Feelings on critical systems praxis, for #critlib

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I wrote this to reply to the ‘recommended writing’ suggestion by Kevin Seeber for the December 15 2015 #critlib chat on #feelings. I very likely won’t be at the chat itself, so I haven’t quite addressed the questions as posed.

Why practice critical librarianship?

I understand #critlib to mean critical theory approaches to library work as a whole so will say something about why I find this interesting, and why I think it is important and useful in the undertheorized area of library systems. In this piece I refer to #critlib, the idea of critical librarianship, and the critically-informed stance of Radical Librarians Collective (RLC) interchangeably.

I found out about #critlib chats when I was already aware of #critLIS, a critical theory reading group at the University of Sheffield iSchool. The students involved in #critLIS tweeted some of their discussions and I read the things they talked about. I could only join in minimally but what I saw of their discussion seemed thrilling in how they brought social critique to information work, but also intimidatingly erudite in the works referenced.

Later I attended a discussion on critical theory in LIS at an RLC event in London. On reflection at RLC I think the whole critical theory ball of wax was explained in problem-posing terms, which was both more useful, more challenging, and achieved more than a lecture on the same subject would have. At that session Kevin and Lauren didn’t offer grand solutions, but instead many new lenses with which to interpret and inspect practice and some practical ideas too (Smith, 2014). I realized I had some reading to do; fortunately, critical librarians (by all means imagine the ‘smiling cat face with heart-shaped eyes’ emoji here) are inevitably generous with suggestions.

Reading a text is learning the relationships among the words in the composition of the discourse. It is the task of a critical, humble, determined “subject” or agent of learning, the reader.

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)

I quote Freire’s uncompromising view from Pedagogy of Hope on the challenges of engaging with reading, as though I disagree with his presentation of study as an “always […] pleasant” struggle the last part chimes with how I feel on trying to be “an agent of learning” in understanding social critique and develop a #critlib approach with no background in theory. To be clear this is a personal reflection: I’m not telling anyone to do this, and I’m aware I speak from a position of privilege.

In discovering new these areas there is joy in exploring new contours of practice, and opening new discursive spaces. Given new tools for sensemaking, the materials of practice feel new themselves. I value #critlib most in providing a space to create and shape professional discourse, to disagree from a position of inclusivity and respect, and fundamentally to help us develop a reflexive praxis: that is, critically-informed action.

Well, how about it? I found Freire’s explanation of the simultaneous nature and equivalence of reflection and action particularly formative in doing this:

“[M]y defence of praxis implies no dichotomy by which this praxis could be divided into a prior stage of reflection and a subsequent stage of action. Action and reflection occur simultaneously. A critical analysis of reflection may, however, reveal that a particular form of action is impossible or inappropriate at the present time. Those who through reflection perceive the infeasibility or inappropriateness of one or another form of action […] cannot thereby be accused of inaction. Critical reflection is also action.

Freire (1996, p. 109)

Working through the implications of this allowed me to reframe reflection not as an introspective after-the-event mulling over, perhaps somewhat time-wasting given there is “real work” to getting on with, but something central to action itself and part of an overall method of praxis.

https://twitter.com/preater/status/616271562409410560

So, this is why I participate in #critlib and RLC. I want to see the loop between theory and practice closed in ways that appreciate it is not just the job of LIS academics to develop theory and practitioners to employ it, but that theorizing from our practice and experience should be an accessible process for all of us.

Theory in an undertheorized field

One of Kevin’s questions for the chat asks if we think #critlib is “worth it,” that is, does talk about theory make any difference to your own professional practice, and more broadly? I argue yes, but…

I think #critlib starts with a set of challenging positions to work from rather than a set of agreed ideological fixed ideas or ‘how to’ guides for library work, management, and leadership. Even if someone wrote such a thing, the texts we read and discuss are steeped in and reproduce ideologies and this would remain a problem to grapple with.

#critlib offers multidisciplinary ways of seeing and interpreting our practice that are necessarily critically informed and framed in terms of inclusivity and diversity, but that might not be applicable to practice in straightforward ways. This bears analysis of our situation, and for me, giving up the idea of applying #critlib with a particular framing ‘context’ as this term obscures a great deal. I’m indebted to Clarke’s work on grounded theory (2005, pp. 71-72) in understanding this last point.

In my view systems librarianship is relatively undertheorized and ahistorical in its understanding of thought and practice; not obviously fertile ground to develop #critlib. As the head of a systems team I see systems as occupying an important nexus in two areas often claimed neutral in various ways: libraries and technology. Of course neither are neutral, when put like this it’s laughable to suggest they are, but it’s easy to slip into such positions by default if we don’t interrogate our practices and how we utilize technology.

