Tales from Covid, part I

All were quietly appalled
To imagine mankind annihilated.
What would heaven do
With a globeful of empty temples?
Alters attended
Only by spiders?

Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (1997, p.19)

(This blog post is modified from a shorter piece I wrote for our library staff newsletter.)

Our university buildings closed on Thursday 19 March, and along with it we closed our two physical libraries and moved to online learning support and delivery of teaching. At the time I felt exhausted but relieved, having thought about very little other than coronavirus, Covid-19, “the virus” or just “it” the past weeks. I had felt higher education was slowly, slowly—and then quickly, immediately, today—moving toward closing. Thursday was the point where we were confident we had a plan in place to support students with nowhere else to go, including those living in our accommodation and vulnerable student groups such as care leavers and those estranged from their families—so we were ready to close.

Incident management within a crisis is very different from the day-to-day working of any university. Higher education governance, committees and processes are designed to support a complex system that works to semester, annual, and multi-year cycles. We work with considerable uncertainty year-by-year, but within frameworks, expectations, and practices that provide certainties. But within a critical incident, university leadership needs to immediately engage a very different skill set, putting aside our usual tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainties and instead focusing on what is essential.

As the pandemic developed things changed each day, and accelerated the week of 16 March. At the time, it felt like being physically on one of the now-familiar exponential graphs of Covid-19 cases. Things that seemed certain or agreed 24 hours ago were overtaken by events and dropped. A few days later, that timescale had shortened to 12 hours or less. With our immediate horizon changed to what needs doing today, and our medium-term horizon changed to two or three days from now, organisational hierarchies and reporting lines are much less relevant. Colleagues do what needs to be done, and communication becomes more frank, urgent, and honest. For leaders, it is vital to perceive the underlying concerns expressed, and to be as generous as possible in our reading of colleagues’ words and tone.

At my university the library team was amazing at moving smoothly and efficiently to online learning support and delivery, while dealing with extreme stress and worry in our lives outside work. I could not have asked for better colleagues in the library and as peers—both our own heads of departments and deans of our academic schools, and also my wider peer group of library directors who worked collaboratively in sharing experience and knowledge. For me it’s worth stating that almost all of this advocacy and sharing happened behind the scenes, particularly in how we supported each other to advocate to our senior leadership teams for closing physical libraries and learning spaces. Chris Bourg’s blog post (15 March) and Helen Rimmer’s blog post (22 March) are significant public statements of this. Elsewhere in education and in libraries in other sectors, I saw advocacy being carried out at genuine professional risk. I am immensely grateful to colleagues who contacted me with their words and arguments that in turn made my advocacy much more effective.

At the same time as managing risk and immediate concerns of incident management, there were short- and medium-term scenarios we needed to plan. Once we had made our immediate, rapid and orderly shift to online delivery of teaching we needed to think about the longer term. The Covid-19 pandemic is currently open-ended. We are adjusting to new ways of working and finding out what is most effective in our own teams and our wider circles. This isn’t a blog post for sharing tips as at the time of writing I’m still decompressing, but my immediate thoughts on our shift to sustained online delivery are about the change of gear from dealing with immediate practical concerns, to ensuring we maintain resilience as a team and an educational community.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Chartership, and learning how to learn in a senior role

I completed the Cilip Chartership professional registration process last year and since then wanted to write something about how it can be used as a way of ‘learning about how to learn’ in a senior role, how that process has influenced my approach to learning and development, and some of its limitations. I was preoccupied working on another thing (here is a thread about that), and just returning to this now I have some time.

One reason I initially embarked on Chartership was because mentoring from a particular person was available through this route, and I decided to ask her directly. I expected, and found, this mentoring to be highly inspirational and motivating. However, as with any process of learning and development by the end I’d travelled some distance. On looking back, my view of things was very different when I compared my initial expectations of the mentoring process with what I had actually learned reflectively.

Briefly, the most important things I learned from this mentoring relationship are:

  • The centrality of reflective practice as a way of thinking and a method to inform one’s self-determined learning.
  • The importance of an interpretive awareness and about our wider sector and political contexts, in understanding how libraries can both support and shape our institutions’ missions.
  • The value of an authentic style of leadership counterbalanced with acknowledgment of the difficulties in enacting and maintaining such a style.

