Engagement with scholarly work as professional development

Why read books, book chapters, journal articles, and other scholarly work as part of your professional development? As a manager, why support and enable colleagues to do so? In this post I discuss some challenges for library managers and leaders in supporting deeper engagement with scholarly work, and some issues in the library profession more broadly with engagement with everything we term “theory”. To be clear, this is a personal reflection on experience not a systematic piece of research; and I am aware I speak from a position of privilege in various ways.

Note on terminology: by ‘scholarly work’ I mean to be inclusive of works of both research and scholarship; if you make no distinction between these terms, no problem. I am using ‘librarianship’ interchangeably with ‘library and information science’ (LIS).

“Pro-intellectualism ftw”

I’ve been thinking about this subject for a while and the vintage 140-character tweets quoted below were fresh libraryland discourse when I started drafting this post. This thread from Chris Bourg about reading and recommending scholarly work in the workplace as an everyday activity, a standard expectation, was the first time I had seen a library director make quite this statement:

The whole thread was inspiring and motivational. The discussion in replies made me think about what gives us permission to act in our workplaces beyond the expectations of our roles and job descriptions, and helped me overcome concerns about push-back and reactance that had limited my routinely recommending scholarly work in a work context.

In these tweets and the exchange between Jessica and Michelle, I recognise both the practitioners’ enthusiasm and frustrations as well as the administrator’s sadness and concern. I am sure many of us can quote analogous examples from experience; I have heard similar thoughts from colleagues.

The reason I identify with these views is that connecting the literatureor theorywithin and beyond librarianship to what we do in practice seems such an essential part of practice itself. We can generate knowledge from our practice by reflection and a reflexive stance, but theoretically-informed reflection and application of ideas to practice requires connections outside and beyond practice.

“Thinking is an action. For all aspiring intellectuals, thoughts are the laboratory where ones goes to pose questions and find answers, and the place where visions of theory and praxis come together.” (hooks, 2010 p.7)

bell hooks’s understanding to me shows the integrative relationship of theory and practice, in how reflective thought has a questioning or problem-posing nature. This idea of integrating “theoretical talk”, a term hooks uses to describe writing (1994, p. 70), into practice necessarily implies contextualising others’ knowledge at vital points within our own situation, and using it to improve that situation whether in a personal, interpersonal, or broader social contexts. This view is is rooted in critical theory, which implies a role of theory as liberatory: that is toward constructing an improved social totality (borrowing here Georg Lukács’s term). It necessarily implies reaching beyond our own understandings. On reading, Paulo Freire wrote that:

“Reading is one of the ways I can get the theoretical illumination of practice in a certain moment. […] Information can be got through reading a book, and it can be got through a conversation.” (Freire and Horton 1990, p.98-99)

I feel it is this illumination, a sense of theory shedding light on practice that is the valuable thing we get from directed reading. Despite Freire’s insight about the value of discourse or conversation, reading is a highly practical means of attaining knowledge to inform this illumination. Incidentally, and I digress, We make the road by walking quoted here (dual authorship with Myles Horton, but the quotes are Freire) is a beautiful book and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the purpose of education within a democratic polity.

“Reading, as study, is a difficult, even painful, process at times, but always a pleasant one as well. It implies the reader delve deep into the text, in order to learn its most profound meaning. The more we do this exercise, in a disciplined way, conquering any desire to flee the reading, the more we prepare ourselves for making future reading less difficult.” (Freire 1994, p. 65)

Freire’s position at times can be very uncompromising, with reading a painful but necessary confrontation with new ideas that over time prepared us better for future engagements. The key point I draw from this challenging view is that of learning as an aid to action in practice, that is in ‘actioning’ the theoretical and developing understanding by utilising the theoryor the established scholarly body of knowledgeof our discipline.

In engaging with texts critically we connect with ideas, but the literature also shows what practitioners think possible, shows how we define the limits of practice, and hints toward what is left open to new exploration and discovery. This creative engagement allows us to better think forward to changing circumstances, beyond the basic elements of our technique and immediate cause-and-effect of day-to-day experience. I tend to emphasise multidisciplinary breadth in general reading in comparison to the more focused in-depth research we may undertake for particular projects, however I do think this is a both/and situation. In my experience reading ‘locally’ within librarianship leads toward our local maximum, which may or may not also represent a global maximum. Multidisciplinary approaches help us toward the global maxima, or at least provides points of triangulation outside librarianship that help confirm the coherence of our positions.

