Information literacy: social class perspectives — at LILAC 2024

close photo of purple petaled flower during daytime

Introduction

This blog post follows on from a panel discussion at the LILAC 2024 conference, Information literacy : social class perspectives. Our panellists were: Jennie-Claire Crate, Darren Flynn, Rosie Hare, Ramona Naicker and Andrew Preater.

For our panel we asked LILAC attendees and others who could not attend to respond to four statements or provocations about social class and libraries with their comments and ideas. The Padlet is open in read-only mode: link to Padlet from our panel session.

In the session we drew on themes from the Padlet to inform discussion and explained we would follow up to address more of the questions and comments via a blog post which we hope will continue to spark additional conversations. We could not cover every comment without writing a post five times as long as this, so have summarised and grouped comments and ideas into themes under the original provocations we used in our panel session.

Do you agree that if you care about equity and social justice then you should include critical theories within your information literacy practice?

There were several responses in the comments, panel discussion and follow-up conversations at LILAC about our argument for the necessity of critical theories.

We chose critical theories as a term suggesting there are multiple critical traditions. However, within information literacy practice critical information literacy (CIL) is the critical approach that is most fully theoretically developed and it is CIL we centre in our work. CIL represents the application of critical pedagogy to information literacy practice and, as this approach ultimately has its theoretical roots in Critical Theory (CT), used here in uppercase to denote Frankfurt School Critical Theory, it is both radical and aligns with the social justice agenda mentioned in our provocation. We agree with the Padlet comment that CT can be employed performatively, which we take to mean employed in a shallow way for the sake of surface appearance, and we view critical librarianship not as a style to be chosen from a toolbox of different approaches in the classroom, but a thoroughgoing approach underpinning all aspects of our practice.

One unanticipated reading of our provocation is shown in the Padlet comments that we are arguing for teaching CT to students, rather than use these theories to inform our approach i.e. our practice. We agree with the Padlet comment that it is “possible to fold critical theory into our teaching as care, love without needing the ‘right’ terminology. We don’t need the discourse to value each other and respond with humanity“.

We had anticipated we might receive pushback, or unwillingness to engage with critical approaches based on a perception of these ideas being difficult, and our provocation was designed with the hope of eliciting discussion about this, and counter-arguments—as in the Padlet comment above. In the article we developed our LILAC panel from (Flynn et al., 2023) we wanted to demonstrate that working-class thought, theory and mind are not limited compared with that of librarianship’s middle-class population. We do not view our engagement with theory as limited to consumption and repetition of middle-class scholarship, but a field which we aim to enrich and transform with the development and creation of new theory.

We repeat our request to our readers from that article: “We ask those middle-class readers who find our engagement with theory challenging to keep in mind that this work was formed through our intellectual lives which are rooted in our working-class lived experiences within the academy. We also ask them to reflect on why they may wish to dismiss working-class critical theories of work and educational environments which were designed for their comfort” (p.164).

Presenting theory as too difficult, language as impenetrable, or asking for definitions of words which can be looked up online is a strategy of refusal and an excuse we do not accept. The idea that we expect students in higher education to engage and grapple with new, challenging and unfamiliar ideas is commonplace and something we agree with. We argue the same thing is true for us as lifelong learners. Refusal to engage with the meaning of critical ideas reflects privilege and falls short of the expectation we have of colleagues who hold an advanced degree in our field, or equivalent experience. What we mean by this expectation is that we know holders of a Level 7 qualification such as the library PgDip or masters have demonstrated they have “conceptual understanding that enables the student to evaluate critically current research and advanced scholarship in the discipline,” and can “continue to advance their knowledge and understanding, and to develop new skills to a high level” (QAA, 2024 p.24).

We believe we can trust in our colleagues’ ability to look up the meaning of any terms that are unfamiliar, and think about how theory might be applied to their practice. We know it requires a level of engagement and vulnerability to understand that you may be an absolute beginner, or may never reach deep expertise, but the work is still necessary.  

This is hard work, and is supposed to be hard because any work that focuses on how different people have been oppressed over the years will involve unpacking the feelings, knowledge and assumptions you hold within yourself, and looking in the mirror at how you’ve benefited from certain privileges—especially as a white, middle-class person. This is the hardest work, because you have to be fully honest with yourself and to be progressive implies this is work that is never finished. There is a real need to sit with our discomfort.