Below I will concentrate on the first two of these points, with the third on leadership style perhaps something for a future blog post.

What can Chartership do?

Interpreted as a set of tools, Chartership provides a framework for assessing and seeking the development needed to build one’s skills and knowledge in a structured way. Beyond the individual—or the personal—this knowledge includes one’s organisational contexts and, importantly, the wider sector and professional contexts we operate in. As knowledge of these organisational and professional contexts form two of the three assessment criteria for Chartership, this is baked-in to the process.

I think this wider understanding is key to building the awareness needed to be effective within more senior roles which are necessarily generalist and require a new, self-directed form of identity construction to grow into and inhabit. This generalist identity is one in which we need to make effective use of the in-depth knowledge we bring with us from those specialist roles we’ve held in the past, but is appreciative that our work within a wider context is a default mode of working. I think also this type of awareness is that which enables us to develop more wider-ranging structural critiques of our work and practice—the kind of critique which re-imagines new possibilities for practice or develops counter-discourses.

Within higher education, I’ve found this means being willing to develop understanding about other professional services’ work (for example, reading their professional and scholarly journals) and current awareness of debate in discussion within their areas. Interestingly, I’ve personally not seen that much importance placed on this type of wider awareness in development of leaders at assistant director or ‘head of …’ level. It seems more often the case our focus is on how library services support students’ learning and academics’ teaching and research, rather than seeing libraries as part of a professional services whole within the university. This understanding was, however, something I found particularly key to understand during Chartership.

Interpreted as a process, Chartership provides a framework for making reflective practice central to one’s own agentic, or self-determined learning. The latter is also called heutagogy, described by Stewart Hase and Chris Kenyon (2000) as an holistic model of learning that supports development of capability, rather than just competency. Personally, through this process I’ve come to appreciate reflection, and its expression in practice, as a core skill for lifelong learning that can be relevant to all library roles. Combined with focused reading of our professional body of knowledge (theory) and current awareness I see this as a key workplace information literacy skill for library workers to weave into their practice.

What I found particularly enabling within Chartership is a focused purpose for developing these abilities and applying them to practice. This is one thing that supports the ‘actually doing it’ of developing a theoretically-informed reflective practice. The core of the Chartership submission is the reflective evaluative statement with its very spare 1,000 word limit; this is supported by one’s selection of evidence. Much of this evidence required for the submission can be created by reflective writing, which the Chartership handbook characterises as,

“… your response to experiences, opinions, events or new information. It is a way of thinking to help you to explore your learning and gain self-knowledge. Most importantly it is your personal reaction to the situations you encounter and is invaluable when aiming to get the most out of your learning experiences.

Reflective writing is not pure description, judgement, or instructions.”

Cilip (2014, p.15)

Over time, I found this requirement honed my ability to think and write reflectively as an ongoing part of practice. Sometimes I realised that I would need to write a reflective account about a particular experience primarily to use as evidence, which could become tiresome when I felt the potential for reflective learning and self-knowledge at hand had already been played out through reflective thought. Interestingly though, in having to come back to a problem and reflect on it further through writing, I always found new insights would emerge. I found this was particularly the case when reflecting on the various contradictions within practice, by which I mean ways in which in practise we are able to or fail to live up to the values we espouse. To clarify, by ‘thought’ I do simply mean thinking about a particular question, issue, or experience and working through critical questions about it to try to understand and problematise my assumptions about practice, and also to engage more imaginative elements of reflection—which is something I can combine with other activities like my commute.

Why this learning is difficult

I believe for leaders at all levels a commitment to place self-determined learning at the core of one’s development is important to grow within and into new roles. Although applicable at any level, I’ve found in more senior roles it becomes much more necessary. It may sound odd, but roles with more positional power often have more constraints and limitations in what is possible.

Firstly, there is the issue of availability or existence of training and development programmes for your area—realistically, what you really need simply may not exist or may not run regularly due to limited demand. (Sconul have created a directory of such leadership courses.) Additionally if a programme targeted to senior people does exist, it is safe to assume it will not be cheap which presents another barrier to access to many institutions. In this situation a self-determined and creative approach to learning, supported by self-efficacy, becomes necessary.

