Digital praxis and online identity

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

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

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

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

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

This is literally the best thing about social theory though¬†‚̧ԳŹhttps://t.co/5pRsbQBjLa

‚ÄĒ Sarah Burton (@DrFloraPoste)¬†August 8, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

Granovetter, M.S. (1973) ‘The strength of weak ties’, American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), pp. 1360‚Äď1380. doi:10.1086/225469.

Hall, S. (1980) ‚ÄėEncoding/decoding‚Äô, in Hall, S., Hobson, D., Lowe, A., and Willis, P. (eds.), Culture, Media, Language, pp. 128‚Äď38. London: Hutchinson.

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 ‚Äėlibrary and information science‚Äô (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 literature‚ÄĒor theory‚ÄĒwithin 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 Luk√°cs’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 theory‚ÄĒor the established scholarly body of knowledge‚ÄĒof 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 ‚Ķ 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‚ÄĒeven reflection‚ÄĒis seen as a frill in an environment where we are always crunched for time. [‚Ķ] 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‚ÄĒbut 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‚ÄĒwhy 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.

Luk√°cs, 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).

Neoliberalism, Marketisation, and Higher Education ‚Äď 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‚ÄĒalongside 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