We can, in our practice cite and utilise authors who do this sort of theoretical work without recourse to over-complex language such as Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins and Gloria E. Anzaldúa. This also connects with the strengths in knowledge that working-class students bring to academia, as bell hooks writes, “Importantly, one need not be either intellectual or academic to engage in critical thinking. Everyone engages in thinking in everyday life” (p.187). Engaging with CIL benefits our teaching practice as its theoretical body of knowledge helps open students’ eyes to structural inequalities, preparing them to handle diverse perspectives and challenges in a pluralistic society. Adopting a critical approach to information literacy strengthens teaching, but also facilitates meaningful dialogue among students from varied social class and socioeconomic backgrounds, fostering empathy and a collective commitment to tackling social justice issues.

We observe librarians are unaware of how middle-class librarianship is. How do you think this permeates our teaching environments as a form of shared knowledge?

This comment in the Padlet demonstrates an excellent example of the kind of reflective praxis that this work involves, and shows how critical self-reflection isn’t an academic exercise but a necessary part of our professional growth: “I’m a white extremely middle class librarian serving a population that is mostly not white and mostly not middle class and until I started examining that and working on myself, I wasn’t serving that population properly. I’m still working on it but I’m much better and it shows in the better way I can advocate for my students.” This work does not involve throwing our hands up and despairing at how we aren’t getting it perfect straight away. We all have certain privileges we need to examine before we are better able to understand and work with the various forms of capital and community cultural wealth (Yosso, 2005) that students bring to education settings. This work enhances our professional practice, but also ensures we are genuinely meeting the diverse needs of our student population, rather than perpetuating outdated and exclusionary standards.

In the comments for this provocation there is a theme about assumptions colleagues make about common—meaning shared—knowledge staff and students have, which is in fact knowledge common to the middle class. This knowledge informs our assumptions about what information literacy actually is, and how and what we teach. Librarianship inherits the middle-class norms and values of the academy and our colleagues, and one challenge to ourselves is to ask what our responsibility, or ability is to influence and change this. This is work that lies outside ourselves, that implies change in a wider social system based on hegemonic norms, values and assumptions. Attempting to influence that system can be a deeply frustrating experience. Hegemony means the dominance of a social group based on the cultural outlook or worldview of a ruling group, such that it becomes viewed as a natural or inevitable cultural norm. These frustrations act individually, as the needs and perspectives of our working class colleagues are overlooked, and structurally as this reinforces a cycle of marginalisation within our educational settings and curtails innovation in librarianship. We argue that we can at least be prefigurative in those areas that we can influence: we can always, at least, role-model the approach and behaviours we wish to see as the future norm.

There is a Padlet comment, and were contributions in the LILAC panel from librarians from outside the UK about our class system. The panel was speaking from a perspective of experience limited to the UK, and we welcome reflections from those—particularly of working-class origin—who had not grown up here. This is an ongoing conversation and, as stated above, this work is never finished.

We ask if you feel uncomfortable reflecting on classism and class privilege in your work and information literacy practice, to ask yourself why that might be?

A key theme we draw from responses to this provocation is the discomfort felt by our colleagues of working-class origin who have attained middle-class income or other markers of status due to social mobility, and work in middle-class environments such as higher education where a sense of difference or ‘not fitting in’ is still felt by those who have crossed this divide.

We do want to draw a distinction between social class and socioeconomic status (SES), which are often conflated. Both of these concepts describe social stratification but SES considers socioeconomic factors such as employment, income and education level whereas social class relates to sociocultural factors and one’s relationship to social power (Manstead, 2018). SES can change rapidly throughout one’s life, whereas social class is inherited and relatively stable throughout one’s life course. This means that those of working-class origin who have experienced this migration will have improved their SES, but retain their position in terms of social class.

These feelings of dislocation are familiar from research on sociology of education and social mobility, described by Teresa Crew as “a set of dislocating symptoms produced by the reconciliation process between a working-class identity and the hierarchically organized field of academia” (2020, p.32). We also saw in the Padlet comments and panel discussion mention of imposter phenomenon, meaning feelings of intellectual phoniness (Clance and Imes, 1978) based on class position, including being driven to imitate middle-class social mores to better fit in.

