When I wrote that one theory and practice post last November I was thinking about reflective practice, but I didn’t really talk about it. Luckily, Kirsten at Into the Stacks picked up that thought for me. The whole post is great, but here’s the reflection piece:
But the purpose of theory, it seems to me, is as much to cause us to reflect on our practice as it is to inform our practice.
In my own post, I over-used the term “inform,” because while that is important, I think that reflection is just as, if not more important. Reflection is the point where the practice part of the job mixes with the theory part, with the writing part and the presenting part and the reading outside the discipline part. It’s not just a matter of taking what someone else has done and saying “I could do that.” It’s taking what someone else has said and saying “wow, this makes me think/feel/understand something about what I do.”
So this article from last year’s Journal of Academic Librarianship jumped out at me – as it brings together the ideas of praxis and information literacy:
H JACOBS (2008). Information Literacy and Reflective Pedagogical Praxis The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 34 (3), 256-262 DOI: 10.1016/j.acalib.2008.03.009
The article is well-done, and I recommend it if you’re interested in the why of reflective practice, particularly where it comes to teaching and information literacy, but for me it felt a little like that one song in Dirty Dancing – the one they dance to at the end that sounds like it is going to be classic 80’s overwrought pop and you keep thinking it’s going to take off into the saxophones and dance beat and it never does because in that last scene they’re doing the mambo that Jennifer Grey’s character learned as a novice and it can never really deviate from its initial beat as much as it sounds like it is going to?
The whole thing is why we should think about reflective practice, with no how or even how I do it. Which is fine, and important, but when you’ve already drunk that particular kool-aid it lacks a certain punch.
Anyway, quick summary. Jacobs argues that librarians need to think more about pedagogy and not just about teaching. She briefly touches on the lack of teaching/ pedagogy training in library school, and argues that even if one has had a teaching methods class that isn’t enough. Because so much of the teaching/learning work we do happens outside of the classroom setting, teaching methods alone won’t give us the coherence or the big picture we need to be effective.
She also argues for a broad, inclusive definition of information literacy. Based on the the UN’s Alexandria Proclamation on Information Literacy and Lifelong Learning, the definition she favors includes that stuff in the standards-based definitions, but “goes on to make explicit what is implied in the other definitions by emphasizing the democratizing and social justice elements inherent in information literacy.” This broad definition, she says, forces an understanding of information literacy that has to extend beyond the classroom.
Which brings us to the crux of the paper’s argument:
What I am suggesting is that the dialogues we have surrounding information literacy instruction strive to find a balance in the daily and the visionary, the local and the global, the practices and the theories, the ideal and the possible. One of the ways we can begin to do this in our daily teaching lives is to work toward creating habits of mind that prioritize reflective discussions about what it is that we are doing when we ‘do’ information literacy. This means thinking about pedagogy and talking about how we might work toward making the global local, the visionary concrete, the theoretical practicable, and, perhaps, the ideal possible. But how can we, as individual librarians, begin to work toward making information literacy ideals possible?
She argues that letting external standards, or quantitative measures, or standards-based rubrics define what we “do” when we do information literacy is not the way to go. Not only will that keep us from understanding IL in that broad way advocated here, but it also reinforces an old-school, disempowering vision of education itself – Paolo Friere’s banking metaphor – where the teacher deposits knowledge among the students.
Finally, she gets to the argument mentioned in the abstract, that composition and rhetoric offer a lot to librarians trying to figure out how to understand information literacy in broader contexts. She points out that the rhet/comp literature pushes back on the idea of standards-based assessment or pedagogy. For one thing, this kind of approach makes it that much harder to really critically interrogate the assumptions underlying the standards or models themselves.
Which brings her to praxis:
Praxis — the interplay of theory and practice — is vital to information literacy since it simultaneously strives to ground theoretical ideas into practicable activities and use experiential knowledge to rethink and re-envision theoretical concepts.