When I say learning is difficult, I mean the process of ‘learning about how to learn’ that comes with a new role that is a move us—about the work, our contexts, and our self-knowledge—is a difficult one. The second issue for those in senior roles in hierarchical organisation is with fewer people at your level you have fewer peers, and that the type of open, reflective conversations that necessarily include a sense of vulnerability become more difficult to have—perhaps impossible—with one’s own organisation. In this context, I became more aware of the limitations of individually-focused reflective thought that I developed within Chartership.

My focus is on critical reflective practice, which in its deeper forms normally implies group working because of the importance placed on learning through dialogue within critical reflection, for example the approach described in Jan Fook and Fiona Gardner’s work. This model of critical reflection is collective by design, but individually-focused reflection obviously lacks the social elements as enablers. I think therefore a key challenge is finding those networks and personal connections which are vital to enable such reflective conversations, whether structured or more informal.

Alongside the experience of being mentored, the single most valuable thing I found to facilitate this learning is getting different perspectives from peers that enable a collective approach to reflection that has reach beyond my own organisational context. To me this meant finding honest and open insight, within a trusted atmosphere that could support a willingness to share. I think this is one reason peer mentoring groups such as the Sconul deputies and new directors groups are so popular and valued by their members, though I also see similarities in the less formal support networks that Natasha Chowdory (2019) calls “library pals”.

On an individual basis this type of reflective learning is something I aim to support and enable colleagues to do themselves and develop as a habit of mind. Personally, I have been delighted to see colleagues use and benefit from reflective models, including critical reflection, in their work and read and share ideas from the literature. However, I do not think it desirable or even possible to compel anyone to do reflective practice. Firstly because there are many frameworks and models to inform reflection, I feel practitioners do best to assess them and understand which, if any, will work for them within their social context and environment. I also no longer recommend a particular model of reflective practice, having changed my mind on this during Chartership. This is partly because my own preference for critical reflection presupposes knowledge of critical theory to inform what should be changed as a result of reflection—going back to Paulo Freire’s description of praxis as, “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed” (2000, p.126). So, I don’t think it is possible to understand and apply critical reflection without critical theory at its core.

Moreover though, I don’t want to compel anyone to reflective practice. This is an ethical principle, but has a pragmatic element connected with reactance. Reactance is a psychological theory that explains that when an individual feels forced into a certain behaviour which limits or removes their freedom, they will react against it. On writing reflectively for Chartership, one of the conclusions I reached about self-directed and self-determined learning what that reactance theory could explain some of the antipathy toward unwanted impositions relating to learning such as being told to “do the reading”. Put formally, in a review of research and scholarship of reactance Benjamin Rosenberg and Jason Siegel note that, “People can also reduce the discomfort associated with reactance by showing hostility toward […] or derogating […] the source of a threat” (2017, p.3).

Finally, the learning that I took from the Chartership process that has proved most enduring are those lessons, summarised above, where I’ve been able to ‘triangulate’ a particular settled position. By triangulation I mean seeking out, listening to and hearing different views on the same concepts and ideas from different theoretical perspectives and traditions, and from colleagues working at different levels and in different roles. This adds to and enriches, rather than replacing understanding drawn from lived experience, and speeding this process up is another reason I feel peer mentoring networks are so effective. In summary, do consider Chartership.


Chowdory, N.S. (2019) ‘Support networks aka library pals’, Infopro Tasha, April 8. Available at: https://infoprotasha.wordpress.com/2019/04/08/support-networks/

Cilip (2014) Chartership: a guide for members. Available at: https://www.cilip.org.uk/resource/resmgr/cilip_new_website/professional_registration/chartership_handbook_070314.pdf

Fook, J. and Gardner, F. (2007) Practising critical reflection: a resource handbook. Maidenhead: Open University.

Freire, P. (2000) Pedagogy of the oppressed. 3rd edn. London: Continuum.

Hase, S. and Kenyon, C. (2000) ‘From andragogy to heutagogy’, Ulti-BASE In-Site, December [Online]. Available at: http://pandora.nla.gov.au/nph-wb/20010220130000/http://ultibase.rmit.edu.au/New/newdec00.html

Rosenberg, B.D. and Siegel, J.T. (2017) ‘A 50-year review of psychological reactance theory: do not read this article’, Motivation Science, 4(4), pp.281-300 [Online]. doi:10.1037/mot0000091