Conversely, this understanding of difference can inform and enrich our interactions with our students and provide moments of critical reflection. In the Padlet there are some breakthrough critical reflections on one’s own class privilege and intersectional identity, which represent positive moments demonstrating growth and understanding. There is a need to sit with the discomfort of these realisations that, as in the comment which references Robin DiAngelo (2018), “Even though my family was impoverished, I only realised that I am privileged on account of my skin colour after reading ‘White Fragility’”, and It hurts to start realising that you are in fact the oppressor in some circumstances, when you are used to seeing yourself as the oppressed”.

This work is intersectional: we argue for an intersectional politics of class rooted in critical self-inspection. Unpacking your own class privilege needs to include and be informed by inspecting your privileges around race, disability, sexuality, gender identity, neurodivergence and other aspects or facets of identity. We reject hard-right and Conservative reactionary discourses about the white working class: librarianship remains a very white profession with less than 5% of the workforce identifying as a global majority ethnicity (CILIP, 2023) and this needs to be improved. This monoculture—the dominance of white perspectives in librarianship—is reflected in these workforce demographics and also influences the research and scholarship within our field, often sidelining the diverse experiences and needs of global majority communities.

If you identify as middle class, what steps could you take in terms of allyship or as an accomplice to challenge social class elitism in your information literacy practices and workplace?

The problem of classism in higher education is an embedded, complex structural issue that must be met structurally and as such, we do not aim to present quick tips which we know will not affect meaningful change.

One thing we consider a key practical step is working on one’s self to gain the type of breakthrough critical reflections we describe above, which are rooted in understanding one’s own positionality and privilege. Positionality means one’s social location in terms of facets of identity, and one’s social and political context. Again, this work can be some of the hardest to do, because it is thankless: nobody will pat you on the back or give you a gold star for your good allyship. Many who do attempt to complete social justice work in their workplaces experience pushback, as their colleagues become uncomfortable when a mirror is held up to the practices that have served them well for years. For those who are middle-class or who have migrated into the middle class via social mobility, these actions may be viewed as a betrayal by their peers who do not want to cede their unearned benefits of class privilege. Overcoming people-pleasing as a profession that is made up of 75% women (CILIP, 2023), where women are predominantly socialised to be accommodating and amenable, is difficult work involving significant reflective practice and vulnerability.

We can however utilise the privilege we do have to improve things, where we can. This can include everyday actions of solidarity, as one comment in the Padlet reads, “Call[ing] out the bullshit from my fellow middle-class colleagues”. This still comes with some measure of risk, even for small actions, as colleagues’ reactance and hurt feelings can be out of proportion to the action being taken. As one action of recognition and solidarity we can bring to our professional practice and share, if we have these, working-class lived experiences with working-class students and colleagues. We also can work on sympathetic or empathetic understanding of others’ experiences, and work against our own immediate assumptions. Related to this, we can work on our assumptions about our students’ knowledge of unspoken rules—the so-called hidden curriculum—and our assumptions about previous experiences of libraries from their previous educational experiences. It is crucial to acknowledge that individuals from minoritised groups often face additional hurdles and have often had to work harder to overcome these systemic barriers to achieve their current position. We need to continually challenge our assumptions about what students know, and how they interact with us and our collections. We can also call out snobbery around colleagues’ assumptions based on students’ outward markers of social class such as fashion, accents and dialect. Importantly, as Teresa Crew (2020) explains in her research on working-class academics; making the hidden visible works as both a strategy for challenging assumptions and classist microaggressions (p.88) and in terms of connection with students by sharing understanding rooted in shared lived experiences (pp.118-120).

We are stewards of our libraries and learning spaces, and can work to develop them into places of welcome rather than of exclusion. One person who commented on the Padlet and works in further education said, “I have noticed that a lot of students seem hesitant to come in and ask if it’s “allowed” to sit at a table or use a PC,” and that deliberate relaxing of rules that has led to more positive student behaviour as, “it no longer feels like a place where there is an unwritten assumption that everyone knows how libraries work and that there is an expected way to spend your time there”. This comment, and discussion from an audience member at LILAC about their work to mitigate fear felt by students who had not used libraries before, reflect approaches to reduce feelings of library anxiety, which are feelings of inadequacy and lack of skill when confronted with the size and complexity of academic libraries (Mellon, 1986). In our article, we also identify as one cause the architectural scale and grandeur of academic library design that prioritise middle-class tastes and preferences (Flynn et al., pp.171-172).