For example, in developing understanding of reflective practice I found the literature deepest and most fully-theorised within teaching and health and social care literature. In the social work literature I found a developed concept of critical reflective practice which uses critical theory as a lens for “searching for the assumptions implicit in practice” (Fook and Gardner 2010, p.26) when we iteratively make and remake knowledge in practice. It is impossible for me to say I could have developed the same ideas without this broader exploration.

Mental state in terms of challenge level and skill level, according to Csikszentmihalyi's model flow is associated with high challenge and high skill level.
Mental state in terms of challenge level and skill level, according to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model. (Words and image from Wikipedia, license CC-BY-SA.)

My experience is such learning is a stretch and brings with it discomforting feelings, if not always anxiety or worries. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (2014, pp.227-238) theory of flow describes how tasks that balance challenge with skill level can achieve a state of optimum performance where our awareness of thoughts, feelings, and action merge.

In encountering and making sense of this theory I initially misunderstood it, as the explanation I heard was based on the idea of optimum performance of everyday workplace tasks. Digging into Csikszentmihalyi’s research and scholarship it became clearer that flow is not necessarily a pleasant experience, which I now recognise in many of my experiences of self-directed learning. The analogy I think best captures my sense of uprootedness or sudden removal from a comfortable place, and the dawning awareness of new knowledge is Sara Ahmed’s explanation of these “ordinary feelings”:

“Every experience I have had of pleasure and excitement about a world opening up has begun with … ordinary feelings of discomfort, of not quite fitting in a chair, of becoming unseated, of being left holding onto the ground.” (Ahmed 2006, p.154)

Time Trades

As well as stretch, I feel focus on areas to develop and improve has to be rooted in self-awareness and self-direction of our practice. I see this type of more directed reading as a purposeful use of our time rather than a chore to be slogged through; and ideally believe self-directed learning can become a habit to work into continual, ongoing practice. I am conscious of and hoping to avoid a sense of investing time for a particular return suggesting the type of neoliberal entrepreneurial approach to education that Sam Popowich (2018) problematises in a recent blog post. Above, a more positive reflection on the value of time is offered in Jeffrey Lewis’s Time Trades.

Practice is in any case more complicated than implied by the idea of theory straightforwardly informing action. In the complex, messy situations of the workplace I rarely perceive a straightforward path where, for example, a colleague has read an article and then implements something based on it. Although I am comfortable quoting from scholarly work to make or emphasise a point in a work context, the notion that we might lay out a 1:1 relationship to colleagues showing how each particular action is rooted in theory belies the mechanics of learning and development and its relationship with practice.

For library work, I perceive the skills needed for this type of focused reading and learning are a key workplace information literacy (IL) skill, understanding that our more academic digital and information literacy skills can be reflexively shaped and developed within libraries-as-workplace. By workplace information literacy, I mean the growing area of research and scholarship that explicitly focuses on IL in workplaces, compared with an academic taught or research study environment where IL is typically learned. A presentation at the 2018 LILAC conference by Marc Forster and Stéphane Goldstein provides an excellent recent summary.

How we can support each other

“Theorizing—even reflection—is seen as a frill in an environment where we are always crunched for time. […] Reading as a means for creating dialogue that develops ideas and affective connections between people does not happen as regularly as it should in neoliberal libraries.” (Coysh, Denton, and Sloniowski 2018, p.130; p.137)

In their book chapter about a reading group set up to read Michel Foucault’s The order of things, Sarah Coysh, William Denton, and Lisa Sloniowski get to the heart of how workplaces often fail to practically support the reflection and dialogue that many of us would agree theoretically is valuable. Being “crunched for time” and lacking a supportive environment are constraints and impediments. Unsurprisingly, the reading group mentioned above took place outside the authors’ workplace in their own time. Likewise, outside work I have always found library workers keen to share reading recommendations and discuss them at conferences and unconferences, in Twitter chats, in conversations one to one. Those situations are those with engaged, self-selected participants who are interested in the subject and want to take part, and as such can be extremely supportive and affirming experiences.