It can be easy for systems workers to think if we are satisfying the requirements of library staff as clients and library users as customers that’s enough, and we needn’t over-think the technology we employ beyond compliance with law (such as data protection legislation), our professional ethics (such as CILIP’s Code of Professional Practice), the standards of our employers, and so on. I’ve heard very reasonable positions voiced in the profession that this is “just good librarianship”.

I argue that this is not enough and our response should be non-neutral as our technology and information management is non-neutral. But to exaggerate for hyperbolic effect, critically-informed ethical approaches are more complicated than lazily rejecting every new idea as “problematic” while maintaining our own comfortable, compartmentalized silos. A systems approach to #critlib (#critsyslib?) means delving into our underlying assumptions by using reflective practice as a technique, taking critically reflective and reflexive approaches in our implementations of new systems and technologies.

For me developing a critical systems praxis means reject instrumental or mechanistic approaches to information, its storage and indexing, its use and understanding by our users, and the stack of technologies that underpin all of these things. A #critlib perspective would mean taking critical approaches throughout systems work including in selection, procurement, and implementation of new technologies and systems, and using critically-informed methods in researching them and in directing their development. For managers and leaders in systems it means role-modelling positive behaviours, and taking an authentically #critlib stance in what we do in our work, including for example line management and hiring practices.

I struggle with these things and cannot claim to do all of them or that my team do all of them, yet, but referring to the Freirean equivalence of reflection and action, taking on #critlib viewpoints and approaches begins the necessary perspectival shift to move towards a critical turn in systems praxis hence, why I #critlib.

References

Clarke, A.E. (2005) Situational analysis: grounded theory after the postmodern turn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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

Freire, P. (1994) Pedagogy of hope. Reprint, London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Smith, L. (2014) ‘Radical Librarians Collective (part three): critical theory’, Lauren Smith, 16 May. Available at: https://laurensmith.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/radical-librarians-collective-part-three/

Reflective practice and critical reflection recommended reading

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I was recently asked for some recommended reading on reflective practice in general and critical reflection in particular, and as several people asked me to share this I thought I would do so here.

Reflective practice in general

Schön, D.A. (1983) The reflective practitioner. New York, NY: Basic Books.

A classic text, and one that should be seen in Schön’s context of time, place, and employment. Heavily critiqued and interpreted in the last 30+ years; I’d argue understanding reflection-in-action vs. reflection-on-action remains core to effective reflective practice and that this is still a challenging work when considering professional technical skills for practitioners.

Finlay, L., (2008) Reflecting on reflective practice. Available at: http://www.open.ac.uk/opencetl/files/opencetl/file/ecms/web-content/Finlay-(2008)-Reflecting-on-reflective-practice-PBPL-paper-52.pdf

For me Finlay is the best starting point for a review article on reflective practice. Written for the Open University PBPL CETL (which dates it…) but presenting, effectively, a wide-ranging literature review on reflective practice useful to anyone. Very helpful for an overview of different approaches or ways of doing reflective practice.

Bolton, G. (2014) Reflective practice : writing and professional development. 3rd edn. London: Sage.

A useful overview of reflective writing. Its utility to you may depend on your view of the importance of narrative, but worthwhile if you have any intention of writing reflective pieces on your experience.

Brookfield, S. (1994) ‘Tales from the dark side: a phenomenology of adult critical reflection’, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 13 (3) pp.203-216. doi:10.1080/0260137940130303

An interesting exploration of negative aspects (the ‘dark side’) of critical reflection for adult learners. Recommended reading for how to avoid or overcome these issues in practice.

Argyris, C. (1991) ‘Teaching smart people how to learn’, Harvard Business Review, (May/June). Available at: https://hbr.org/1991/05/teaching-smart-people-how-to-learn

On challenges of applying Argyris and Schön’s single-loop vs. double-loop learning to professional practice.

Drucker, P.F. (1999) ‘Managing oneself’, Harvard Business Review, (January). Available at: https://hbr.org/2005/01/managing-oneself

Not pitched as about reflection, but contains useful nuggets on ways of thinking about development. Warning: contains some problematic ideas and sweeping statements.

Critical reflection or critical reflective practice

I take critical reflective practice to mean particularly the ‘two stage’ approach of analysis and deconstruction followed by reconstruction and change developed and articulated in the 2000s by Jan Fook, Fiona Gardner, and Sue White, alongside contributions from many other researchers. Their particular combination of theoretical underpinning and practical method is the one I prefer because it chimes with in with my own values and preferred approach to thinking about professional practice.

