Praxis and the Perennial Conflict between Theory and Practice in Library Education
05/06/2013 § 7 Comments
prax·is \ˈprak-səs\ n. 1. the actual work of a profession (as opposed to the practice of it in training situations) 2. in social work, the concept of reflexive, integrated theory and practice 3. in education, the processes of reflective experiential learning or, following Paulo Freire’s work, the combination of reflection and action in the world that leads to transformations of oppressive conditions
Photograph from Pages and Pictures.
Does a dog need to read a book about being a dog? Does a librarian need to read a book about being a librarian? These questions may seem similar, but I suspect that most people have different answers to them. And yet, much of the conversation about library and information science (LIS) education seems to suggest that librarians do their work best simply through practice rather than reading and learning about librarianship.
A couple of years ago on this blog, Jeremy Bold wrote about the need for a more solid philosophical foundation for LIS education. Early in his comments, he noted how energizing one particular class’s discussions were:
All this discussion makes for a vibrant class environment, using anxiety-inducing moments of technological development to provoke thought about not just what library’s are doing now, but the things they should be doing to prepare for the future. It makes me glad to be in library school.
He went on to explain that these discussions contrasted with many of his other courses which covered more practical skills rather than addressing the questions and issues of librarianship (for example, learning the basics of cataloging rather than the broader philosophy of metadata standards). A couple of months before his post, Lauren Gibaldi wrote her own take on theory vs. practice in LIS education. Her advice was to accept that much of the information delivered in LIS classes will fade out of memory and that students should expect to hold on just to a few practical pieces of information that will be (directly) useful in the future.
These two posts exemplify some of the debate about the practicality of LIS education at the master’s degree level. This debate is constant and seems to have been a regular source of conflict since the early days of librarianship as a profession. When framed in this way, I think most people would agree that LIS education needs to be a combination of both theory and practice, but the argument is over how much of each side is most useful or relevant for the future librarian. One of the difficulties is that useful and relevant can mean vastly different things for each library student, depending not just on career goals and job types (children’s librarian, academic librarian, metadata librarian, etc.) but also things like personal learning styles such as whether someone prefers hands-on work to learn, lectures, readings, preparing presentations, or some other approach that variously engages visual, aural, oral, tactile, and kinesthetic learning.
What I find somewhat puzzling in the general discussion is a lack of the concept of praxis for exploring the need for both theory and practice. A quick search in LISTA and Library Literature for scholarly, full-text articles since 2008 with the keyword praxis yielded only a couple dozen results. Contrast that number with the 396 results for the buzzword leadership using the same filters. I’ve offered a few definitions of the term above, but like many good concepts, it has many other subtle shades of definition as well, and other fields lay claim to it in their own particular ways with their own specific intellectual genealogies such as in music, philosophy, Marxist thought, and Christian spirituality.
I like the idea of praxis as a term that LIS educators, students, and professionals should begin to grapple with more directly as a core component of how we envision our field and our work. (Maybe someday librarianship will be listed on that Wikipedia page linked in the definition above for praxis.) For me, praxis embodies what I valued the most in my LIS education–a deliberate interweaving of theory and practice that was shot through with constant reflection and deliberate action. This type of reflexive thinking and action helps to make thought concrete and to ground hands-on, on-the-fly work in thinking. While praxis involves theoretical thinking, its primary focus is on a person’s constant reflection on work as an important aspect of work. That reflection, in turn, adds up to more deliberate theoretical thought, which in turn is always connected directly to that work rather than abstracted away into irrelevance. Most importantly, praxis in the sense forwarded by Marx and Freire is always about how thought and action in the world can make positive changes to oppressive conditions. In this way, praxis carries with it the charge to make the world a better place, an idea that many librarians hold dear in various ways. Worth looking into further is R. David Lankes’s discussion of this point in The Atlas of New Librarianship, specifically in terms of the importance of action and activism, which on his map of librarianship is only thinly connected to LIS education via one strand about the curriculum and communication of change over traditional ideas of leadership.
A brief digression… I first read radical feminist Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex in the late 1990s and was immediately taken by the audacity of her thought and her trenchant critique of women’s oppression. (Firestone, sadly, faced a lifetime of mental illness and passed away last fall.) By all accounts, she was a major figure in the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, helping to establish a series of influential groups in New York City–New York Radical Women, Redstockings, and New York Radical Feminists. Her greatest contribution was in her insights into women as an oppressed social class and her utopian (science fiction) thinking about how cybernetics can free women from that oppression. Many feminists also laud her for helping to reclaim an earlier generation of suffragists and feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir. Throughout her intellectual contributions and her on-the-ground organizing of women in consciousness raising groups and on-the-street direct actions, she maintained the importance of always combining history, theory, and action. In essence, Firestone modeled praxis. Visualized as an equation, Firestone’s work might look like this: history + theory + action = radical feminist revolution. (This digression brought to you by my recent readings of eulogies by Jennifer Baumgardner, Emily Chertoff, and Susan Faludi.)
Photograph from the Barnard Center for Research on Women blog post on Shulamith Firestone’s passing.
I mention Firestone not just because I have a habit of doing so whenever possible but also because I truly believe that she and other feminists of her time were some of the best examples of praxis as a combination of theory and practice, of reflection and action.
For people in the LIS field, a reorientation towards praxis may help to shift conversations in more useful directions, to push us beyond choosing between aspects of learning that really ought not to be separated in any field. In my own program, there has been much emphasis on the importance of lifelong learning for librarians, on service learning as a classroom model, and on internships, volunteer opportunities, and practicums separate from classes that provide students with on-the-ground experience in libraries. Many other posts here at Hack Library School have also covered these types of learning and are well worth reading and rereading.
And this blog as a whole, I think, exemplifies praxis in LIS education, where students reflect on their experiences and articulate alternatives to what we have encountered in our individual programs. I would add to the usual definitions of praxis that it seems to work best as a shared or collaborative process, to echo my previous post on collaboration in the library world. That is, praxis is also about the engagement of individuals with each other about their work, whether that work is itself shared or merely part of larger shared processes (as all work ultimately is). The Hack Library School project, too, is ultimately about that type of sharing beyond individual reflection.
Since praxis as a dynamic exchange between theory and practice is about changing the way things are, it is also important to keep in mind how we can and should engage with the world around us. For us at Hack Library School with an interest in reflecting on our LIS education and helping it evolve to address the needs of new times, new issues, and new peoples, this praxis has meant fostering conversations not just on this blog but in our own programs, at ALA conferences, in our workplaces, and elsewhere where we interact with other LIS professionals. I look forward to continued collaborations with my fellow writers here, even as I now move on into the alumni category and cease to write regular posts for the blog. One project that we have discussed and that I would like to encourage all library students and professional librarians to do is to get involved with the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE), the professional organization for professors in the field, in addition to our involvement in ALA. It is through ALISE that LIS educators share research and ideas that help shape the curriculums at our various schools, and it is through that forum that we might carry out some action and share reflections about our learning.
Later this afternoon, I am going to teach my dog park research class, which has nothing really to do with librarianship except I happen to be doing a mini-library instruction session with students. In today’s session, we are also discussing Mark Doty’s lovely poem “Golden Retrievals,” in which a dog points out his human’s inability to exist in the present, unable to appreciate the joys of the world around him because he thinks too much. So, perhaps a dog is not like a librarian and should not read a book about being a dog (but maybe one about being a librarian). But praxis for a dog will be different from praxis for a librarian!
And to give some love to my cat people friends, I’ll leave you with a picture of a librarian cat.