Gurnam’s critique of Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural and social capital (1986), which is a widely cited analytical frame used by staff at my workplace and of course broadly within higher education. I lean heavily on Bourdieu myself. Without care this approach can simply be utilised as another way of individualising deficit within students by conceptualising them as ‘lacking’ in cultural and social capital. A more critical perspective is to consider how the university can recognise the cultural and social capitals widening participation students bring to education, rather than prizing those capitals most associated with an imagined ‘ideal’ student.

Ultimately Gurnam thinks this is possible, but we need better ways to escape the traps of our biases and the epistemological frameworks that create and sustain our biases. Doing the seemingly logical or simple things to address degree-awarding gaps may simply not work or have unintended consequences, so future solutions demand new paradigms and understanding based on research that more fully involves students in partnership roles.

References

Bourdieu, P. (1986) ‘The forms of capital’, in Richardson, J. (ed.) Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education, pp. 241-258. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Crenshaw, K.W. (1989) ‘Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989 (1). Available at: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8

Tatsi, E. and Darby, E. (2019) ‘Addressing the gap’, New Vistas, 4(2) [Online]. Available at: https://www.uwl.ac.uk/sites/default/files/Departments/Research/Vistas/Web/PDF/uwl_new_vistas_0402_tatsi_darby_0.pdf

Digital praxis and online identity

The below is modified from a reflective piece written for CILIP Chartership. As I was writing, I was interested in and thinking about motivation for engagement in online or digital spaces, and particularly social media. I began with framing in the CILIP Professional Knowledge and Skills Base (PKSB), which presents social media as tools relating to IT and communication technologies. I wanted to think beyond this framing and consider the aspects of connectedness and formation of online identity which social media can develop and foster.

Recently, Lawrie Phipps, Donna Lanclos, and Zac Gribble released the experimental Digital Perceptions reflective tool which allows for a critical reflective exploration of one’s own perception of online identity compared with others’ perceptions. I absolutely recommend trying this out to help develop a critical perspective on your practice of being online—or for some of us, Extremely Online.

In a brief discussion with Lawrie I noted Paulo Freire’s definition of praxis as, “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed” which he worked into a piece ‘Toward digital praxis: just thinking out loud’, as:

I want to engage people with their practice, encourage reflection and action on both their existing practices, and the digital structures and background against which their digital self (Identity?) is perceived by themselves and by those with which they engage.

I feel it is this awareness of structure and context, and moreover a critical understanding of power, political structures, and ownership within those digital contexts that is essential to such reflection and action. To inform this, I draw on a model of reflection from heath and social care in which practitioners and academics have worked to create a body of knowledge and theory that combines reflection with critical theory, reflexivity, and social theory. This use of social theory has all the interesting implications one might expect:

This is literally the best thing about social theory though ❤️https://t.co/5pRsbQBjLa

— Sarah Burton (@DrFloraPoste) August 8, 2018

This model for reflection appeals to me because of its appreciation of uncertainty and ambiguity in praxis, and a central concept of, “finding better ways to practice based clearly on different ways of thinking” (Fook and Gardner, 2007 p.67). This goes beyond the idea of corrective actions or ‘lessons learned’ of project contexts, and provides a critically-aware lens that offers deeper understanding of classic models of reflection such as Chris Argyris and Donald Schön’s (1974) single-loop and double-loop learning.

Digital Perceptions Johari window showing my ‘Arena’ and ‘Blind Spot’ quadrants.

Ahead of using the Digital Perceptions tool I had considered power and ownership at some length, which is one reason I use a self-hosted WordPress blog and free culture licenses for longer form writing. I consider a “domain of one’s own” an important form of online presence for developing not so much a personal brand, but a digital identity that reflects who I am professionally and also a way of verifying identify using services such as Keybase.io. One reflective element informed by my use of the Digital Perceptions tool is any ‘curation’ of online identity is transparent to others, in both positive and negative ways. This leads me to question how this presentation of identity can ever be authentic, and how subjective others’ perceptions of one’s identity are. For this reason I find suggestions that one is just being one’s authentic self online reward a more critical examination; ultimately I see this contraction as an example of mediation of structure and agency.

