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

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; […] 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”’, Public Administration 83(3), pp. 617–637. doi:10.1111/j.0033-3298.2005.00465.x

Photo credit

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

Reflections on organizing the Pi and Mash conference #piandmash

Practical communications session in progress led by Meghan Jones. Photograph by Simon Barron, license CC-BY-SA.
Practical communications session in progress led by Meghan Jones. Photograph by Simon Barron, license CC-BY-SA.

Introduction

Earlier in August I had the pleasure of helping organize and run a tech-focused library unconference, Pi and Mash, at Senate House Library at the University of London. The other organizers were Simon Barron of University of London, and Ka-Ming Pang of St Georges, University of London. They were both brilliant to work with and brought enormous energy, fresh perspectives, and thoughtfulness and professionalism to organizing the day. This event was a long time in gestation, from the initial agreement back in January that we’d work together to the day itself in early August. I had previously hosted Library Camp London at Senate House in March 2013, and following that event I’d thought about running something tech-focused as a Mashed Library event. Ultimately for me Pi and Mash was that event, though full credit is to Ka-Ming for suggesting we do it, kicking off the initial discussion on Twitter to gauge interest, and starting to organize us.

As an organizer it’s always encouraging to receive good feedback, and participants said some lovely things about Pi and Mash during and at the end of the day.

What I learned from organizing the event

The limits of ‘unconferencing’

Ahead of the event we wanted to provide a programme with appeal to different levels of technical ability, and especially beyond experienced systems workers. To do this we reached out to professional contacts for session ideas and pitches so we could launch with a timetable already partly populated. This timetabling in itself introduced a contradiction to the event that was never really resolved, and caused some issues: were we running a participant-driven unconference, or a regular conference with a top-down organization? I formed an impression from feedback that on seeing our speaker lineup, some participants felt intimidated about pitching due to not feeling technically knowledgeable enough. Additionally, we presented an ‘almost full’ timetable with space for unconference-style pitching. While this helped generate buzz and encouraged people to get a ticket so they could come to those sessions, it made it easier to view the day as a traditional conference that didn’t demand participants set the agenda. A related point is I’ve noticed unconference sessions, for example at Library Camp, becoming increased sophisticated over time and more pre-planned. Sessions are often no longer discussions, but make more use of technology such as online collaborative editing, use more formal methods in research and analysis, and attempt to engage people beyond the conference for example by tying in with planned chats on Twitter. For me this increased sophistication deepens engagement, but can work against the more exciting aspects of unconference spontaneity such as pitching an idea that is not fully-formed on the day. We did get pitches ahead of time on our discussion and ideas document, but these were the only ones pitched on the day so it felt a bit more like a call for papers than pitching.

What this means for practical technical sessions

As noted we wanted to ensure broad appeal to a range of different technical abilities. We especially wanted to demonstrate practical aspects of library systems work that would give a flavour of what it is systems librarians and other systems workers do. To this end it was wonderful that many delegates saw the day as an opportunity to stretch themselves with professional development, and expressed an interest in getting more involved with systems work in future. One of the facilitators observed to me on day there is a real difficulty in how to ‘bring people along with you’ if they are at different levels at the start. This makes running sessions that rely on pre-existing technical knowledge that much more difficult. One suggestion from feedback was to provide pre-work or reading ahead of the day for sessions that would benefit from it. I have mixed feelings about this as despite having run such sessions like that at conferences, I feel participants should also easily be able to choose what they will on the day, or even move between sessions. For me, this was most apparent for the Linked Data and OntoWiki session, although I know there were issues in other sessions too. This combined with technical dependencies for participants, who needed to install software on their own computers to get the best from the practical work. In hindsight, what we needed to provide were laptop computers with the relevant software pre-installed and ready to use, so we could simply hand a machine with a ‘known good’ configuration to everyone attending the session. This would have been challenging, but perhaps could have been feasible using loan laptops from Senate House Library stock and given enough time for preparation.

