Getting smart in a time of change: finding our critical voice in our work, at ARLG19
1. ‘Getting smart’ in a time of
Finding our critical voice in our work
Andrew Preater, University of West London (He/him)
Rosie Hare, The Northern School of Art (She/her)
ARLG Conference 2019 #arlg19, 4 June 2019
@preater and @RosieHare
2. Chatham House rule
“Participants are free to use the information
received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of
the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may
— Chatham House, 2018
3. Workshop outline
What is critique, in five minutes!
Activity: reflective question
Small group work
Reflection and action
4. Learning outcomes
Understanding of practitioners’ and peers’ critical responses
to shared challenges in our sectors
Extended self-knowledge of motivation for developing
critical responses, and its limits and risks
Sharing of reflective analyses in-depth about our real-world
5. What is critique, in five minutes!
Critique is a process which informs and directs
actions which carry social and ethical implications,
beyond the technical execution of library work.
6. Critique, power and critical insight
We mean to focus on power
We mean analyses of established authority and
dominant means of control
We use critique to develop insight to inspect our
work, as a foundation for reflective practice
7. Work and practice is political
Patti Lather theorizes practice as politically grounded,
“The requirements of praxis are theory both relevant to the
world and nurtured by actions in it, and an action component
[...] that grows out of practical political grounding.”
— Lather (1991, p.12)
8. We locate hope within spaces of struggle
bell hooks guides us to understanding,
“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
— hooks (2003, p.xiv)
9. Activity: reflective question
Michel Foucault wrote that, “Critique doesn’t have to be the
premise of a deduction that concludes, ‘this, then, is what
should be done.’ It should be an instrument for those who
fight, those who resist and refuse what is. Its use should be in
processes of conflict and confrontation, essays in refusal.”
— Foucault (2000 p.236)
10. Activity: reflective question
Think about yourself in a position of being one who “refuses what is”.
Think and write about: what you wanted to say, but felt that you couldn’t,
about not being able to to provide a service due to a constraint outside
Consider your thoughts and feelings about the situation, without trying to
work out how to solve the problem. Be descriptive about your thoughts,
and do not feel pressured to reach a fully-formed conclusion.
11. Activity: finding our critical voice
“What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need
to say?” — Lorde (2007 pp.41-43)
Discuss and analyse as far you can the power structures in
your organisation or community. Think about the positive and
negative forces which support or restrict you in having these
conversations. Think about why it is that you were prevented
from saying what you needed to say.
12. Structured questions
1. What ideas do you have about changing what we do, to transform
2. Are there opportunities within the system? What opportunities are
there outside the system? What opportunities are there to change the
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’?
14. How can we support each other’s learning?
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)
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 (Accessed: 17 February 2019)
Foucault, M. (2000) ‘Questions of method’, in Faubion, J.D. (Ed.), Power. New York, NY:
New Press, pp.223-238.
hooks, b. (2007). Teaching community: a pedagogy of hope. Abingdon: Routledge.
Lather, P. (1991) Getting smart: feminist pedagogy with/in the postmodern. London:
Lorde, A. (2007) Sister outsider: essays and speeches. Reprint. Berkeley, CA: Crossing
If you want to blog about, or use the content of this session afterwards we ask you to follow the Chatham House rule -- briefly, this means you’re free to use what you’ve learned, but do not reveal the identity or affiliation of the person voicing a particular opinion.
We do not mean negative finding of fault, instead we mean critical inspection of our actions as information professionals - especially the social and ethical implications of our work.
Do we mean, just good librarianship? No. Critique is about analysing the structures and systems that govern what we do in our workplaces and the power dynamics operating within and outside those structures.
We particularly mean to focus on power, but not simply power in terms of top-down authority--but as something rooted in and generated within our social relations and networks.
We mean analyses of established authority and dominant means of control. If we are to be “critical” in a negative sense, we mean to punch up and not punch down.
Getting comfortable with the language of critique and critical theory comes with engaging with relevant literature from different theorists, but the process of critique itself can still be engaged with without having to be an ‘expert’ in critical theory. You do not need to “have” an enormous amount of knowledge of theory to engage with critical ideas.
Let’s think about that practice element for a minute, because our view is that critique is fundamental to reflective practice…
Patti Lather’s book “Getting smart” inspired the title and purpose of this workshop. One focus of her ideas if the importance of removing barriers that prevent people from speaking for themselves. Lather was writing about ‘doing research’ but we think the same idea here applies to library work.
“Praxis”, that is practice spelled with an x means informed action - in particular action which has a political component relevant to directing social change.
We want to point out that this practical political grounding generated through a reflective approach - which includes knowledge developed from lived experiences, as well as knowledge got from reading and conversations.
We want to ask you to critically inspect how established authority operates within the communities you operate in. When we think about a ‘constructive focus or resolution’ a solution could be a continuous and iterative process, that could be complex.
We are not always looking for the ‘simple’ or the obvious one-step solution that leads to straightforward resolution, because these usually do not exist. Feminist thinker bell hooks guides and teaches us to maintain hope while working toward that resolution.
Language is one way in which these power structures are maintained--we will ask you to concentrate on your words later.
As we said not all challenges have immediate solutions. The word processes in these words from Foucault is important.
Some aspects of engaging with a critical approach might make you feel uncomfortable, as you’ll be challenging your own internal biases as well as coming to the realisation that to overcome certain challenges, you’re having to persuade others to change their world-view and long-held beliefs.
It is difficult to sit with these feelings and be afraid or overwhelmed by them, particularly when there is no obvious immediate solution. I guarantee that if your managers and leaders have an ounce of reflective self-awareness, they find themselves in that position too, often.
Work individually. These will not be fed back to the group and is a chance for you to write something down which you may refer back to.
The constraint could be financial, or lack a time due to being over-stretched, or something else.
During the reflective writing exercise we gave thought to challenges in our communities or organisations and the things we wanted to say but could not. We now want to ask: why? In this quote Audre Lorde asks, “what are the words you do you not yet have, what do you need to say?” (2007, pp.41-43)
Here we want to alight on and sit with this insight about the necessity of language for developing a transformative practice—including self-revelation.
In the second activity in small groups, discuss and analyse as far you can the power structures in your organisation or community - guided by structured questions (on the next slide and in your handout)
Think about positive, or driving forces and the negative, or restraining forces which support or restrict you in having these conversations. Think about why it is that you were prevented from saying what you needed to say.
This is not about winning arguments, but forming confidence in taking critical stances. We want to work to trust each other as peers in being honest about the issues at hand, and understanding what we need to say and articulate in critically interrogating these issues.
These questions are not in order and you do not need to work through them from the top or indeed answer them all.
You could pick a few to focus in on detail, or just to help you think about your discussion and analysis.
We will record what has been written on your flipcharts--the Chatham House rule also applies to anything we do with these. We will also be interpretive in what we record.
With the remainder of the time we want to discuss our responses from the small group work and share our insight.
In closing we wanted to say something about how we can support each other in doing this. 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.
Here we relate Sara Ahmed’s point to bell hooks’s comment on maintaining hope in trying circumstances, while also refusing the dominant discourses of neoliberalism -- notions of driving efficiencies, of simple solutions, of “doing more with less”.