Finally, there is a comment on the Padlet that makes a structural point about reducing barriers to entry and progression to senior roles within the profession, as “Despite recently introducing apprenticeship positions in the library, we still ask for postgraduate qualifications for more senior roles but don’t offer financial support to allow junior colleagues to pursue these.” Employers in our sectors already use the Level 3 Library, information and archive services assistant standard as an alternative to hiring graduates into library assistant roles (which is classified as a non-graduate role by the UK government). We acknowledge this standard can be misused by employers, for example by paying apprentices less for the same work as other staff.

One near-future possibility for our workplaces is using the Level 7 Library, information and knowledge professional standard as an alternative to current qualifications like the PgDip or masters, anticipated later in 2024. Introducing these to our workplaces does require positional power and senior leadership support, alongside this it is crucial that leaders and hiring managers give genuine equivalence to this route as there is a risk the cultural capital embodied in postgraduate qualifications leads to disadvantage for those coming via the apprenticeship route. Our sector has generally not done well at keeping up with qualifications frameworks, recognising non-academic routes or expressing parity of esteem (Fair Library Jobs, 2023). However, advocating for these apprenticeships, responding constructively to sector consultations about apprenticeships in our sector and raising awareness of these as an option in our workplaces—including helping dispel myths—is open to all of us. By creating pathways for individuals from diverse backgrounds to enter and advance in our profession, we not only enrich our libraries but also demonstrate practically our commitment to inclusivity and equity.

Conclusion

As a panel we want to extend our grateful thanks to the contributors to our Padlet both ahead of time and in the session, and those who contributed on the day at LILAC. Your thoughts and ideas made the discussion as rich as it was—thank you.

As we said on the day to our colleagues and friends of working class origin in the audience, we have done this for you. We wanted you to feel seen and recognised, because we know this is not the norm in librarianship. We hope we met this goal in our session and have represented the same spirit in this follow-up piece. Moving forward, we encourage each one of us, regardless of our class backgrounds, to continue these conversations in our own libraries and communities.

References

CILIP (2023) Workforce mapping 2023. Available at: https://www.cilip.org.uk/page/workforcemapping (Accessed: 15 April 2024).

Clance, P.R. and Imes, S.A. (1978) ‘The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention’, Psychotherapy, 15(3), pp.241-247 [Online]. doi:10.1037/h0086006.

Crew, T. (2020) Higher education and working-class academics: precarity and diversity in academia. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

DiAngelo, R. (2018) White fragility: why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Boston, MA: Beacon.

Fair Library Jobs (2023). On qualifications – part 1. Available at: https://fairlibraryjobs.substack.com/p/on-qualifications-part-1 (Accessed: 18 April 2024).

Flynn, D., Crew, T., Hare, R., Maroo, K., and Preater, A. (2023) ‘They burn so bright whilst you can only wonder why’: Stories at the intersection of social class, capital and critical information literacy – a collaborative autoethnography,’ Journal of Information Literacy, 17(1), pp.162-185 [Online]. doi:10.11645/17.1.3361.

hooks, b. (2010) Teaching critical thinking: practical wisdom. New York, NY: Routledge.

Manstead, A.S.R. (2018) ‘The psychology of social class: how socioeconomic status impacts thought, feelings, and behaviour’, British Journal of Social Psychology, 57(2), pp.267-291 [Online]. doi:10.1111/bjso.12251.

Mellon, C. (1986) ‘Library anxiety: a grounded theory and its development’, College & Research Libraries, 47(2), pp.160-165 [Online]. doi:10.5860/crl_47_02_160.

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) (2024) The frameworks for higher education qualifications of UK degree-awarding bodies. Available at: https://www.qaa.ac.uk/docs/qaa/quality-code/the-frameworks-for-higher-education-qualifications-of-uk-degree-awarding-bodies-2024.pdf (Accessed: 15 April 2024).

Yosso, T. J. (2005) ‘Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth’, Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), pp.69-91 [Online]. doi:10.1080/1361332052000341006.

‘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.

Bibliography

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.

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.

References

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