Engagement with scholarly work as professional development

Why read books, book chapters, journal articles, and other scholarly work as part of your professional development? As a manager, why support and enable colleagues to do so? In this post I discuss some challenges for library managers and leaders in supporting deeper engagement with scholarly work, and some issues in the library profession more broadly with engagement with everything we term “theory”. To be clear, this is a personal reflection on experience not a systematic piece of research; and I am aware I speak from a position of privilege in various ways.

Note on terminology: by ‘scholarly work’ I mean to be inclusive of works of both research and scholarship; if you make no distinction between these terms, no problem. I am using ‘librarianship’ interchangeably with ‘library and information science’ (LIS).

“Pro-intellectualism ftw”

I’ve been thinking about this subject for a while and the vintage 140-character tweets quoted below were fresh libraryland discourse when I started drafting this post. This thread from Chris Bourg about reading and recommending scholarly work in the workplace as an everyday activity, a standard expectation, was the first time I had seen a library director make quite this statement:

The whole thread was inspiring and motivational. The discussion in replies made me think about what gives us permission to act in our workplaces beyond the expectations of our roles and job descriptions, and helped me overcome concerns about push-back and reactance that had limited my routinely recommending scholarly work in a work context.

In these tweets and the exchange between Jessica and Michelle, I recognise both the practitioners’ enthusiasm and frustrations as well as the administrator’s sadness and concern. I am sure many of us can quote analogous examples from experience; I have heard similar thoughts from colleagues.

The reason I identify with these views is that connecting the literatureor theorywithin and beyond librarianship to what we do in practice seems such an essential part of practice itself. We can generate knowledge from our practice by reflection and a reflexive stance, but theoretically-informed reflection and application of ideas to practice requires connections outside and beyond practice.

“Thinking is an action. For all aspiring intellectuals, thoughts are the laboratory where ones goes to pose questions and find answers, and the place where visions of theory and praxis come together.” (hooks, 2010 p.7)

bell hooks’s understanding to me shows the integrative relationship of theory and practice, in how reflective thought has a questioning or problem-posing nature. This idea of integrating “theoretical talk”, a term hooks uses to describe writing (1994, p. 70), into practice necessarily implies contextualising others’ knowledge at vital points within our own situation, and using it to improve that situation whether in a personal, interpersonal, or broader social contexts. This view is is rooted in critical theory, which implies a role of theory as liberatory: that is toward constructing an improved social totality (borrowing here Georg Lukács’s term). It necessarily implies reaching beyond our own understandings. On reading, Paulo Freire wrote that:

“Reading is one of the ways I can get the theoretical illumination of practice in a certain moment. […] Information can be got through reading a book, and it can be got through a conversation.” (Freire and Horton 1990, p.98-99)

I feel it is this illumination, a sense of theory shedding light on practice that is the valuable thing we get from directed reading. Despite Freire’s insight about the value of discourse or conversation, reading is a highly practical means of attaining knowledge to inform this illumination. Incidentally, and I digress, We make the road by walking quoted here (dual authorship with Myles Horton, but the quotes are Freire) is a beautiful book and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the purpose of education within a democratic polity.

“Reading, as study, is a difficult, even painful, process at times, but always a pleasant one as well. It implies the reader delve deep into the text, in order to learn its most profound meaning. The more we do this exercise, in a disciplined way, conquering any desire to flee the reading, the more we prepare ourselves for making future reading less difficult.” (Freire 1994, p. 65)

Freire’s position at times can be very uncompromising, with reading a painful but necessary confrontation with new ideas that over time prepared us better for future engagements. The key point I draw from this challenging view is that of learning as an aid to action in practice, that is in ‘actioning’ the theoretical and developing understanding by utilising the theoryor the established scholarly body of knowledgeof our discipline.

In engaging with texts critically we connect with ideas, but the literature also shows what practitioners think possible, shows how we define the limits of practice, and hints toward what is left open to new exploration and discovery. This creative engagement allows us to better think forward to changing circumstances, beyond the basic elements of our technique and immediate cause-and-effect of day-to-day experience. I tend to emphasise multidisciplinary breadth in general reading in comparison to the more focused in-depth research we may undertake for particular projects, however I do think this is a both/and situation. In my experience reading ‘locally’ within librarianship leads toward our local maximum, which may or may not also represent a global maximum. Multidisciplinary approaches help us toward the global maxima, or at least provides points of triangulation outside librarianship that help confirm the coherence of our positions.

