‘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‚ÄĒwhich is framed by professional ethics and personal morals‚ÄĒto 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‚ÄĒwhich 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‚ÄĒof 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‚ÄĒand 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‚ÄĒin 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‚ÄĒone 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‚Äôt have to be the premise of a deduction that concludes, ‚Äėthis, then, is what should be done.‚Äô 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‚ÄĒor affect‚ÄĒin 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‚ÄĒthe ourselves, to one another‚ÄĒmakes 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) ‚ÄėQuestions of method‚Äô, 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‚ÄĒthose plain facts of degree-awarding gaps‚ÄĒas ‘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‚ÄĒin 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‚ÄĒthis 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‚ÄĒthis 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‚ÄĒhe 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‚ÄĒin 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

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

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

Last weekend I attended the #radlib15 event organised by Radical Librarians Collective (RLC) in Huddersfield. I wanted to draw some threads between sessions I attended, and follow up on a few things left unsaid on the day. RLC has come a long way in a few years and is evolving, but importantly it has maintained a safe space for discussions in LIS that are not happening elsewhere. My thanks to the organizers at RLC for their work.

Professional confidence and professional identity

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

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

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

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

Performativity in online identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

Lawson, S., Sanders, K, and Smith, L. (2015) ‘Commodification of the information profession: a critique of higher education under neoliberalism’, Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, 3(1), eP1182. doi:10.7710/2162-3309.1182

Learmonth, M. (2005) ‘Doing things with words: the case of “management” and “administration”‚Äô, Public Administration 83(3), pp. 617‚Äď637. doi:10.1111/j.0033-3298.2005.00465.x

Photo credit

Sunset Flowers. Huddersfield‘ header image by Flickr user Michael Podger. License CC BY.