‘Getting smart’ in a time of change, at ARLG 2019 (Part 1 of 2)

Representing the idea of reflective thought and action, in order: the "thinking face" emoji, the "right pointing hand" emoji, and the "cool sunglasses face" emoji.

This blog post is modified from a workshop, which included a presentation, delivered at the Cilip Academic & Research Libraries Group (ARLG) Conference on 4 June 2019 at the Darlington campus of Teesside University. Rosie Hare of the Northern School of Art, who was also one of the conference organizers, co-facilitated this.

Note on terminology: below, I will use the terms critique and criticism interchangeably. When I refer to critical theory (lowercase) this does not mean a particular critical tradition, or imply there is a single critical tradition.

Our slides are available, but as with most conference slide decks this tells a partial and incomplete story. Below I will expand on our rationale for running this session and the value I feel we derived from doing so, including our first of two workshop activities. Rosie Hare has written about the second half of the workshop, in Getting smart’ in a time of change, at ARLG 2019 (Part 2 of 2).

The theme of the conference was originally, “Doing more with less” which following sharp, critical engagement from the community was later reworked as, “Working smarter in a time of change“.

It was in the context of critique, refusal, and push-back that I was inspired by Donna Lanclos‘s suggestion to submit a critically-framed response to the call for papers (thread below).

Our title is a reference to Patti Lather’s (1991) Getting smart: feminist research and pedagogy with/in the postmodern, which has particularly influenced my thinking about language and power within postmodern textual practices. Seeking voice and making meaning through dialogue provides a direct link to Lather’s work, due to her focus on importance of removing barriers that prevent people from speaking for themselves.

Thoughts and feelings

In our reply to the call for papers we explained that although we speak as further and higher education workers, library workers across all sectors and industries will likely recognise in their workplaces a context of constrained budgets, intensification of work processes, and pressure to continuously improve to meet the evolving needs and increased expectations of library users.

In doing so, library and education workers actively involve ourselves in roles of self-government which are rooted in measurement, evaluative techniques, and a logic based on markets and competition. But inevitably, gaps appear between the service that is achievable within our organisational financial constraints, and our commitment—which is framed by professional ethics and personal morals—to providing the most effective service. Library workers at all levels can find this situation emotionally charged, unsettling, and generative of feelings of impostorship. For managers especially, one temptation is to shift into a practically-focused crisis management or damage limitation mode, without necessarily giving critical consideration to this complex set of thoughts and feelings.

We had not personally experienced at a mainstream library conference an attempt to create a supportive environment for frank conversations to explore issues like this, and we hoped that delegates could trust each other to share what we felt we needed to say and articulate in critically interrogating these challenges—which might include expressing complicated, negative feelings. We asked workshop participants not to live-Tweet the session or otherwise share it on social media, hoping to create a space for trust and good faith dialogue which would be inclusive of participants who were less familiar with discourses of critique and critical theory—of any tradition. As well as open discussion, we wanted to facilitate questions without anyone feeling they would be picked up for perceived mistakes.

In the workshop, and in our follow-up here we utilized the Chatham House Rule which states that, “Participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed”.

Making meaning with critique

Our working assumption was workshop participants could come to the session with anything from little to a great deal of knowledge of any particular critical theory tradition. We wanted to strike the right balance between potentially ‘splaining basic concepts and being condescending, and assuming too much shared knowledge and falling into the trap of the ‘curse of knowledge’ cognitive bias.

We therefore opened with a explanation of brief summary of what we meant by the term critique or criticism. As simply as we could state it, by critique we mean a process which informs and directs actions which carry social and ethical implications, beyond the technical execution of library work. However this process is in itself complex, and the terminology potentially contested and understood by different people in different ways. There are different critical traditions, and your notion of a critical theory might be conceptualized and understood very differently from mine—and that is fine.

In being critical we do not mean negative finding of fault, instead we mean critical inspection of our practice as information professionals. We particularly want to place analytical focus on the structures and systems that govern what we do in our workplaces or other professional contexts, and the power dynamics which operating within and outside those structures.

We particularly mean to focus on power, not conceptualised just terms of a coercive form of authority but as more of a social force, generated within our social relations and networks. We wanted to ask what potential there is if we analyse and ‘see through’ established authority and what we may think of as dominant means of control. If we are to be critical in a negative sense, we wish to address this to that established authority.

Becoming comfortable with our words

One way of become comfortable with the language of various critical theory traditions is by engaging with literature from different theorists, and coming to know the terrain and contours of their landscapes. However, we argue that processes of criticism can be engaged in without having to ‘have’ an enormous amount of knowledge of theory, that is, one does not need to be an expert to engage with critical ideas. We wanted also to emphasize the practical element of theory, because our view is that being critical is fundamental to reflective practice. We see an extended form of self-knowledge about our motivations for developing critical responses, and its limits and risks, as key to this point.