For example, in developing understanding of reflective practice I found the literature deepest and most fully-theorised within teaching and health and social care literature. In the social work literature I found a developed concept of critical reflective practice which uses critical theory as a lens for “searching for the assumptions implicit in practice” (Fook and Gardner 2010, p.26) when we iteratively make and remake knowledge in practice. It is impossible for me to say I could have developed the same ideas without this broader exploration.

Mental state in terms of challenge level and skill level, according to Csikszentmihalyi's model flow is associated with high challenge and high skill level.
Mental state in terms of challenge level and skill level, according to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model. (Words and image from Wikipedia, license CC-BY-SA.)

My experience is such learning is a stretch and brings with it discomforting feelings, if not always anxiety or worries. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (2014, pp.227-238) theory of flow describes how tasks that balance challenge with skill level can achieve a state of optimum performance where our awareness of thoughts, feelings, and action merge.

In encountering and making sense of this theory I initially misunderstood it, as the explanation I heard was based on the idea of optimum performance of everyday workplace tasks. Digging into Csikszentmihalyi’s research and scholarship it became clearer that flow is not necessarily a pleasant experience, which I now recognise in many of my experiences of self-directed learning. The analogy I think best captures my sense of uprootedness or sudden removal from a comfortable place, and the dawning awareness of new knowledge is Sara Ahmed’s explanation of these “ordinary feelings”:

“Every experience I have had of pleasure and excitement about a world opening up has begun with … ordinary feelings of discomfort, of not quite fitting in a chair, of becoming unseated, of being left holding onto the ground.” (Ahmed 2006, p.154)

Time Trades

As well as stretch, I feel focus on areas to develop and improve has to be rooted in self-awareness and self-direction of our practice. I see this type of more directed reading as a purposeful use of our time rather than a chore to be slogged through; and ideally believe self-directed learning can become a habit to work into continual, ongoing practice. I am conscious of and hoping to avoid a sense of investing time for a particular return suggesting the type of neoliberal entrepreneurial approach to education that Sam Popowich (2018) problematises in a recent blog post. Above, a more positive reflection on the value of time is offered in Jeffrey Lewis’s Time Trades.

Practice is in any case more complicated than implied by the idea of theory straightforwardly informing action. In the complex, messy situations of the workplace I rarely perceive a straightforward path where, for example, a colleague has read an article and then implements something based on it. Although I am comfortable quoting from scholarly work to make or emphasise a point in a work context, the notion that we might lay out a 1:1 relationship to colleagues showing how each particular action is rooted in theory belies the mechanics of learning and development and its relationship with practice.

For library work, I perceive the skills needed for this type of focused reading and learning are a key workplace information literacy (IL) skill, understanding that our more academic digital and information literacy skills can be reflexively shaped and developed within libraries-as-workplace. By workplace information literacy, I mean the growing area of research and scholarship that explicitly focuses on IL in workplaces, compared with an academic taught or research study environment where IL is typically learned. A presentation at the 2018 LILAC conference by Marc Forster and Stéphane Goldstein provides an excellent recent summary.

How we can support each other

“Theorizing—even reflection—is seen as a frill in an environment where we are always crunched for time. […] Reading as a means for creating dialogue that develops ideas and affective connections between people does not happen as regularly as it should in neoliberal libraries.” (Coysh, Denton, and Sloniowski 2018, p.130; p.137)

In their book chapter about a reading group set up to read Michel Foucault’s The order of things, Sarah Coysh, William Denton, and Lisa Sloniowski get to the heart of how workplaces often fail to practically support the reflection and dialogue that many of us would agree theoretically is valuable. Being “crunched for time” and lacking a supportive environment are constraints and impediments. Unsurprisingly, the reading group mentioned above took place outside the authors’ workplace in their own time. Likewise, outside work I have always found library workers keen to share reading recommendations and discuss them at conferences and unconferences, in Twitter chats, in conversations one to one. Those situations are those with engaged, self-selected participants who are interested in the subject and want to take part, and as such can be extremely supportive and affirming experiences.

In a recent blog post Carrie Wade discusses the issue of resistance to theory itself:

“The deepest structural issue with library education and publication: theory is treated as something without gravity. Theory is relegated to blog posts by some of our profession’s most brilliant minds—but as a profession we actively denigrate such forms of publication as being of lesser importance.” (Wade, 2018)

I agree with Carrie’s points, and feel this critique should be extended to our ongoing self-directed learning. I believe there is value simply in managers and leadership teams being supportive of, and valuing theoretically-informed reflection and exchange of ideas. In the absence of support, or even hostility to theory, engaging with scholarly work is still highly practical and accessible in many ways: there is no need to ask anyone for permission; no need to wait for training to become available and secure funding to attend it; and is it possible to read widely and in-depth using materials available Open Access or free-to-read, or acquired by other means of legal scholarly sharing.

