Tales from Covid, part I

All were quietly appalled
To imagine mankind annihilated.
What would heaven do
With a globeful of empty temples?
Alters attended
Only by spiders?

Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (1997, p.19)

(This blog post is modified from a shorter piece I wrote for our library staff newsletter.)

Our university buildings closed on Thursday 19 March, and along with it we closed our two physical libraries and moved to online learning support and delivery of teaching. At the time I felt exhausted but relieved, having thought about very little other than coronavirus, Covid-19, “the virus” or just “it” the past weeks. I had felt higher education was slowly, slowly—and then quickly, immediately, today—moving toward closing. Thursday was the point where we were confident we had a plan in place to support students with nowhere else to go, including those living in our accommodation and vulnerable student groups such as care leavers and those estranged from their families—so we were ready to close.

Incident management within a crisis is very different from the day-to-day working of any university. Higher education governance, committees and processes are designed to support a complex system that works to semester, annual, and multi-year cycles. We work with considerable uncertainty year-by-year, but within frameworks, expectations, and practices that provide certainties. But within a critical incident, university leadership needs to immediately engage a very different skill set, putting aside our usual tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainties and instead focusing on what is essential.

As the pandemic developed things changed each day, and accelerated the week of 16 March. At the time, it felt like being physically on one of the now-familiar exponential graphs of Covid-19 cases. Things that seemed certain or agreed 24 hours ago were overtaken by events and dropped. A few days later, that timescale had shortened to 12 hours or less. With our immediate horizon changed to what needs doing today, and our medium-term horizon changed to two or three days from now, organisational hierarchies and reporting lines are much less relevant. Colleagues do what needs to be done, and communication becomes more frank, urgent, and honest. For leaders, it is vital to perceive the underlying concerns expressed, and to be as generous as possible in our reading of colleagues’ words and tone.

At my university the library team was amazing at moving smoothly and efficiently to online learning support and delivery, while dealing with extreme stress and worry in our lives outside work. I could not have asked for better colleagues in the library and as peers—both our own heads of departments and deans of our academic schools, and also my wider peer group of library directors who worked collaboratively in sharing experience and knowledge. For me it’s worth stating that almost all of this advocacy and sharing happened behind the scenes, particularly in how we supported each other to advocate to our senior leadership teams for closing physical libraries and learning spaces. Chris Bourg’s blog post (15 March) and Helen Rimmer’s blog post (22 March) are significant public statements of this. Elsewhere in education and in libraries in other sectors, I saw advocacy being carried out at genuine professional risk. I am immensely grateful to colleagues who contacted me with their words and arguments that in turn made my advocacy much more effective.

At the same time as managing risk and immediate concerns of incident management, there were short- and medium-term scenarios we needed to plan. Once we had made our immediate, rapid and orderly shift to online delivery of teaching we needed to think about the longer term. The Covid-19 pandemic is currently open-ended. We are adjusting to new ways of working and finding out what is most effective in our own teams and our wider circles. This isn’t a blog post for sharing tips as at the time of writing I’m still decompressing, but my immediate thoughts on our shift to sustained online delivery are about the change of gear from dealing with immediate practical concerns, to ensuring we maintain resilience as a team and an educational community.

Bridging the gap between theory and practice: Open Access in Theory and Practice round table event

Last week I attended a round table meeting about bridging gaps between library and information science (LIS), and digital humanities, theory and practice at City, University of London.

The discussion on the day between the group of practitioners and academics and was so rich, interesting, and detailed that there was no way to adequately convey it ‘live’ using social media—though Tweets under the #OATAP hashtag give some flavour of what was discussed. This blog post is therefore a reflective account of the day and an interpretation of what I learned.

Ahead of time we’d been given some framing questions to be addressed on the day, which very much spoke to my interest in the relationship between theory and practice and their potential integration as praxis:

What is the use of theory and how can it be better used to inform practice?

Can researchers and practitioners work together more closely in designing and conducting research, and then interpreting its significance for practice?

What should be the relationship between theory and practice in teaching and learning? 

How might LIS schools better serve the needs of employers in developing graduates able to make a significant contribution in the contemporary information professions? 