The requirements of praxis are theory both relevant to the world and nurtured by actions in it, and an action component […] that grows out of practical political grounding.

Lather (1991, p.12)

Patti Lather theorizes this form of practice as politically grounded. Praxis, spelled with an x, here has a sense of being informed action—in particular action which has a political component relevant to directing social change. We feel that this practical political grounding is generated by and through a reflective approach—one which includes knowledge developed from lived experiences, as well as the new knowledge we get from reading and conversations.

We asked the participants to aim to critically inspect how established authority operates within the communities they operate in. Our social networks and relationships are often complex, and a ‘solution’ to a challenge or an issue could look more like an ongoing, continuous, and iterative process rather than a one-step solution. In this spirit, we asked participants to put to one side the idea of simple solutions which process to clean, straightforward resolution and think about a process that might evolve over time.

Activity: reflective question

Critique doesn’t have to be the premise of a deduction that concludes, ‘this, then, is what should be done.’ It should be an instrument for those who fight, those who resist and refuse what is. Its use should be in processes of conflict and confrontation, essays in refusal.

Foucault (2000 p.236)

Some aspects of engaging with a critical approach will make us feel uncomfortable and can feel like thankless work. For example attempting to illuminate and challenge our own internal biases, while also asking others to critically inspect long-held beliefs themselves can be extremely challenging. It may be difficult simply to hold and sit with these feelings and not be overwhelmed, particularly when there is no obvious solution or practical first steps toward a solution that we can busy ourselves with. One point we emphasized to workshop participants that I think bears repeating, managers and leaders discover themselves in that position as well, as reflective practitioners.

As a first exercise we asked a reflective question based on this Foucault quote about the use of critique in refusal, rather than problem-solving. We asked participants to think about themselves being in a position of being one who “refuses what is”, based on thinking and writing about a real-world situation where they wanted to say something but felt they could not. The scenario we described as an example was not being able to to provide a service, or a particular quality of service, due to a constraint outside their control.

We asked participants consider their thoughts and feelings about the situation, without trying to work out how to solve the problem, or jump to a preferred solution. As this was an initial exercise we asked participants be more descriptive about their thoughts, and not to pressure themselves to reach fully-formed conclusions. The initial purpose of this was to provide a period for thoughtfulness not based on talking around a table; and although brief we also hoped this would subvert experiences of conferences dominated by extraverted activity given that there was a longer small group exercise coming later.

We asked participants to concentrate on refusal and visualising themselves in a mode of refusal to, we hoped, facilitate broader ideas and thinking about strategies for change that did not drive toward immediate results. Since then, I found Donna Lanclos’s delineation of power, refusal, and agency in her recent Academic Practice and Technology (APT) Conference keynote provided a rich way of thinking about strategic refusal, and refusal as evidence of institutional rather than individual malaise or deficit:

We need to stop seeing refusal as evidence that there’s something wrong with the people doing the refusing. We need to see refusal as evidence that there is something wrong that they are communicating about, something wrong with the systems they are being presented with, with the structures in which they are placed.

Lanclos, 2019

It may seem unusual that we discussed and focused on feelings—or affect—in our workshop. Indeed, this framing was key to our approach. We did this because we know that feelings are rational, rooted in our material understanding of the world, and in practical terms can sharpen our decision-making processes as well as our motivation to enact our decisions. In relating the politics of feminist movement with that of climate change activism, Susie Orbach describes how spaces of dialogue and sharing are also affective, and build resilience:

Facing feelings is not a substitute for political action, not is it a distraction from action. Feelings are an important feature of political activity. Acknowledging our feelings—the ourselves, to one another—makes us more robust.

Orbach (2019, p.67)

I had hoped our approach would facilitate thinking at greater length about a scenario of lacking control and agency, and would prove helpful later in the small group discussion so that participants weren’t starting from scratch. Rosie and I joined in the exercises with the workshop participants, on the basis that we would not ask anyone to do anything that we were not willing to do ourselves. I personally found this a very useful shared experience, having done completely unstructured free writing exercises many times before this approach provided a similar sense of writing something purely for myself while also serving a useful purpose for the next step in the workshop where we would analyse issues from our experience in greater depth.


Chatham House (2018) Chatham House rule. Available at: https://www.chathamhouse.org/chatham-house-rule

Foucault, M. (2000) ‘Questions of method’, in Faubion, J.D. (Ed.), Power. New York, NY: New Press, pp.223-238.

Lather, P. (1991) Getting smart: feminist pedagogy with/in the postmodern. London: Routledge.