In senior management roles I have recruited and managed team members in posts that require a postgraduate qualification or equivalent experience. I feel it reasonable to expect these colleagues to be connected with the scholarly literature, keeping up to date, reflecting and relating theory and practice into a coherent praxis of academic librarianship. However, an assumption of needing no support with reading and reflection for professional development can reflect a privileged position. My experience of coming to librarianship via a non-traditional route was that it was a struggle to anticipate and grasp the theoretical approaches and assumptions, and foundational knowledge of the discipline. This wasn’t because the content was intellectually too difficult, but because of the time needed to explore and understand a new area, to learn its language and concepts, and become comfortable enough to engage with established practitioners was substantial alongside working full-time.

Within our professional discourse it is disturbing to see disparaging, if low-level, comments about reading for professional development. This can come across as a lingering wish for gatekeeping and controlling access to knowledge. In opposition to these positions, I ask why can’t all library workers have access to this knowledge—why can’t we support and scaffold each others’ learning? In my experience, sometimes what we need most are supportive environments and inclusive communities as we discover a new “world opening up”.

References

Ahmed, S. (2006) Queer phenomenology. Durham, NC: Duke University.

Coysh, S.J., Denton, W., and Sloniowski, L. ‘Ordering things’, in Nicholson, K.P. and Seale, M. (eds.) The politics of theory and the practice of critical librarianship. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice, pp. 130-144 [Online]. Available at: http://hdl.handle.net/10315/34415

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014) Flow and the foundations of positive psychology. Reprint, London: Springer, 2014.

Fook, J. and Gardner, F. (2010) Practising critical reflection. Maidenhead: Open University.

Forster, M. and Goldstein, S. (2018) ‘Information literacy in the workplace’, LILAC (Librarians’ Annual Information Literacy Conference), Liverpool 4-6 April. Available at: https://repository.uwl.ac.uk/id/eprint/4801/

Freire, P. (1994) Pedagogy of hope. London: Bloomsbury.

hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to transgress. Abingdon: Routledge.

hooks, b. (2010) Teaching critical thinking. Abingdon: Routledge.

Horton, M. and Freire, P. (1990) We make the road by walking. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University.

Lukács, G. (1971) History and class consciousness. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Popowich, S. (2018) ‘The value of degrees’, Sam Popowich, 4 July. Available at: https://redlibrarian.github.io/article/2018/04/07/the-value-of-degrees.html

Wade, C. (2018) ‘Inquiring the library’, Library Barbarian, 22 March. Available at: http://seadoubleyew.com/inquiring-the-library/

Wikipedia contributors (2018). ‘Flow (psychology)’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, [Online]. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Flow_(psychology)&oldid=836178438 (accessed April 13, 2018).

Opportunities in new management and leadership roles

Walkers ascend into fog on Snowdon / Yr Wyddfa by the Snowdon Ranger path, in May 2017.

Last June I started in a new library director role. I’ve not shared any reflective writing recently due to various reasons, but as the end of the calendar year coincided with my first six months in this new role I thought I would do so.

I’ve recently changed how I approach reflective thought and its relationship with practice. In a previous #critlib chat on critical reflection I said that I try to build in reflection in focused bursts as and when I can do it; In my new role this is no longer exactly true. What I have started doing is to use my cycle commute as protected time to think about the issues of the day, using a Stoic approach to reflective self-aware focus and questioning.

The basic idea of this type of Stoic ‘inner work’ is to dissect and get to the bottom of why I am thinking about an issue in a particular way, and to overcome resistance. I rarely find this process leads to straightforward answers or light-bulb moments—rather it leads me to forming and shaping better critical questions about problems. These guide enquiry in a structured way, and provide space to dispassionately work through understanding others’ thoughts and feelings on shared challenges.

Starting in a new role

Coincidentally, Jessica Olin started a new role at almost exactly the same time as me and in Letter From a New Job describes many of the feelings that come with a new administration role, especially the need to pace oneself. I rate Jessica’s writing on leadership and used the same book, Michael Watkins’s The first 90 days, when transitioning into my current role. I’ve recommended it to others several times since re-reading it.

A priority for me on starting was to meet everyone in the library, a solid piece of advice from my professional mentor some years ago which is repeated in Watkins’s book. Doing this alongside initial meetings with heads of department and other senior staff, involvement in various university committees, understanding and absorbing institutional culture and process, and training and other induction activities means this is not speedy.