In a recent blog post Carrie Wade discusses the issue of resistance to theory itself:

“The deepest structural issue with library education and publication: theory is treated as something without gravity. Theory is relegated to blog posts by some of our profession’s most brilliant minds—but as a profession we actively denigrate such forms of publication as being of lesser importance.” (Wade, 2018)

I agree with Carrie’s points, and feel this critique should be extended to our ongoing self-directed learning. I believe there is value simply in managers and leadership teams being supportive of, and valuing theoretically-informed reflection and exchange of ideas. In the absence of support, or even hostility to theory, engaging with scholarly work is still highly practical and accessible in many ways: there is no need to ask anyone for permission; no need to wait for training to become available and secure funding to attend it; and is it possible to read widely and in-depth using materials available Open Access or free-to-read, or acquired by other means of legal scholarly sharing.

In senior management roles I have recruited and managed team members in posts that require a postgraduate qualification or equivalent experience. I feel it reasonable to expect these colleagues to be connected with the scholarly literature, keeping up to date, reflecting and relating theory and practice into a coherent praxis of academic librarianship. However, an assumption of needing no support with reading and reflection for professional development can reflect a privileged position. My experience of coming to librarianship via a non-traditional route was that it was a struggle to anticipate and grasp the theoretical approaches and assumptions, and foundational knowledge of the discipline. This wasn’t because the content was intellectually too difficult, but because of the time needed to explore and understand a new area, to learn its language and concepts, and become comfortable enough to engage with established practitioners was substantial alongside working full-time.

Within our professional discourse it is disturbing to see disparaging, if low-level, comments about reading for professional development. This can come across as a lingering wish for gatekeeping and controlling access to knowledge. In opposition to these positions, I ask why can’t all library workers have access to this knowledge—why can’t we support and scaffold each others’ learning? In my experience, sometimes what we need most are supportive environments and inclusive communities as we discover a new “world opening up”.

References

Ahmed, S. (2006) Queer phenomenology. Durham, NC: Duke University.

Coysh, S.J., Denton, W., and Sloniowski, L. ‘Ordering things’, in Nicholson, K.P. and Seale, M. (eds.) The politics of theory and the practice of critical librarianship. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice, pp. 130-144 [Online]. Available at: http://hdl.handle.net/10315/34415

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014) Flow and the foundations of positive psychology. Reprint, London: Springer, 2014.

Fook, J. and Gardner, F. (2010) Practising critical reflection. Maidenhead: Open University.

Forster, M. and Goldstein, S. (2018) ‘Information literacy in the workplace’, LILAC (Librarians’ Annual Information Literacy Conference), Liverpool 4-6 April. Available at: https://repository.uwl.ac.uk/id/eprint/4801/

Freire, P. (1994) Pedagogy of hope. London: Bloomsbury.

hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to transgress. Abingdon: Routledge.

hooks, b. (2010) Teaching critical thinking. Abingdon: Routledge.

Horton, M. and Freire, P. (1990) We make the road by walking. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University.

Lukács, G. (1971) History and class consciousness. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Popowich, S. (2018) ‘The value of degrees’, Sam Popowich, 4 July. Available at: https://redlibrarian.github.io/article/2018/04/07/the-value-of-degrees.html

Wade, C. (2018) ‘Inquiring the library’, Library Barbarian, 22 March. Available at: http://seadoubleyew.com/inquiring-the-library/

Wikipedia contributors (2018). ‘Flow (psychology)’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, [Online]. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Flow_(psychology)&oldid=836178438 (accessed April 13, 2018).

What’s your take on critical librarianship?

Marcel, a black domestic shorthair cat with pale green eyes, sits on a printed out and highlighted copy of Archie L. Dick's article 'Library and information science as a social science: neutral and normative conceptions'.

This blog post is modified from a talk I gave for #CityLIS at City, University of London on 19 March 2018.

This seminar explored the idea and the various meanings of critical librarianship as a concept, practice, and area of intellectual enquiry. Critical librarianship is multifaceted and includes a body of scholarly work that employs critical frames for theorising libraries and information; activist and social justice-oriented stances within library work; online communities and discussion spaces such as #critlib chat; and more. Its focus on scholarly thought and theory has been criticised as removed from the practical concerns that confront library workers and the communities they serve, whereas its more practical suggestions and ethical approaches are sometimes read as just good librarianship. Here I will give my view on what I think critical librarianship to be, and what I think it has to offer in practice.

