Saturday, December 4, 2010

PL 78/10: Three practical choices

Filed under: 1bib — plinius @ 3:20 pm

Like everybody else, I am a practitioner.

I practice a variety of more or less professional activities, such as

  • teaching
  • library research
  • statistical analysis
  • and blogging – just now, in fact

but also undertake such mundane tasks as

  • walking – since 1942
  • driving – since 1967
  • and snow removal – yesterday

These practices constitute my daily life. They define my life-world.

First choice

Like all people with a theoretical bent I also reflect, speak and write about some of these practices. The moment I bring theory into the picture, I have to make a choice. When I theorize, should I include my own practices as a topic? Or should I withdraw from the game, taking the position of a judge or an observer?

The observer reflects, speaks and writes about the practices of other people. The judge of tennis, perched high, watches the drama on the court.

I am not saying that one choice is better than the other. I cannot start judging choices before I know my own role in the game: participant or observer?

In a wider sense, both observer and judge participate, of course. The game of tennis requires an umpire. The game of science requires a gang of scientists. The people who theorize about social beings remain social beings.

We can no more step outside Society than we can step outside Time and Space.  But we can choose how we write and speak about social matters. Do I include or exclude myself when I theorize? Do I treat an understanding of my own practices as relevant? Or do I choose the high chair?

As regular readers of Plinius will know, my personal choice is clear. I choose In rather than Out. I want to be a reflective practitioner – in the spirit of Schön and Bourdieu.

Second choice

Walking may well be solitary. Ridding the verandah of snow was definitely a lonely task. But teaching, research, analysis and blogging involve other people.

When I speak and write, I have to speak and write to somebody. I do not address people in general. Mexican peasants and Japanese noodle vendors live in other social worlds.

The people I address are defined by the professional role I have chosen for myself. I work as a library teacher, researcher and – hopefully – innovator. Therefore I address people who are interested in libraries or in education – and who know English or Norwegian – depending on the language I choose.

I think of my possible audience as two sets of concentric circles. One starts with my library teaching colleagues, a group of dedicated people who want to prepare young librarians for the 21st century.  I work in Norway, but we have close contacts with other Nordic and Baltic countries. So this community is transnational.

The other starts with the digital teaching community, regardless of subject. Since the whole teaching community is vast compared to the library community, my “inner circle” of teachers is basically Norwegian.

There are many potential readers and discussion partners beyond the inner circles. They are welcome to join the party. But it is these two communities that I aim to reach: library teachers in Northern Europe and digital teachers in my own country.

Third choice

Given my first choice, the term audience is actually misleading. I am not addressing an audience of library – or digital – teachers through a megaphone or from a speakers’ chair. I am participating in a conversation – or rather an overlapping series of parallell conversations – about a variety of professional issues. I experience and interpret these conversations as interlinked because they are engaged in and sustained by roughly the same set of people.  Library teachers and digital teachers form communities.

The issues change over time. I can try to influence, but I can certainly not control the agenda.

These communities consist of people who relate – and see themselves as related – to each other through their professional activities. The people involved often disagree. But they do not leave the arena. They stay linked to each other through shared concerns and practices. The similarity of their activities and experiences give them something to talk about.

Library teachers, on the one hand – and digital teachers, on the other  – constitute communities of practice.

My third choice is to concentrate my interpretations – the reflections, the speaking and the writing – on the areas in which I have the richest personal experience. That means to study my personal neighbourhood – as a professional – rather than libraries and teachers and communities far from my home turf.

The anthropologist goes abroad to find the truth. The reflective practitioner stays at home.

The difference between the first and the third choice is the difference between an individual and a collective approach. I could of course spend many delightful hours investigating my unique and personal approach to libraries and learning. But I am actually more interested in how professional communities are created and developed, threatened and defended, broken and reborn.

I want more than a group of reflective practitioners. I want a community of practitioners that reflects on its collective as well as its individual practices.

That means Schön and Bourdieu rather than Schön alone.



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