Monthly Archives: May 2014

Critical Theory and ‘Radical’ Social Justice : The LIS Response

Dealing with ‘Intellectual’ Jargon

After all the years of graduate school I went through, I am happy that I quickly understood (at least from my perspective) that the smartest faculty could explain the most complex concepts in the most simplistic terms. Instead of hiding behind jargon, some faculty are very comfortable teaching concepts in laypersons terms. There are huge benefits to students that take this advice to heart. Unfortunately, hiding behind disciplinary jargon has become a scapegoat that provides various academic faculty with a tool to legitimate their discipline to others in academia. Teaching MLIS student, who will eventually be primarily working with the general public to use jargonese vernacular, is a disservice to the profession.

Addressing Critical Theory in LIS Education

I recently came across a blog posting which advocated for the teaching of critical theory and its application to ‘radical’ social justice in LIS programs. Originally, having been a sociologist, I was quite intrigued with the perspective postulated by the author. While I agree that theory serves as a foundation for the way in which societies are structured (resulting in the distribution of materialism – which inevitably results in inequity) theory should not be viewed as an end in itself for ‘radical’ social justice movements. Instead it should be viewed as a means to an end.

This is because macro level grand theorizing (yes thank you dead 19th century white German and French men – e.g. Marx, Weber, Parsons, Spencer, Habermas etc.) is based on deductive approaches to viewing the world. Teaching these theories to LIS students has the potential to place some faculty in a comfortable position, since it is based on deductive rationale from ‘knowledge tellers’. I would say that discussions at the macro level have a place in library education, but I have to question how these discussions will be applied in the real world. Let’s face it, most LIS students will be working in communities once they graduate from library school, not in the halls of the leaning towers of knowledge.

So my question is why is there not more focus from faculty on inductive approaches – where faculty are advocating for the introduction of ‘radical’ social justice based coursework that allows recent graduates to have the tools to work collaboratively with community to identify community needs, and generate responses to those needs? I believe that social justice in public libraries occurs at the mezzo/micro level – and is based on praxis.

As for LIS students, I find it condescending that some may think that they cannot handle or are apathetic to learning theories. Students are smart, and they understand that the hyperbolic claims to the social changes which occur through academic conferences, locked down journal articles, and internal academic discussions are fruitless. They are also coming to understand that jargon and theory can be used to substitute for the lack of knowledge and practical experience many faculty members have regarding – on the ground, progressive – practitioner based responses to social justice issues in public libraries.

A Challenge

Faculty that still want to exclusively focus on grand theorizing should continue to advocate for it… but we all know the end result – these discussions are hollow internal discussions. My challenge is for faculty teaching LIS students to step up to the plate and challenge the status quo. This was done at the practitioner level a few years ago, and we have been looking at and challenging ourselves ever since.

~ Ken


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