A comment on terminology, below I am using ‘librarianship’ interchangeably with ‘library and information science’ (LIS), ‘critique’ interchangeably with ‘criticism’, and will prefer ‘library workers’ to ‘librarians’.

Context

At this point I discussed how our economic system tends to introduce market logics and measurement techniques into many or perhaps most areas of human activity. Rather than recount this, I will recommend the recent exploration and critique of this trend applied to education presented in Professor Roger Brown’s lecture Neoliberalism, Marketisation, and Higher Education – University of West London public professorial lecture.

In our context, libraries and library workers have struggled to maintain and demonstrate relevance and have repeatedly sought to emphasise the value of libraries primarily based on a market logic. This includes for example comparative usage statistics for library services, and a recent focus on the value added by our basic disciplinary expertise of information literacy.

You may know of CILIP’s campaign about information literacy related to fake news and political information. Facts Matter is rooted in an approach that values critical thinking and reading of political information so broadly I support it; the issues I raise today are more rooted in the question of what facts are. In my view, fake news, the concept of post-truth and the absurd notion of alternative facts don’t sit in the same dialogical space as facts or meaning-making do intrinsically. They are more about a constant steady drip of propaganda, influencing at scale, and the expression of a prefigurative practice for particular political causes—especially far-right or fascist politics.

Critique and the critical

I want to spend some time discussing what we actually mean by the critical, because this is a contested term with multiple meanings. I’ll present a particular view of this using a frame based on critique as method—a method to direct and inform action that carries social and ethical implications beyond the technical execution of library work. I also want to address how we can pay critical attention in practice, here we will focus on critical reflection. First let’s stop for a minute to inspect and problematise the word ‘critical’ and the basis of librarianship as discipline.

Historically, and regrettably in my view, librarianship has attempted to define itself and prove itself as a social science—based on positivist and post-positivist ideas and quantitative methods.

Critical…

Thinking
Reading
Literacy
Pedagogy
Reflection
Theory
Librarianship?

Readers will have heard of at least some of these concepts and certainly will be familiar with concepts like critical reading and thinking in more depth. I explained the to audience that as students, I am certain you read critically within the LIS literature; I am sure you think critically about theory and ideas; I am confident you reflect on practice.

A common position in our discourse is a focus on critical thinking and reading as the critical. Stereotyping, this means forming judgements as to what is true and correct, about what is factual in positivist terms following an objective and neutral process of evaluation. This can present broader ideas of criticism as similarly naive, as a negative dialectical approach or as something that is not much more than a practical tool for problem-solving. I will describe an approach based on a different concept: that critique is about the questioning of social norms and cultures that shape and constrain our day-to-day approaches and work.

“Critical thought and its theory…”
Horkheimer, 1972 p.210

This is rooted in critical theory (sometimes presented with a capital C and a capital T). As a school of thought critical theory maintains that ideology is a principal obstacle to human liberation and originally sought to radically critique both the fabric of society and traditional theoretical approaches that came before. Critical theory in the mode of Adorno, Horkheimer and other thinkers of the Frankfurt School sought to identify and lay bare these ideologies. Note that this school of thought is reasonably left-wing.

“Critical theory is like any language; you can learn it, and when you learn it, you begin to move around in it.”

Ahmed, 2017 p.9

I would like us to take a wider view than Frankfurt School critical theory applied to librarianship. Sara Ahmed’s use of metaphor here resonates with me in how she describes the slow process of discovery and understanding that allows us to explore new disciplinary areas and “move around in” them. My point in citing this is that critical theories and approaches are something we can all gain understanding  and knowledge of, whatever our educational groundings or backgrounds.

“Without a vision for tomorrow, hope is impossible.”

