‘Getting smart’ in a time of change, at ARLG 2019 (Part 2 of 2)

This blog post is modified from a workshop, which included a presentation, co-delivered by me and Andrew Preater from the University of West London, at the ARLG Conference, 4 June 2019 at the Darlington campus of Teesside University. This post covers the second half of our workshop and I would highly recommend reading ‘Getting smart’ in a time of change, at ARLG 2019 (Part 1 of 2) by Andrew first, before continuing with my post.

To set the scene, I’ve included some of the text from our slides and presenter notes, as well as input from participants’ responses to the questions that formed the discussion activity in the second half of the workshop. Some of my own reflections and thoughts that have come out of post-workshop discussions between me and Andrew are also included.

In the workshop we asked participants to follow the Chatham House rule — briefly, this means you’re free to use what you’ve learned, but it asks you not to reveal the identity or affiliation of the person voicing a particular opinion. We explained that we ourselves would follow this rule in follow-up on the workshop. However, we wanted to facilitate open discussion including honest reflections on the day in the room. As such we asked participants not to share anything during this session on social media and to wait until afterwards.

The reasoning behind this was to facilitate a safe space for participants who were perhaps not as familiar with ‘the discourse’ around critique and critical theory, and we wanted to approach the activities and discussions in good faith and give people the space to be able to ask questions without feeling like someone who was more of an ‘expert’ in these things would be picking up on perceived ‘mistakes’ and sharing them on social media.

Thoughts, feelings and reflection

This post is mainly going to focus on the second half of our workshop. However, I wanted to share some of my reflections from the individual, reflective writing activity discussed in Andrew’s post, as I found it quite powerful compared to other ‘traditional’ conference workshop activities. Participants were asked to think about themselves being in a position of being one who “refuses what is” and to think and write about: what they wanted to say, but felt that they couldn’t, about not being able to provide a service due to a constraint outside their control. We asked them to consider their thoughts and feelings about the situation, without trying to work out how to solve the problem. We also encouraged them to be descriptive about their thoughts, and try not to feel pressured to reach a fully-formed conclusion. Andrew and I both participated in the workshop as well as facilitating it, as we both felt like it would be useful going through the process we were advocating ourselves.

What I found quite powerful about this exercise was knowing that I would not have to present whatever I wrote back to the group. I was writing it just for me, to get my thoughts out on the page and not think about how to word it to make it palatable to a particular audience. I was also struck by the feelings and thoughts that came and went during the exercise, and was able to notice where I find particular discomfort around being the one who “refuses what is”. My current role has involved having to make some difficult decisions to try to juggle priorities, particularly when it comes to budgetary constraints. I realised that I was often conflating having to make difficult decisions with thoughts around how others would perceive these decisions and ‘judge’ me for not doing my job effectively. As someone who is in a profession that is all about helping others find the information they need, being unable to do something or having to refuse to deliver a service based on external things outside of my control can mean having to deal with negative responses from others and navigating through the feelings this might stir up within yourself. For example, if I’m unable to provide something, could this damage relationships with a particular academic department or a particular group of students? When I’ve encountered things like this in the past, I’ve often been quick to jump into a defensive mode and feel like I have to justify decisions. But are these dialogues or ways of thinking helpful? Can I learn to frame things differently while remaining as honest and ‘authentic’ as possible?

Since the conference, I have also read Donna Lanclos’ keynote post about listening to refusal from the 2019 Academic Practice and Technology conference (#APTconf). I think that, in the current political climate we find ourselves in – both within and outside the sector – it is important for workers at all levels to remember that, for many people, refusal may be the only power and agency they have in their place of work. I can highly recommend reading Donna’s post for further analysis on listening to refusal.

Language matters

After the initial reflective writing exercise, we then asked participants to work in groups and think about language and how it relates to power structures within organisations, and how it can serve to maintain the status quo when those who want to challenge it do not “have the words” to be able to construct counter arguments. This can be particularly challenging for those who aren’t in management roles and who may not be as ‘fluent’ in the management-speak used in meetings to be able to put their point across in the way they would like. How many times have you been in a situation where you’re unhappy or dissatisfied with something, but the person you’re communicating with picks up on your tone and criticises the way you’re saying something, as opposed to thinking about what you’re actually saying? This can result in a ‘gatekeeping’ effect on their part and stir up some very unpleasant feelings, making you avoid speaking out again in future. For inspiration for this activity, we drew from Audre Lorde’s insight (2007, pp.41-43) about the necessity of language for developing a transformative practice—including self-revelation.

“What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say?” — Lorde (2007 pp.41-43)

We asked participants to think about positive, or driving forces and the negative, or restraining forces which support or restrict them in having these conversations.