On the day I learned the event was organised under a strand of an AHRC-funded project, Open Access in Theory and Practice (OATAP) which is a joint project between the library schools of City, University of London and University of Sheffield. The project investigates the relationship between theory and practice in the context of open access and the dissemination of research. Despite the title, the questions and small group discussion at the event were not about the theory and practice of open access and scholarly communications, but about the relationship between theory and practice in LIS holistically. I also found out on that day attendees had been invited based on being identified not as theorists or practitioners, but as boundary spanners. This is a term from organizational development theory which means, briefly, a person who can build relationships, create shared meaning, and exchange information across boundaries of various types—in the case of OATAP the focus was theory and practice, rather than for example the departments or networks within and outside our organizations.

In working with academic (faculty) colleagues, one thing I love is getting to see their ability to synthesize information in both breadth and depth in ways that creates new knowledge and insights, and their scaffolding of new understanding in group situations. A point noted, and then deliberately subverted on the day by Professor Stephen Pinfield was that the process of theorizing in research can look like “magic” from the outside. The reality is rather than magic, it is an ongoing and iterative process of creative intellectual work which anyone can engage with; and as bell hooks observes, “one may practice theorizing without ever knowing/possessing the term,” (1994 p.62). As such, everyone can be a theorist and can theorize.

In introducing the day, Pinfield reminded us of a quote attributed to psychologist Kurt Lewin:

There is nothing as practical as a good theory.

Lewin, 1951 p.169

This is a very well-known quote that appears in a variety of slightly different forms in the literature (McCain, 2016). Pinfield quoted the paragraph proceeding this quote, which expands more on the idea of an interrelation between theory and practice:

The greatest handicap of applied psychology has been the fact that, without proper theoretical help, it had to follow the costly, inefficient, and limited method of trial and error. Many psychologists working today in an applied field are keenly aware of the need for close cooperation between theoretical and applied psychology.

Lewin, 1951 p.169

I read an assumption in framings such as Lewin’s of a distinct line between what we think about as ‘theory’ and what we think about as ‘practice’: related, but ultimately separate domains; and the idea of gaps emerging between theory and practice was central to discussion at the event.

One of the general assumptions based on findings of the OATAP research is that we should actually think about theory and practice as more closely related, including ‘cross-fertilization’ between them. I went to the round table day questioning this binary presentation, and despite some limitations of the word ‘praxis’ I wanted to put across an understanding of an integrated ‘theory-practice’ as theoretically and critically-informed reflection and action, drawing on Paulo Freire’s (1997) and Hannah Arendt’s (1998) work.

One of the main things I took from the day was the importance of how the language we use and assumptions about what we mean can shape our collective thinking, or pull us toward particular conclusions. Sharing definitions can be helpful, but in practice doing this is not necessary the best use of limited small group discussion time. I think one of the main benefits of bringing domain experts together in conversation is our ability to rely on our shared body of knowledge and its shorthand, jargon, and slang, in ways that allow us to immediately speak in-depth about the particulars of practice.

For me, the sum of this body of knowledge within LIS practice is another way of describing what we call ‘theory’. I try not to see theory wholly in terms of abstracted or generalized knowledge, but as knowledge deeply entangled with and expressed within practice. I asked colleagues in small group discussion if we might think about theory-practice as more complicated, more like a ball of plasticine made of a combination of mixed-up colours, rather than neatly-separated domains.

Representation or mental model of the Internet drawn by Maya, a primary school pupil, for the Can You Draw The Internet? project (website now defunct, available via the Internet Archive).

Our experiences of theory and practice

From others at the event I saw a wide range of understandings of theory in work and practice, from the assertion of one researcher that “Theory is my bag!” to one practitioner’s explanation of being highly focused on “Getting on with the day-to-day,” in ways that work against being able to spend time thinking abstractly, to a focus on a facilitation or bridging role between theory and practice described by a practitioner from a sector body. An insightful point made on the day was that researchers and practitioners talk about theory using different terms: practitioners might call something a toolkit or guidelines, whereas a researcher might call something similar a model or a framework. Generally though, no-one is calling these things theory…!

Personally, I feel that centring theory within practice is a key method of developing reflective self-awareness and reflexivity; or in more colloquial terms I ask if we do not seek perspectives and understanding outside ourselves, how do we have confidence we are doing the right things and how do we know what to change? The theme of reflective practice, and in particular being critically-informed as reflective practitioners, was one I found repeated throughout the day. My group discussed an imagined ‘anti-theory’ practitioner, someone who might think of ‘theory’ or the ‘academic’ in a pejorative way. We understood that even those with an anti-theory standpoint will in their practices inevitably use and access abstract and generalized knowledge, because what they have learned about practice themselves and from others will be theoretically-informed. One irony of an “anti-theory” standpoint is that this is itself a theoretical position.