These researchers scaffold their approach with four theories, this list is paraphrased in part from Gardner (2014) and Fook and Gardner (2007):

  • Reflective practice itself, including an idea of experience or practice knowledge that I would describe as praxis, eg. articulated in Fook and Gardner (2007 p.24), “[R]eflective practice can be seen as a process of researching practice theory, by developing it directly from concrete practice”
  • Reflexivity, emphasizing a consciousness of how users perceive themselves and us, and how we perceive ourselves and each other in context as practitioners and researchers
  • Postmodernism and deconstruction, in this case particularly emphasizing concerns with attitudes to and influences of power
  • Critical social theory, including an emphasis on social justice as a concern

One challenge for us is taking these ideas out of their original context of health and social care and making them applicable to library and information professional practice. Personally, I think this is entirely possible as the idea of praxis implies:

  • Applying theory to practice deductively
  • Creating theory from practice via inductive formation of knowledge and new theories of practice

My point, is we needn’t wait for someone to write the ‘Critical reflection in library and information science’ textbook but can work on these ideas immediately. 😉

Gardner, F. (2014) Being critically reflective. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gardner’s is my favoured introduction to critical reflection concepts and methods. It’s written to work for students and both new and experienced practitioners, providing practical examples while referencing more complex texts for underpinning theory, some of which are below.

Fronek, P. (2012) Jan Fook: critical reflection. [Podcast]. Available at: http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/critical-reflection/

Fook, J. (2006) ‘Beyond reflective practice: reworking the “critical” in critical reflection’, Professional Lifelong Learning: beyond reflective practice, Leeds, UK, 3 July. Available at: http://medhealth.leeds.ac.uk/download/1404/keynote_janis_fook

This conference keynote and podcast can be combined with Gardner’s book on critical reflection as an overview for ‘core’ reading. Jan Fook’s keynote for a medical education conference includes both the ‘what it is’ explanation and a retheorizing of critical reflection. I really like her summary on p. 14 for the focus on the political aspects:

“In reworking a theory of critical reflection, I would now articulate critical reflection as involving the ability to understand the social dimensions and political functions of experience and meaning making, and the ability to apply this understanding in working in social contexts” (emphasis in original)

The podcast interview is meant as an overview – Jan Fook’s style and enthusiasm are compelling, start here if you are unsure about where to dive in.

White, S., Fook, J., and Gardner, F. (eds.) (2006) Critical reflection in health and social care. Maidenhead: Open University.

Lehmann’s chapter 14 particularly interesting as this links a reflective writing approach to critical reflective practice; the ‘five questions’ she poses are also very useful for unpicking underlying assumptions.

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

Other than Gardner (2014) I think this is the best introduction containing a more detailed explanation of the theory plus a plan for how to carry out practical reflective conversations as a group.

Vince, R. and Reynolds, M. (2002) ‘Organizing reflective practice’, Organization Learning, Knowledge and Capabilities, Copenhagen, Denmark, 28-30 April. Available at: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/wbs/conf/olkc/archive/olkc3/papers/contribution115.pdf

I include this here as Vince and Reynolds link reflective practice to critical management studies as a way of developing a model moving beyond Schön. Their overall view of ‘collective reflection’ is a useful expansion of, and critique of some limits in Schön’s work.

Ghaye, T. (2005) Developing the reflective healthcare team. Oxford: Blackwell.

Does what it says: the focus is on team-based reflection in healthcare, from a UK context. Much of what is here is generalizable and I think this is a particularly good starting point for managers or leaders looking at ways of developing reflective teamwork.

Critical theory and praxis

A major attraction for me to critical reflection was how Fook, Gardner, and White combine ‘traditional’ reflective practices with critical theory. With that in mind I wanted to include a few suggestions for starting points I think are useful in this area that may help in understanding the above. Lauren’s recommended reading list below includes these and much, much more: everything from critical theory ‘big names’ to specific library and inform recommendations.

Generally I’d also recommend Foucault, but struggle to pick one particular work. If pressed I’d include Discipline and Punish due to the focus on power and how disciplinary mechanisms were extended to the 20th century (Taylorist, Fordist) workplace, and the classic chapter on panopticism. It’s what I’ve recommended to my team as a starting point.

Leckie, G.J., Given, L.M., and Buschman, J. (eds.) (2010) Critical theory for library and information science. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

In my opinion the best general introduction to how critical theory can be applied to library and information work.

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin.

A foundational work on praxis and critical pedagogy, quotable and inspiring. Of its time and place (citations include Lenin and Mao) so should be taken as a starting point for developing ideas.

Day, R.E., (2000) ‘Tropes, history, and ethics in professional discourse and information science’, Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 51 (5), pp.469–475. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1097-4571(2000)51:5<469::AID-ASI7>3.0.CO;2-B

Reading lists from our community

Smith, L. (2014) ‘Radical Librarians Collective (Part Three): Critical Theory’, Lauren Smith, May 16. Available at: https://laurensmith.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/radical-librarians-collective-part-three/

This blog post links to Lauren’s critical theory in LIS reading list (Google Doc) but is worth reading for additional background and the wonderful top ‘All-Time Must-Read Critical Theory in LIS texts’ list.