We knew it would be difficult for participants not to want to ‘solutionise’, or seek and sketch immediate solutions. This is what we had found in pre-session discussions — the temptation is to interpret the question as ‘what is your plan going forward’ or ‘how would you cope with this in your workplace?’. The method we used was similar in some ways to the force-field analysis method developed by Lewin (1951) but as the purpose of this session was not developing change management strategies, we steered away from using this directly.

We had some structured questions to aid the reflection and discussion, which are listed below. However, we encouraged participants to pick the questions they felt they most wanted to discuss, or to discuss the themes holistically, if they preferred not to move through each question in turn:

  1. What ideas do you have about changing what we do, to transform practice?
  2. Are there opportunities within the system? What opportunities are there outside the system? What opportunities are there to change the system?
  3. What is stopping you from doing things differently?
  4. What do you need to (un)learn before you can do this?
  5. Can we productively redirect the narrative of ‘proving our value’ and ‘doing more with less’?

In the group I was working with, we had some particularly useful discussions around questions 2 to 4 in the above list. People were acutely aware of the various structures in place in organisations that might prevent library workers from doing things differently, as well as the internal barriers we might put in front of ourselves. For example: being told “no” on numerous occasions could result in people not asking questions or advocating for something. Having a good relationship with your boss might mean that you perceive suggestions for change as adding extra pressure onto them, or perhaps you don’t have a good relationship with them and don’t want to be seen as a ‘troublemaker’ for advocating for something different. What was explicitly clear from our discussions was that these situations are often complex and simple black and white thinking and the absence of nuance is not helpful when trying to open up dialogue.

Other groups mentioned how certain contexts or situations can grind you down and erode trust between teams and wider staff in a workplace, exacerbated by organisational culture. The resulting emotions and frustrations and the feeling of not being able to ‘let go’ of something can be a huge internal barrier, and the process of learning to think differently or ‘un-learn’ years of doing things in a particular way can be difficult to navigate in an environment that doesn’t support this kind of experimentation.

When it comes to redirecting the narrative of ‘proving our value’ and ‘doing more with less’, there was some good discussion around how library services often find themselves desperately trying to prove their value based on arbitrary metrics or requests from senior management and other departments. The language of ‘doing more with less’ is particularly prevalent in academic libraries and, it could be argued, feeds into damaging assumptions that we make about ourselves or that get made about our services by those on the periphery who might not understand the complexities of why we’re doing things in a particular way. Going back to the idea of being the one who “refuses what is”; by going along with these narratives, we end up surrendering our power and bending to the will of those external to our departments, without trying to redefine the narrative and challenge existing paradigms. However, it has to be acknowledged that there are no simple answers. We can’t all just start saying “no” to things and everything will miraculously change. These complex problems are situated in organisations where there will be a number of intersecting power-structures and competing priorities in place, as well as external socio-political and economic forces that are putting a lot of pressure on our organisations.

Reflection and action with hope

Are you sufficiently depressed and jaded yet?! We knew that some of the discussions during our session and, indeed, people’s reflections afterwards, could end up leaving them with a sense of hopelessness and that nothing we can do will effect any change.

“When we only name the problem, when we state complaint without a constructive focus or resolution, we take hope away. In this way critique can become merely an expression of profound cynicism, which then works to sustain dominator culture.”  — hooks (2003, p.xiv)

At the end of our session, we reminded participants of the above quote by bell hooks and reiterated that we wanted to get across that critique is also about maintaining hope in trying circumstances. It is a continuous process that is never ‘finished’ but, as is the nature of things that don’t have a clear start and end, this can leave us feeling anxious and uncertain; like there is no point trying if you can’t see a definitive end. The power of critique is in the process, particularly when it comes to critical reflection as part of reflective practice. I like to think that the process of developing a critical ‘praxis’ is something that will continue to evolve over time. I will never feel fully comfortable or like I’ve ‘finished’, as the processes and depth of thinking required for my own professional development will likely become more complex over time.

We also wanted to let participants know about how we can support each other in developing a critical praxis. Often, we make assumptions that reflect our prior learning experiences, such as thinking that you can only act when you have acquired all the knowledge to inform that particular ‘thing’. Sara Ahmed teaches us that, “Critical theory is like any language; you can learn it, and when you learn it, you begin to move around in it.” — Ahmed (2017, p.9). Our hope for the session was that participants would be encouraged to read some stuff they might not have considered before, and would continue having supportive conversations with other library workers about the theory and practices they were reading about. We didn’t anticipate that our session would provide ‘the answers’ and we hope that this is the start of further conversations and explorations into the process of ‘getting smart’ in a time of change. 

Bibliography

Ahmed, S. (2017) Living a feminist life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Chatham House (2018) Chatham House rule. Available at: https://www.chathamhouse.org/chatham-house-rule

hooks, b. (2007). Teaching community: a pedagogy of hope. Abingdon: Routledge.

Lewin K. (1951) ‘Field Theory in Social Science’, Harper and Row, New York.

Lorde, A. (2007) Sister outsider: essays and speeches. Reprint. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press.

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