She points to a particular article from the rhet/comp field, Shari Stenberg and Amy Lee’s College English article Developing Pedagogies: Learning the Teaching of English. Drawing on Stenberg and Lee, Jacobs argues that we must develop ways to study our actual practice as texts, our teaching as texts. She further argues that most of what we do when it comes to pedagogy is articulate different visions of it – visions that are not grounded in what practitioners actually do.
Beyond this, she argues that we need to study these things together, have critical, reflective conversations together about what it is that we do. At the heart of this is the idea that teaching can’t be mastered, that developing our understanding of what we do is an inherently ongoing process.
And here’s the thing – I really like all of what she has to say here. I do find it interesting that given the large body of literature on reflective practice she doesn’t draw from that, but what she says is consistent with the parts of that literature I like so overall, I don’t mind. But here is where she ends. She’s made the case for reflective practice and reflective conversations, for reading our practice like texts – but she doesn’t go on to the how of things.
Partly, because she refuses to do so:
For these reasons, I resist offering answers, solutions, or methods to questions about how to engage theory and practice within information literacy initiatives.
But recognizes that this is frustrating:
At the same time, I acknowledge that refusing to provide answers to questions such as “how do I teach information literacy” or “how do I become a reflective pedagogue” or “how might I foster a reflective pedagogical environment in my library” often seems evasive and counter productive.
She argues that librarians should engage in reflective dialogue, and that they should in effect walk the walk in front of their students – that the best way to get students engaged in the learning process is for teachers to be engaged in it as well. That teachers should interrogate their own assumptions about their own learning process, examine why the set the problems they set, be engaged in their own learning process as they would want their students to be engaged. To encourage students to develop their curiosity, to set meaningful problems for themselves to investigate – librarians should do that too. Especially when it comes to their own practice.
But again, no how. And I will admit I don’t find the “articulating this for you would be against what i am arguing” to be unsatisfying. Because I don’t really think that Jacobs is letting us see her process – I don’t think that she is letting us see her walk the walk. I see her problem-setting on a personal, engaged level – but instead I see her telling us that there is a problem, arguing that in very traditional, very objective scholarly language, and then positing a solution to the problem that doesn’t fit in that rhetorical structure. It’s late, and I’m tired, and I will defintiely accept that I didn’t catch something that is here – but I don’t think that personal engagement is here.
Don’t get me wrong, one of the things I like about the article is what I do see of Jacobs’ passion for this subject, her ability to draw connections and connect the dots. But I want to see her reflecting on her practice – as a teacher, maybe and as a scholar certainly. I think that would have allowed her to be true to her “no prescriptive reflection recipes” principles, while still offering something more satisfying than “creative, reflective dialogue.”
Perhaps my perspective is skewed, though, because I am increasingly starting to believe that showing students how we use the tools we describe in our own research and scholarship is the best way to communicate their value. I do think that modeling what we preach is crucial. So I may be glomming onto what is a less important part of her overall argument than I would have you believe.
Still, my favorite part of this article is buried in footnote 59 – where she can’t resist weighing in with some ideas. And I find the peek into the reviewing process entirely charming:
59. The question of how to go about enacting this creative, reflective dialogue is undeniably pressing. In response to this piece, an anonymous reviewer asked a crucial question: “am I simply to include more problem based learning into my teaching of information literacy, or do I need to start from scratch and sit alongside the classes I work with, understanding how they think, and walking with them on their path to critical thinking and information literacy. God please give me the time for this.” The reviewer concludes, “However, this is perhaps the nature of the reflective activity the author is recommending.” Indeed, the answer the reviewer provides to his or her question is the answer I too would offer. The act of asking questions such as the ones quoted above is precisely the kind of reflective activity I am advocating. Pedagogical reflection does not mean we need to dismantle and rebuild our information literacy classes, programs, and initiatives from the ground up (though we may, after reflection, choose to do so). Instead pedagogical reflection means that that we ask questions like the ones quoted above of ourselves and our teaching and that we think critically and creatively about the small and large pedagogical choices we make.