Meeting everyone helps develop early understanding of the expectations and wishes of the team, and allowed me to ask directly what they think I should focus on. It’s also an opportunity to ensure everyone has heard a few key messages unfiltered from me as the new director, such as my perspectives on educational and library practice and labour. By this I don’t mean bringing the bells hooks and Pierre Bourdieu citations to the first meeting with a new colleague, tempting as this might be; rather I mean that where you place emphasis and and how you link personal standards and professional ethics to the work helps in building credibility.

Additionally I am line-managing a new team in my direct reports, who with me comprise the library senior management team. Inheriting an established team that already is performing well provided a wonderful opportunity to thoughtfully consider approaches to existing processes and our decision-making, and design some ‘norms’ for team-working with input from everyone. On a surface level I’ve found these conversations help align expectations about how team members prefer to work, but more deeply they have helped my understanding of the interplay of social structure and human agency (informed here by Anthony Giddens’s theory of structuration) in the social life of the leadership team.

I’ve found it important to be clear and explicit in how I value or weight different aspects of colleagues’ work as managers and leaders. For example, we can consciously place importance on emotional labour in line-management and peer relationships, acknowledging and recognizing it as core to the role and rewarding it as such. We can pay mindful attention to difference in how colleagues work when confronted with uncertainty and other stressors, and how different approaches to making meaning can be combined to provide more insightful pictures than the view of a few individuals.

In working with the additional ambiguity and uncertainty a more senior role brings, I will share some excellent advice from a previous line manager about the need to quickly and accurately discern the “signal from the noise” in strategic situations. Reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, fast and slow I understand this idea as an expression of skill that must be developed in senior roles:

The acquisition of skills requires a regular environment, and adequate opportunity to practice, and rapid and unequivocal feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions. When these conditions are fulfilled, skill eventually develops, and the intuitive judgments and choices that quickly come to mind will mostly be accurate. […] A marker of skilled performance is the ability to deal with vast amounts of information swiftly and efficiently. (Kahneman, 2012. p. 416)

Reflectively though, I would add to this a need to understand what is “noise” is always subjective and relative, perhaps personal, and certainly can be contested. Daniel Kahneman’s work is replete with insight into the psychology of judgment and cognitive bias, and I read it after completing workplace unconscious bias training run for us by an Equality Challenge Unit trainer which cemented that learning. It is one of just a few books I would recommend all higher education workers to read (another is bell hooks’s Teaching to transgress).

A note on the performative in management

I wrote a little about performativity in management in Professional identity, impostor syndrome, and performativity:

Management is fundamentally performative: expressing power by a mode of authoritative speech, a case of actions embodied in “Doing things with words” (Learmonth, 2005).

Since starting in my current role have thought a lot about the relationship between performative speech and power in management roles and leadership situations. The concept of ‘performativity’ used here goes back to J.L. Austin’s notion of performative utterances (or performatives), but importantly for our purposes Jean-François Lyotard’s understanding of the role of performativity in governing the legitimation of knowledge in postmodernity and the implications this has when inspecting power structures and relationships.

In management and leadership, this legitimating role can both aid the creation and development of shared or common understandings, and also in my view is central to how managers exercise power in speech-acts. The view that “words are deeds” runs contrary to the tendency to privilege action as something concrete, practical, and more authentically meaningful than words are, particularly when there is a clear need for transformative action such as political activism. I feel though this is a false comparison, as in management roles and leadership situations there are many highly practical choices made where we act to translate words as deeds. For example, what and who we focus attention on, centre, and prioritize; how we explain our views and beliefs; as well as how we employ words to build support for and set in motion actions.

In my view a key task for managers is balancing the pragmatic such as compromise and coalition-building, with the need to retain—and be seen to retain—an authentic position which is congruent with one’s values. It may be tempting to think of words as tools to create messages for different audiences, only loosely connected with those values. On considering the use of words as performatives I will end on a cautionary insight I have found particularly valuable from Sara Ahmed’s analysis of how words are employed by diversity workers in higher education, from On being included:

A political question becomes the extent to which we can separate ourselves from the words we use. […] If we do things with words, then words can also do things to us. We don’t always know what they will do. (Ahmed, 2012. p.75)

References

Austin, J.L. (1975) How to do things with words. 2nd edn. Reprint, Oxford: Oxford University, 2011.

Ahmed, S. (2012) On being included. Durham, NC: Duke University.

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

hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to transgress. London: Routledge.

Kahneman, D. (2012) Thinking, fast and slow. London: Penguin.

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

Lyotard, J.F.  (1984) The postmodern condition. Manchester: Manchester University.

Watkins, M.D. (2003) The first 90 days. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.

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.