Lanclos, D.M. (2019) ‘Listening to refusal: opening keynote for #APTconf 2019’, Donna Lanclos, 9 July. Available at: https://www.donnalanclos.com/listening-to-refusal-opening-keynote-for-aptconf-2019/

Orbach, S. (2019) ‘Climate sorrow’, in Farrell, C., Green, A., Knights, S., and Skeaping, W. (Eds.) This is not a drill. London: Penguin, pp.65-68.

Cilip Conference 2019 Leaders’ Network Panel: Why self-determined learning matters for leaders

This is the text, slightly modified and with additional citations, of a lightning talk presentation I gave at the Cilip Conference 2019 Leaders’ Network Panel session on the subject of why self-determined learning matters for leaders at all levels.

I will speak about why I think self-determined learning is key to critical reflective practice for leaders. You may already have heard of self-determined learning as heutagogy (Hase and Kenyon, 2000). I say critical reflective practice because critical reflection is the method I identify with—because it focuses on concerns of power and social justice. That matters to me in part because of class positionality—social class remains a barrier to education and entry to librarianship, as Liz Jolly said yesterday in her keynote talk.

I want to centre reflective practice for leaders because it is a critical learning skill, that is associated with and connected to knowing how to learn. I also feel personally, the leaders who have most inspired me and that I think role-model an authentic approach are those who take a reflective approach in their practice.

Reflective practice as a way of understanding and dealing with unique situations is important because to be frank, leaders do not always immediately know what is right and sometimes not even a full picture of what is going on operationally. By that I mean that we will not have an effective playbook or toolkit to work with in situations that are ‘new and novel’, and we may be removed from the operational detail as well: we may not realistically have time to build that knowledge from the ground up.

When I face a new challenge I often think about similarities from experiences I’ve had in the past, and my mind starts developing analogies. But that’s dangerous ground in so many ways—it leads to situations in which cognitive biases can creep in. Remember, many cognitive biases exist because there is an advantage in allowing us to make quick, snap decisions—as such we have to remember that the gut feeling we have needs to be questioned exactly because it feels right.

A workplace role as a leader or senior manager don’t mean that you know everything or can reach good answers or wise judgements quickly; more likely in my experience is that the snap judgement is really a hot take, rooted in cognitive bias or shallow moralising. Think about this: have you ever worked for someone who you thought made a snap decision and then wouldn’t change their mind, no matter what evidence was presented? Or, have you actually been that person?

We need knowledge from outside ourselves to develop self-awareness. My colleague Jacqueline Smart at University of West London taught me yesterday at our learning and teaching conference, that the kind of self-awareness that we gain during reflective practice is also a form of new knowledge. Why we need to be self-determined is that working in new and novel situations that are ambiguous and uncertain is the key space of leadership work.

The most powerful lesson I have learned in any senior role is there are multiple ways to do things and often multiple, functionally-equivalent correct answers. In those new and novel situations there is often no practical or timely way to ask “what are others doing?” and an outward focus for learning combined diverse viewpoints and experiences as input is essential. I’ve learned that this point is often a very difficult one for leaders to make peace with. Leaders place themselves in a vulnerable position when we admit they don’t know something. Those in senior roles often don’t have many peers in the institution at their level, and commonly no-one else with our particular skill-set.

To add, the mentoring relationship you can get through Chartership professional registration is an amazing way to develop that kind of trusted relationship outside your institution—however that’s really not what I’m getting at here. What I have found effective is to draw on the professional body of knowledge of librarianship. Now, saying a body of knowledge is another way of saying “theory”, and for me theory is a living thing we embody in our work. Of course, it can be got from reading thing but it can also be gained from others including by way of what we might think of as the oral tradition of our profession.

In self-determined learning the benefit is in looking wider, outside of librarianship, is that this is your way to find the global maxima—the highest point.ĚŁ Reading within our discipline normally finds you a local maxima only. A local maxima may be enough, especially as a starting point for wider investigation. The issue I have found though is that new and novel problems demand knowledge from outside our discipline because they demands the most powerful knowledge. Our mentors’ roles here is to help us in scaffolding the knowledge we need to learn how to learn, but beyond this we need to be critical and self-determined learners.


Hase, S. and Kenyon, C. (2000) ‘From andragogy to heutagogy’, Ulti-BASE In-Site, December [Online]. Available at: http://pandora.nla.gov.au/nph-wb/20010220130000/http://ultibase.rmit.edu.au/Articles/dec00/hase2.htm

Smart, J. and Rowson, J. (2019) Reflection as dialogue in work-based learning [Conference workshop at UWL Festival of Learning and Teaching]. University of West London, London, July 3.

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