Professional identity, impostor syndrome, and performativity: thoughts on #radlib15

Image by Flickr user Michael Podger. License CC-BY. Available at: https://flic.kr/p/s2mJjL

Last weekend I attended the #radlib15 event organised by Radical Librarians Collective (RLC) in Huddersfield. I wanted to draw some threads between sessions I attended, and follow up on a few things left unsaid on the day.

RLC has come a long way in a few years and is evolving, but importantly it has maintained a safe space for discussions in LIS that are not happening elsewhere. My grateful thanks to the organizers at RLC for their work.

Professional confidence and professional identity

During the day, I felt two discussions on impostor syndrome and team working were linked by points made about professional confidence and identity, questions about radical perspectives on management, and ideas about the presentation of an authentic self.

Elly O’Brien recently wrote a compelling article problematizing impostor syndrome and professional confidence which helped inform the impostor syndrome session, with Elly’s article referenced at the beginning. I agree with Elly’s points about the unhelpful librarian tendency towards self-deprecation, and I think Kevin nailed it when he called out this “syndrome” as a political creation exerting power on the subject:

About lacking confidence, a point was raised in discussion about whether there is a psychological disconnect between our presentation of identity online, and our true or authentic selves:

I think Simon’s point on the marketized self is good, and I would expand on it and generalize from it. From a Marxian viewpoint anyone who is worker is compelled to sell labour as a commodity, representing a market relationship between the self’s potential for labour (labour power, Marx’s Arbeitskraft) formed from our own living bodies, and capital. In a sense under capital that marketized self is no more or less than one’s real self as it is reflected and understood by capital. This situation is deeply problematic.

Performativity in online identity

On Twitter, Chris followed this with a point and a question about authenticity in our online selves:

I’ve been thinking about a similar question about online identity since I read Ned’s blog post about creating online identity last year, especially his points about “consistent voice” and advice on not “adjusting who you are for other people”. Here I draw a line to the session on teams and teamwork and library managers as a potentially radical subject, relating them using Judith Butler’s concept of performativity.

Butler originally applied her Foucauldian reading of performativity in developing an analysis of gender, arguing that identity can be brought to life or made real by repeated and consistent use of authoritative speech, as:

There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; […] identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.
(Butler, 1999 p.33)

There is a subtle point here. Butler is not simply suggesting that if we talk as if we have identity x, we will have identity x, as in the “fake it till you make it” suggestion that was raised in the impostor syndrome session, but that performativity is:

[T]hat reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains
(Butler, 2014 p.2)

I argue online identities of LIS workers are performative in the way that our use of language itself reifies, by repetition of authoritative speech, those identities that we create online rather than being something authentically constructed or a mere result of “being oneself”. For example, the identity of “an efficient, competent subject librarian”, or “a grounded, authentic manager”, created exactly by the discourse of those individuals on social media platforms like Twitter. I would expand this to include identities we create as managers, in that management is fundamentally performative: expressing power by a mode of authoritative speech, a case of actions embodied in “Doing things with words” (Learmonth, 2005).

On the broader question raised of library management as potentially radical, I have written before about authenticity in management and leadership at Radical Library Camp (the original RLC unconference in 2013) where I facilitated a discussion. In hindsight I’m not satisfied with that perspective, because I don’t see much difference between what I described and straightforward good management.

Instead I think we need to approach management and leadership from a critical perspective, and that there is space for a critical management studies (CMS) view of library management as Kenny Garcia suggested on the #radlib15 hashtag. CMS is something like a critique of management informed by Frankfurt School critical theory; to provide LIS focus I’d add in critical perspectives on information management and information literacy, and perhaps a Marxian lens to analyze information as a commodity in a marketized society. For much more development of the latter, I recommend Lawson, Sanders, and Smith (2015).

This is something I’m very interested in developing in future, so if you are interested in a CMS plus LIS mashup let me know.

References

Butler, J. (1999) Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. Reprint, Abingdon: Routledge.

Butler, J. (2014) Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of “sex”. Reprint, Abingdon: Routledge.

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), eP1182. doi:10.7710/2162-3309.1182

Learmonth, M. (2005) ‘Doing things with words: the case of “management” and “administration”’, Public Administration 83(3), pp. 617–637. doi:10.1111/j.0033-3298.2005.00465.x

Image credit

‘Sunset Flowers. Huddersfield’ header image by Flickr user Michael Podger. License CC-BY. Available at: https://flic.kr/p/s2mJjL