Safer spaces, and an apology

Ka-Ming provided the idea of very actively promoting and encouraging women facilitators and participants. Essentially, we did not want to run yet another tech event dominated by men but rather one that better reflected how our profession is populated. It was great to get positive feedback on this aspect, and suggestions from critical friends where we erred. One point I want to apologize for is our gender binarism in the initial ticket allocations to men and women. As organizers we discussed this after it was pointed out, and learned from it. In future I will do better, I will approach gender more carefully to help avoid reinforcing bias and discrimination. I am glad we implemented a safer spaces policy, repurposed with permission from OK Café. As professionals we might prefer to believe policies shouldn’t be necessary, but I argue they help create inclusive events in the first place. Even if a policy doesn’t need to be acted on, it provides a context to set expectations and helps attendees develop confidence they will be supported in resolving any problems. I now firmly believe safer spaces policies or codes of practice are necessary for conferences.

Being the organizer

The way in which participants interact, learn, and spark ideas off each other is something you try to positively influence as a conference organizer, but ultimately much of ‘the magic’ is out of your control. It helped that we provided a space that participants found friendly and inclusive, with longer session times than normal conferences. This allowed for discursive conversations and digging into the technical ‘long weeds’ as participants wished. This was an important aspect for my own development, as I identified I need to move beyond running events successfully (without say, some disaster befalling us), to thinking more deeply about the value gained by delegates for their own development and understanding ways in which we can support and facilitate this. Overall I would strongly recommend (un)conferencing organizing as a means of professional development.

Thoughts on practical aspects

Middlesex South Reading Room at Senate House Library. Photograph by Andrew Preater, license CC-BY.
Middlesex South Reading Room at Senate House Library. Photograph by Andrew Preater, license CC-BY.

Following Library Camp London I’d reflected on what made the day a success, practically, and we implemented much of this for Pi and Mash. This is summarized here: Practical suggestions for running your own Library Camp. Some things that remain true:

  • Especially true for a technical event, your wireless absolutely needs to be working.
  • Individual bottles are better than glasses for carrying water around the library.
  • If you’re relying on someone for preparation such as moving furniture, survey the space ahead of time and prepare with the expectation your instructions will be followed to the letter.
  • One thing that was again a problem was noise, as we were using large rooms with two sessions in them noise carried. This was a limit inherent in the spaces available to us, which were provided free of charge by Senate House Library. However we would definitely have been better to provide smaller separate rooms, or found a way to screen off larger spaces to dampen noise.

We organized Pi and Mash almost exclusively online, which saved a lot of travelling time even with all of us being London-based. We used:

  • Google Hangouts to provide audio and video for meetings.
  • Google Docs / Drive for collaborative editing and sharing of meeting notes and actions lists.
  • WordPress.org for our website plus TablePress for tables. This was low cost as we could use existing web hosting and we all had practical experience with the software.
  • Gmail for email. Specifically the trick was to push the ‘info@’ domain address to my own Gmail using POP3 and set it up to allow responding from that address. This made for quick and efficient replies to questions.
  • Eventbrite for ticketing and emails to delegates. I still favour Eventbrite despite its quirks. Checkin is a breeze and mailouts are simple, and the quirks are at least quirks I’m very familiar with.
  • Twitter – of course, the place for professional engagement in libraryland.
  • Qualtrics for our post-conference survey (Imperial College London has a subscription).

We made some choices about what not to do with social media and other tools:

  • We considered use of Lanyrd for session slides and materials, but it seemed a more useful tool for larger, more formal conferences where you would want to draw together lots of different media types, session recordings, and so on.
  • Wiki. Ultimately we decided not to set up a wiki for Pi and Mash as we felt the limited amount of collaborative editing needed ahead of the event could be handed using a Google Doc. This is the model uklibchat use successfully, but from feedback some delegates reasonably expected a wiki to be available.
  • Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to live-stream any presentations. There was demand for this ahead of the event, but it was too difficult to achieve technically and with limited staff resource. I have done this for events by using Google Hangouts on Air which can provides a slick, professional solution at low cost using consumer webcams and microphones.

In hindsight, in thinking about our approaches to communication I found Ned Potter’s description of communication channels as white noise, peripheral vision, or line of sight from a recent conference presentation very helpful.

The main area for improvement I would focus on for future events are reaching those who do not routinely professionally engage with social media:

  • Mailing lists are still widely-used by library workers and I noticed rushes of interest when we mentioned Pi and Mash on mailing lists like lis-link.
  • Targeted personal communication is very effective at helping publicize the event by word-of-mouth. For example: encouraging library and information science lecturers to promote the event to students; and to our colleagues to encourage team members to attend the event for professional development.