Theory versus Practice or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Praxis

Should our courses for our Master’s degree be more theory based or skills/practice based?

I know I’m probably going to make some people mad with this post. (But hey, I expected that with my first post.) It seems like, when I bring up this issue, I can never gauge how the person with whom I’m speaking will react until they react. Sometimes I can guess by the person’s focus in LIS, but not always. Also, I noticed I’m not the first Hack Library School writer to make a post like this. So why I am writing this post? It’s not like I’m going to solve this “debate” or anything. But maybe, I hope, I can help reconcile.

My Relationship with Theory

I got my BA in English. Although I was taught what is basically New Criticism as a way to analyze texts, my professors never really said, “okay, this is theory that you will use to do literary analysis.” I taught myself different literary theories throughout my BA, and I sort of viewed them as tools: different lenses through which to view a work. Because I wasn’t a science major or a psych major, I never viewed theory as something inherent to my discipline. Theory was something extra, the cayenne pepper to help elevate the seasoning of whatever paper I was writing.

I am also on tumblr a lot in my free time, mainly to reblog funny screencaps of the X-Files, but of course a lot of social justice comes across my dash. One thing I have noticed is that a lot of activist types who are around my age are vehemently anti-theory, and I really got sucked into that mindset for a while. To a lot of people, and to me for a while, theory feels disconnected from reality and comes from a place of privilege, a bunch of academics who could afford to go to college trying to classify and theorize the lived experiences of people. I never really saw feminist theory this way, though, because to me, a lot of feminist theory aligned with my lived experience as a woman, so I didn’t even view it as a theory.

To me, for a time, social theories and critical theories were in the same realm as something coming from my English professors.

But Then I Read Pedagogy of the Oppressedpedagogy_of_the_oppressed

So I got really into communism and socialism recently. Big shocker, I know. I am one of those really passionate people who really just obsesses over things, so for a while, outside of my coursework, I decided to read stuff like The Manifesto of the Communist Party. Somebody recommended Feminist Pedagogy for Library Instruction to me. Before I read that, I decided I should read its spiritual predecessor, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I heard was heavily influenced by Marxist theory.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading this text, stop right now and go find it. Or finish my post. I think you’ll get more out of reading Freire than anything I can say here. Freire’s text is about using pedagogy and education as a way to liberate oppressed groups. His whole thesis is that the oppressors have theories of oppression, so therefore so should the oppressed of liberation.

His thesis does not stop there. Theory is not enough. Pedagogy of the Oppressed is what introduced to the concept of praxis: action and skills inspired by and informed by theory. Theory without action is as pointless to Freire as action without theory.

So How Does This Relate to LIS?

But Jessica, I hear you say, we are not educators trying to liberate the oppressed. I would disagree with you there, but okay, I see your point. The reason I bring all this up is my magical answer to the theory vs. practice debate. What if we viewed LIS theories as a way to inform the skills we learn? Ta da! Problem solved, post over. Okay okay, it’s more complicated than that. If all our courses are just full of theory and history, then how will we know the skills necessary for our jobs? And here’s where I think a restructuring of LIS programs might be good.

In my perfect program, every student would have some sort of job or work placement or something so that they can get on the job experience while getting their education. That way, our classes can truly warrant that Master’s degree status and be full of learning theories and the history of our profession. That way, what we’re learning in class (theory and history) can inform what we’re learning on the job (action).

I already try to do this. With my cataloging, texts like The Power to Name are always present in my mind whenever I am creating records: how is what I’m doing controlling how people access information? At the reference desk and whenever I do instruction, Feminist Pedagogy for Library Instruction reminds me to use possibly feminist subjects in sample searches, and to not act as if I am in a place of power over my patrons. Knowing the history of librarianship in general helps remind me that my radicalized view of librarianship is fairly new and still not widely accepted.

So whatever type of librarian or information scientist you are trying to be, I really encourage you to turn your course readings into some type of praxis, and even pull from theories outside LIS! I feel like our profession can only be made richer by it. Give your professors and your program feedback, encouraging them to have courses that are rich with theory (and skills if your program does not give you an assistantship).

If you want some suggestions as to what to read, feel free to email me, or check out #critlib; they have their own Zotero group with lots of great texts.

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