Freire, 1997 p.13

Before we move on, let’s spend a little time with Paulo Freire and critical hope. Freire is an inescapable influence within critical librarianship, in large part due to the influence of critical pedagogy on contemporary critical information literacy teaching practice. Freire championed a radical, anti-colonial ‘problem-posing’ method of education intended to consciously shape learners and lead them to develop critical consciousness with which to overcome oppression. For Freire, hope is a foundational requirement for education because it is hope that drives people to pursue completeness as human beings: to explore, interrogate, to question, and to learn. As library workers, we understand leaning as a lifelong process and this pursuit is not something that ends at school-leaving or graduation.

Where is the critical librarianship?

Examples of critical practice applied in the form of practical actions abound, and library workers enact critical practice even if it is not explicitly framed in the language of critical librarianship. I want to reiterate this practice element here, and give some examples of the importance of action.

Emily Drabinski’s point here is about the everyday ways in which we remake structures and systems by thinking about them and questioning them day by day. (The comment “Me too!” is agreement with the quoted tweet.) How about some more comments from practitioners?

“I use theory literally every day to inform the shape of the searches I perform, the summaries I produce, and the support I give to [social services] practitioners.”

Smith, 2018

Lauren Smith develops information services for social services practitioners across Scotland. She explains here this is a necessarily theoretically-informed practice at all levels, with theory utilised daily in practice in all aspects of work. In this way theory is applied in an integrative approach, there is no pause where the practitioner steps outside into a realm of theory to cogitate before returning back to the everyday world of practice.

“It is assumed that taking a critical perspective in a corporate information role is impossible because ones workplace goals are aligned with those of the organisation. However […] organisations hire information professionals to uphold standards of authoritative research, ethical resource use and high information literacy. Of course it can be difficult to challenge organisational hierarchies, and you may not get the support you need to do so, but this is actually true of all information work.”

Schopflin, 2018

Katharine Schopflin explains that the role of information professionals within organisations always implies that we maintain an ethical stance related to the standards of our profession—that is formally what we are hired to do, regardless of the sector or industry we are working in. Of course, we see how tensions can and do emerge in some work environments.

Practitioners coming from critical positions are often offering us a reading against the grain of dominant cultures in workplaces and professional contexts. This can be the case in public sector or publicly-funded environments as much as corporate information roles, which may be due to funding and resourcing pressure as much as an ideological position (funding choices are, of course, themselves ideological positions). As Alan Wylie points out here, many public library workers have enough to do just keeping libraries running and operating effectively in environments where critical approaches are not particularly valued by their leadership.

As an aside, I personally believe one of the most valuable things managers can give teams is the time and space as well as the supportive context to do such thinking alongside the day-to-day.

Critical librarianship, a developed theoretical frame

This quote refers to an analysis of one information literacy journal, Communications in Information Literacy, that showed the most common theoretical frame used was critical information literacy (Hollister, 2017). It’s surprising and exciting to see reports like this. However, this can overstate the extent to which library workers more widely adopt critical practices, as it is specific to one context: application of critical pedagogy to information literacy practice in North American academic libraries.

“Our work […] must be critically informed, dialogically inventive, and messily entrenched within the systems we are working to change.”

Almeida, 2018 p.254

I would like to make a case for more widely-embedded critical approaches in practice. This is Nora Almeida’s view from the recently-published The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship (Nicholson and Seale, 2018). I agree with this as it feels like a solid justification for the critical rooted in the effectiveness of what we do in practice; and in how practice is “messily entrenched” (a wonderfully #critlib term) in our work and lives rather than something to do as an optional add-on to real work. This talk is not about practical tips for your CPD, especially given that I want to stay true to the theoretical basis of critical reflection discussed below, but I do want to explore the value of critique compared with the hundreds of other things you could spend time on.

“By critique I am referring to that praxis that refuses and thus disrupts a calcified and definitive way of understanding difference, subjects, and subjectivity.”

Dhamoon, 2011 p.239

In this article Rita Dhamoon introduces a idea of critique as a practice or praxis (with an x) of refusal: a disruptive, and, we can imagine, a necessarily confrontational approach that aims at creating change for a particular direction and purpose. In the talk I argued that critique can aid in development, in inculcating resistance, and in improving equity and equality. Here I am imagining critical thought supporting and aiding progress toward and the achievement of our goals, rather than as a tool we draw from our toolbox for day-to-day problem-solving. I argue critique offers a unique set of dialogical methods for approaching our work broadly—within and outside workplaces, and in practice more broadly.