Rhetorically, I asked why wouldn’t you want to start from the most advantageous position as a practitioner—that of understanding many broad, diverse viewpoints from theorists who have already invested time and energy in that creative process? At the event, I noted several theorists and practitioners as influences on my thinking. I’ve written previously about the value of engaging with scholarly work for CPD so won’t retread that ground, but briefly I would be astonished if I could organically come to functionally-equivalent understandings as those I have developed by engaging with colleagues’ scholarship in librarianship and education.

Thinking about constraints, the main issue practitioners explained we face is not having enough time to effectively engage with theory. Secondarily, we felt workplaces in which attention to theory is not valued present a barrier; as do traditional publication formats of journals and expectations of a particular style of academic language.

I had a dissenting viewpoint in this, as I think access to research and scholarship is a more important issue than these points about content and style. Firstly, given the diversity of library and information scholarship published in English globally I suspect that theory-informed research probably is addressing the “right problems”, more likely than work not existing is that I am unaware of it because it is not discoverable. Secondly, in working in libraries as an education worker I have found multidisciplinary breadth in reading and learning from theory necessary, rather than a beneficial but nonessential adjunct—on the day I learned I might expect this from a boundary-spanner. The research we need or can use often being outside our area implies learning from disciplines that are new to us, with a use case very likely unanticipated by scholars in those disciplines. My personal view is in those situations, I find standardized approaches to content and style to be ultimately a help rather than a hindrance, and remain reasonably certain I would not be identified as a relevant practitioner to ‘push’ research toward.

Conversely, the main issue researchers explained that they face is lack of demand from practitioners to be involved with their work and to co-produce research. Libraries as employers do not generally individually commission research from library schools to address the issues facing us, although we do collectively through sector bodies such as SCONUL, so I found this open discussion between researchers and practitioners pointed to a potentially extremely fruitful collaboration. This is an idea I have heard before from Dr Lauren Smith, in her CILIP Conference keynote (2016).

I noticed the small groups had reached very different and varied conclusions about this. One comment I found striking was in reply to the point that we may not have a library school nearby to engage with, it was highlighted that even in situations where a library school and their university library are in close proximity, colleagues may see no more of each other than any other subject liaison roles. Simply having a department close by doesn’t imply deep engagement is easy, any more than being in an academic setting implies engaging with research and scholarship is easy—as ever, the issues are those of building relationships, shared understanding, and trust over time.

Bridging the gap

I found the group discussion on what we can do to bridge gaps, or develop more feedback mechanisms between theory and practice particularly interesting, and it spoke to some challenges relevant to my workplace and our library’s strategic priority for practitioner research and scholarship:

4.5 Enable our staff to engage with and create practitioner research and scholarship, connecting theory and practice in our discipline as well as enhancing our ability to support research and scholarship activities.

Simply put we all broadly agreed that practitioners being involved with theory and theorizing—that is, engaging with and creating research and scholarship—is highly beneficial to individuals and our organizations. The challenge I heard shared by practitioners in senior roles is that writing a strategic priority needs to be followed with material support to enable it, so that it is not treated as an optional extra.

For academic libraries in the UK this might mean introducing a combination of development activities to support enquiry beyond our operational work, as well as a way of tying this development to our appraisal and reward structures. This would in many ways make library workers’ professional development closer in form, level, and function to the type of development expected of academic colleagues for their own pedagogic practice. Within this idea there is potential to link library workers’ professional development to our academic quality standards in a similar way to academics’ own professional development. An insightful observation raised in group discussion is that library workers do engage with pedagogic research and scholarship if they complete a PgCert in academic practice. A final point for critical reflection then, is to ask if equivalent engagement could be possible within librarianship as this qualification is at the same level, with similar expectations of conceptual understanding of research and advanced scholarship?


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

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

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

Lewin, K. (1951) Field theory in social science: selected theoretical papers by Kurt Lewin. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

McCain, K.W. (2015) ‘”Nothing as practical as a good theory” does Lewin’s maxim still have salience in the applied social sciences?’, Proceedings of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 52(1), pp.1-4 [Online]. doi:10.1002/pra2.2015.145052010077

Smith, L. (2016) ‘From the bronze age to big data: why knowledge matters’, CILIP Conference. The Dome, Brighton, 12-13 July [Online]. Available at: http://cilipconference.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Lauren-Smith.pdf

UWL Library Services (2018) Library Services Strategy 2018-23. Available at: https://www.uwl.ac.uk/library/about-library/library-services-strategy

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.


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