Personally, I have found critical frames drawn from sociology and cultural studies helpful in understanding social media and have been particularly informed by Anthony Giddens’s theory of structuration (1984). Returning to an IT or tool-focused interpretation of social media, I argue this is a limited and limiting view. Social media can be understood not just as ‘a technology’ or ‘a medium’ but always a social system, constituting networks formed by an interplay of social and technological structures and human agency which shape each other co-constitutively. Without initially planning to, I saw how social media can be employed to develop interconnected networks of both “strong ties”, that is the professionals I know well, and “weak ties”, that is the acquaintances who I know a little or who are connected to people I know. My experience of introducing myself to someone at an event or conference that I follow on Twitter, or as a reader of their blogging, is now long established. I discovered this has some theoretical underpinning in Mark Granovetter’s (1973) argument that networks of weak ties better transmit ideas and innovation:

…whatever is to be diffused can reach a larger number of people, and traverse greater social distance […] when passed through weak ties rather than strong.

Granovetter feels this important in the spread and uptake of new ideas that challenge the status quo or are otherwise ‘risky’ and discomforting. Considering social media as networks and social systems, my interest lies in the potential for connection with these new ideas—in terms of both positive benefits such as innovation but also negatives which might be understood as risks to be managed. My understanding of the uncertainty and risk in social media communication draws on Stuart Hall’s (1980) encoding/decoding model of communication—wherein an ‘audience’ is not a passive receiver, but play an active role in decoding messages based on their experience and social contexts and is moreover in an intensified situation of immediate and unmediated communication.

I find this potential for transmission of ideas most effective in two professional contexts. First, when participating in conferences where Twitter can represent a back-channel of what delegates are really thinking about the issues under discussion, and more simply in getting practitioners’ immediate reactions and views from events I am not attending. Related to this, perspectives on conference presentations and discussion can be broadcast outside of the auditorium, reaching wider network and amplifying key points. It’s an open question to me as if those reactions and perspectives are more authentic and more honest than those offered in-person—or just hotter takes. Second, I have found participation in Twitter chats an effective way of bridging connections between disparate social groups, engaging new people, and experiencing new ideas in a relatively serendipitous way. I put much of these positives, and associated negatives, down to a network effect among a self-selected group of participants; and have seen these chats provide an initial spark for new professional relationships and working collaborations.

Reflectively, I am aware of the role of privilege in social media use and consider this in my digital practice. It is easy to breezily state that as I have not known professional life without at least early forms of social media being present, opting out would be unnecessarily limiting and self-defeating. This is one area the Digital Perceptions tool can’t help with; as it is not intended as a diagnostic tool it is down to us to ask critically reflective questions. For example, I have both the time, space and technical knowledge to make effective use of social media in a relatively safe and secure way and remain connected enough with different social media networks that I have been able to leave networks such as Facebook. Though I may consider social media in its broadest sense as essential to information work as the earlier generations of technology I use, we also have to look around and consider who is not represented and present in these networks—and why.

References

Argyris, C. and Schön, D.A. (1974) Theory in practice: increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fook, J. and Gardner, F. (2007) Practising critical reflection: a resource handbook. Maidenhead: Open University

Freire, P. (1996) Pedagogy of the oppressed. 2nd edn. London: Penguin.

Giddens, A. (1984) The constitution of society. Cambridge: Polity.

Granovetter, M.S. (1973) ‘The strength of weak ties’, American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), pp. 1360–1380. doi:10.1086/225469.

Hall, S. (1980) ‘Encoding/decoding’, in Hall, S., Hobson, D., Lowe, A., and Willis, P. (eds.), Culture, Media, Language, pp. 128–38. London: Hutchinson.