Praxis‽

So, praxis ‘with an x’. In the talk I defined this as an integrative approach to critically thinking about and actively engaging with the world based on theoretically-informed reflection and action. In this I drew on Freire (1997) and Arendt (1998); for me a framing that includes both elements of critical thinking and reflection is key. I feel ‘reflection’ as a word does us disservice in the image it creates in our minds of contemplative mulling-over that does not necessarily go anywhere, hence I emphasise here action based on deepened insight.

At this point I asked the audience to consider, does anyone think they already take this approach in practice? My suspicion is that many of us do.

Critically reflective practice

I would like to relate this specifically to reflective practice, as that is one way we can embody a critical approach in what we do.

“The development of insight and practice through critical attention to practical values, theories, principles, assumptions and the relationship between theory and practice which inform everyday actions.”

Bolton, 2014 p. xxiii

This is a definition of reflection from Gillie Bolton. The critically reflective question to drive toward deeper meaning and understanding is to always ask why. The key point to pick out is about “critical attention to practical values”. What Bolton does here is a useful rhetorical reframing that may benefit you in practice. I find that often when I discuss theory in general terms I find that it is more relatable instead to talk about values. It is more alive, more rooted in experience, and is something we can all relate to no matter what we read.

“Critical reflection involves asking what questions, issues or ways of thinking have been privileged by whom and for what reasons? This type of reflection aims to address concerns about the influence of powerful groups by acknowledging and surfacing different interests and agendas.”

Smith, 2011 pp.217-218

Linking reflection to action is the enactment of critical practice, with a central element in critical attention to and examination of our underlying values, assumptions, and beliefs and linking these with our political, ethical, and social contexts. This may seem overly-introspective at first; but at this point I want to bring in Elizabeth Smith’s perspective relating power and privilege to the social in reflective practice. This is very much an outward-looking approach that situates our work within multiple, necessarily social, contexts of which we need awareness to form balanced judgements.

“When we only name the problem, when we state complaint without a constructive focus or resolution, we take hope away. In this way critique can become merely an expression of profound cynicism, which then works to sustain dominator culture.”

hooks, 2003 p.xiv

As good as this may sound, there are dangers here linked to the negative aspects of critical reflective practice. bell hooks cautions here about critique fermenting a world-weary cynicism that leaches hope, and rather than transformative change leads to an acceptance of “dominator culture,” which is to say the dominant or hegemonic practices that reinscribe inequality and oppression.

A fundamental here is the link with how we reflect on practice and shape it in action. In my view, the strategic critical moves to make are those that work at or work towards transforming rather than reforming. At this point I cited Archie Dick (1995) who describes a progressive, transformative, and explicitly Foucauldian current in librarianship that is noticeably well-aligned with contemporary critical librarianship. Here I paraphrase from Dick (p.229), this camp argues for:

  1. Critique of our own approaches and practices in stock selection, cataloguing and classification to highlight assumptions and biases. Brought up to date, we could add algorithmic bias in search and discovery.
  2. Raising the critical consciousness of library workers in understanding non-neutrality of libraries.
  3. Library educators to appreciate and critique power relations within LIS theory.
  4. Pushing back on “creeping marketisation” of libraries, especially that based on the notion of information as a commodity.

Power and questioning critically

I’d like to deal with some aspects of power, for this I will briefly drop into Foucault’s work. I realise that like Freire, this is a very #critlib citation. However, I have found Foucauldian methods of analysing power transformative, and wanted to provide a worked example as well as a caution.

“Power relations are rooted in the whole network of the social.”

Foucault, 2000 pp.345

One temptation, and risk, with Foucault is to get caught up in an idea that power is a fully installed and instituted force, and one that saturates or permeates all social relations. Confronted with such a force individuals can appear helpless or cast adrift, which isn’t what Foucault meant to do. In our chapter on critical systems librarianship, Simon Barron and I use a Foucauldian approach as a lens to ask questions about power applied to library information systems where one actor, the library, logs data concerning the online activity of another, such as a student or staff member (2018, pp.103-104).

Here I paraphrase from the analysis in this chapter; using Foucault’s method we ask:

  1. What are the relative positions of power, privilege, and technical knowledge of the actors involved, that permits one to act upon another?
  2. What are the objectives pursued by the actor in this power relation?
  3. How is power exercised? For example, surveillance and associated chilling effects, or the implication of disciplinary action based on institutional policies.
  4. What institutions are at play that determine the site of power? For example, legal structures or accepted institutional practices.
  5. To what degree are power relations rationalised and elaborated? For example, what technologies or technological refinements are brought to bear in exercising power and are they highly finessed and refined?

Such questions can do a lot of useful work when asked in different contexts about our practice, and to me feel much more approachable when reworked using everyday language and examples.

Ultimately, I feel a critical perspective is something we can all develop and understand by a combination of conversations and listening, experiential knowledge, and also reading texts. Personally I have found critical approaches most helpful when dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity in management and leadership situations, particularly when there is not an obviously correct answer or path. In such situations we rarely have an established playbook to work from, and almost never a handbook to guide us. This is where there is value in taking a critical and reflective approach that combines theoretical and practical knowledge from others’ experience with our own analytical judgement.

“If you are in the game of hegemony you have to be smarter than ‘them’.”

Hall, 1992 p.267

I will finish with a reading recommendation implied by this citation. This is out of context but was too tempting not to cite as my number one recommendation is to read widely within and beyond our discipline, but be smart and selective in how we focus our reading. Stuart Hall here is talking about several competing traditions in intellectual theoretical work in marxism (I will follow Hall’s lowercase usage here), however, I think it works for other spaces where we contest power and confront hegemonic forces.

Acknowledgements

My grateful thanks to the community of #critlib and librarians informed by other critical traditions for ‘the discourse’, and their ongoing helpful suggestions and recommendations.

References

Ahmed, S. (2017) Living a feminist life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Almeida, N. (2018) ‘Interrogating the collective: #critlib and the problem of community’, in Nicholson, K.P. and Seale, M. (eds.) The politics of theory and the practice of critical librarianship. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice, pp. 238-254 [Online]. Available at: https://academicworks.cuny.edu/ny_pubs/233/

Arendt, H. (1998) The human condition. 2nd edn. London: University of Chicago Press.

Barron, S. and Preater, A. (2018) ‘Critical systems librarianship’, in Nicholson, K.P. and Seale, M. (eds.) The politics of theory and the practice of critical librarianship. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice, pp. 87-113 [Online]. Available at: https://repository.uwl.ac.uk/id/eprint/4512/

Bolton, G. (2014) Reflective practice. 4th edn. London: Sage.

Dhamoon, R.K. (2011) ‘Considerations on mainstreaming intersectionality’, Political Research Quarterly, 64(1), pp. 230-243 [Online]. doi:10.1177/1065912910379227

Dick, A.L. (1995) ‘Library and information science as a social science: neutral and normative conceptions’, The Library Quarterly, 65(2), pp. 216-235 [Online]. doi:10.1086/602777

Foucault, M. (1981) ‘The subject and power’, in Faubion, J.D. (ed.) Power: the essential works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. New York, NY: New Press, pp.326-348.

Freire, P. (1997) Pedagogy of the heart. London: Bloomsbury.

Hall, S. (1992) ‘Cultural studies and its theoretical legacies’, in Grossberg, L., Nelson, C. and Treichler, P.A. (eds.) Cultural studies. New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 277-286.

Hollister, C. (2017) ‘Ten years of expanding the information literacy landscape’, WILU 2017, Edmonton, AB, May 23-25. doi:10.7939/R3X63BJ8M

Horkheimer, M. (1972) Critical theory. New York, NY: Continuum.

hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to transgress. New York, NY: Routledge.

hooks, b. (2003) Teaching community. New York, NY: Routledge.

Nicholson, K.P. and Seale, M. (Eds.) The politics of theory and the practice of critical librarianship. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice

Schopflin, K. (2018) Twitter direct message to Andrew Preater, 18 March.

Smith, E. (2011) ‘Teaching critical reflection’, Teaching in Higher Education, 16(2), pp.211-223 [Online]. doi:10.1080/13562517.2010.515022

Smith, L. (2018) Twitter direct message to Andrew Preater, 3 March.

Neoliberalism, Marketisation, and Higher Education – University of West London public professorial lecture

I attended this talk as part of my employer University of West London’s public lecture series, to which all are invited and welcome.

Roger Brown is emeritus Professor of Higher Education Policy at Liverpool Hope University, and was previously Vice Chancellor of Southampton Solent University. His work focuses on higher education, public policy, and inequality. An audio recording of the lecture is linked above; Brown spoke without using slides so audio-only works OK.

My university has a focus on widening participation, which I believe benefits society in many ways including raising aspiration and attainment, and social mobility. My interest in this talk as an education worker was to understand better how marketisation has affected those aspects of education that promote equality, social mobility, and the development of informed and democratically-engaged citizens.

The analytical parts of the talk concentrated on links between education policy and political economy, with a foundational argument that marketisation of education is how politicians and policy-makers have employed neoliberal praxes to reshape higher education provision—alongside almost all social relations. Brown dated the commencement of marketisation of English higher education from 1979 to the present day, starting with the reforms of Margaret Thatcher’s government and continued through successive Conservative and Labour administrations: those of market deregulation, privatisation, and undermining of the power of organised labour. This will be a familiar story to many of us; policy-wise the basic idea is that education policy is formed from an assumption that the primary purpose of education is economic, and that it should be both valued and measured in those terms.

Briefly, Brown went far beyond what I had expected and provided us a scathing critique of neoliberal economic praxis. He based his argument on the inconsistent delivery of promised economic benefits under neoliberal governance; the contradictions in the dependence on government to introduce and reinforce neoliberal policies; and the incoherence of neoliberal economic theory itself. However, the effect of marketisation goes beyond simple competition for students, staff, and funding and the uncertainty this creates for universities. Brown argues there has been an increase in ‘distance’ in prestige and a corresponding ‘social distance’ between different universities as a result of neoliberalism, with a direct negative impact on both the creativity of education provision and on widening participation. Counter to expectation, rather than encouraging more diverse and creative ways of delivering higher education we see the opposite emerging: selective universities tend to play it safe and converge on a very similar offer as each other, with elite universities marketing very traditional university experiences to prospective customers.

Considering academic libraries directly we see, for example, how the instability of competition can generate uncertainty for libraries reliant on multi-year subscription deals for information resources and software, and the effect that gold Open Access as a preferred model has had on scholarly communication support and infrastructure. Alongside the effect of introducing real or ersatz markets to education, as Davies argues neoliberalism brings in a tendency to see and understand everything in marketised terms, “expanding the reach of market-based principles and techniques of evaluation” (2017, p. 22). The problems and effects of treating information as a commodity, particularly for scholarly communication, is addressed in detail by Lawson, Sanders, and Smith (2015).

More fundamentally to society, Brown asked us to consider the effect of how universities “being treated as plcs” may lead to them losing public trust in their knowledge creation role, here drawing on Giroux:

“The notion of the university as a center of critique and a vital democratic public sphere that cultivates the knowledge, skills and values necessary for the production of a democratic polity is giving way to a view of the university as a marketing machine essential to the production of neoliberal subjects.” (2014, p.56)

As to what education workers and higher education as a whole can do about this the scale of the challenge seems huge, as Brown said, “We need to aim at rebuilding civil society.” No pressure. Brown argued specifically for increased solidarity between universities and leadership within the sector, particularly for Vice-Chancellors to be visible and willing to speak on issues affecting society rather than narrowly concentrating on issues such as funding of research and teaching.

Afterwards in conversation, I asked Brown how to maintain hope if one loves higher education and wants to work within it for say the next 25-30 years; he said the best thing would be to leave higher education as things probably won’t get better for a generation. I don’t plan to take this advice, but Brown’s refreshing honesty in his talk and generosity with his time to unpack issues raised has provided me with me a huge amount to reflect on and thereby inform practice.

Acknowledgement

With thanks to Kevin Sanders for a suggested addition to the text.

References

Davies, W. (2017) The limits of neoliberalism: authority, sovereignty, and the logic of competition. London: Sage.

Giroux, H. (2014) Neoliberalism’s war on higher education. Chicago, IL: Haymarket.

Lawson, S., Sanders, K., and Smith, L. (2015) ‘Commodification of the information profession: a critique of higher education under neoliberalism’, Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, 3(1). doi:10.7710/2162-3309.1182