Creative Destruction’s Impacts

The last few weeks have been exceptionally hard as I watch one important social program after another see immediate cuts, and as I talk to those in our community and state who are already struggling take one more punch to the gut. This is not a story of unwise individuals making poor, lazy choices. This is rather a story of systems of oppression — our sins and the sins of our ancestors — holding fast for yet another generation of oppressed. Programs that had a chance to in some small ways right a wrong are once again dismantled.

Then I was introduced to the concept of Creative Destruction in a recent article. And my stomach did backflips (excerpts taken from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economic entry on the term):

Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1950) coined the seemingly paradoxical term “creative destruction,” and generations of economists have adopted it as a shorthand description of the free market’s messy way of delivering progress.

Schumpeter and the economists who adopt his succinct summary of the free market’s ceaseless churning echo capitalism’s critics in acknowledging that lost jobs, ruined companies, and vanishing industries are inherent parts of the growth system. The saving grace comes from recognizing the good that comes from the turmoil. Over time, societies that allow creative destruction to operate grow more productive and richer; their citizens see the benefits of new and better products, shorter work weeks, better jobs, and higher living standards.

And here’s the clincher that makes my stomach do those backflips!

Herein lies the paradox of progress. A society cannot reap the rewards of creative destruction without accepting that some individuals might be worse off, not just in the short term, but perhaps forever. At the same time, attempts to soften the harsher aspects of creative destruction by trying to preserve jobs or protect industries will lead to stagnation and decline, short-circuiting the march of progress.

“…some individuals might be worse off, not just in the short term, but perhaps forever.”

But heaven forbid we should short-circuit the march of progress to soften the harsher aspects of creative destruction.

If creative destruction is the price for progress, then progress be damned.

Any philosophy that recognizes and blithely accepts that some individuals might be worse off, perhaps forever — especially given the odds of that individual arising from a systemically oppressed class — is an evil condemned in the gospels, for instance this passage from Matthew 25:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

It is inconsistent with a new kingdom lifestyle that gave to any who had need, for instance as described in Acts 2:

44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.

It is inconsistent with a Jesus who overturned the tables of moneychangers to upset the systems that oppressed the poor, a theme that carries over the whole of the Bible.

Economists, please correct me where I am wrong in my understanding. I don’t want to make false claims or act out of misunderstandings. But I simply cannot reconcile a capitalist political economy based on creative destruction with the gospels of Jesus.

Everyone else, please take a minute to read the encyclopedia entry on creative destruction and let me know what you think.

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Public Libraries Exemplifying Various Trends

In my last post I introduced the engaged public library as a defining transition underway across our country. Rather than a specific end-product, the engaged library is a user-driven, ongoing process of co-created and co-delivered services. Thus, while some aspects may remain core to many public libraries, ultimately every public library will look as unique as it’s community for which it is a keystone institution.

What follows in this post is a listing of some libraries exemplifying various trends in public librarianship. As chair of the newly created Visioning 2020 committee for the Champaign Public Library Board of Trustees, I hope this serves as a starting point for our upcoming dialogs with different stakeholder groups regarding aspirations for the Champaign community, hurdles to achieving those aspirations, and ways in which the Champaign Public Library might work in partnership to support achievement of the aspirations.

I’ve divided the examples into three overarching themes: Co-Learning and Co-Creating; Civic Engagement; and Resilient Communities. I chose these as the starting point because they seemed especially relevant to the current Champaign Public Library context. A number of the examples overlap different themes, and there are other themes that might be considered. Many of these examples will likely seem familiar as they aren’t revolutionary but rather evolutionary. Common across all examples, though, are libraries that have progressed from primarily doing outreach to their community to instead primarily doing engagement with their community, a transition that is the mark of a keystone institution.

Co-Learning, Co-Creating

There is a growing trend of a sharing economy, bringing together social technologies and a new valuation of access over ownership, a trend especially led by the Millennials generation. There is also a growing interest in development beyond just that of productivity and the economy, as people seek to fully realize their broader capabilities to achieve human flourishing. A do-it-yourself mindset is being combined with a renewed interest in community. The library, as the people’s university and a third space beyond home and work, is uniquely situated to build from its historic role in providing free/shared resources and spaces.

My first visit to a new model of a shared library learning space was at the Abilene Christian University library (the notes from my visit are linked here). They had collaboratively redesigned their first floor to serve as a learning commons, a vibrant space for co-learning that gave new vitality to the library. Instead of being a quick in, quick out location to grab a needed item from the collection, it has become a hotspot for co-learning. The Writing Center and campus IT support have co-located facilities on the first floor as well, to create more of a one-stop shop for students. Faculty voluntarily hold some of their office hours there, and administrators walk through to get a pulse on the campus. Upstairs, they have a learning studio that includes various digital media production tools and expert support staff, technology-equipped meeting rooms with flat screen TV’s for shared displays, as well as the traditional stacks with books and magazines.

The Brooklyn Public Library has created an information commons that more intentionally brings together its computer labs, technology-equipped meeting rooms, recording studio, and digital conversion equipment. Jesse Montero, Coordinator of Information Services, writes:

The Info Commons is a new space that promotes learning through instruction, collaboration, and access to new resources and services. Combining open workspace, advanced computer workstations, public meeting rooms, and a training lab, the Info Commons recognizes that people can learn from instructors, with peers, and on their own.

YouMedia at the Harold Washington Public Library in Chicago remains a strong model of learning labs for teens. But other examples serve patrons of all ages. For instance, the Waukegan Public Library transformed its main floor “to reflect the changing role of the library from information warehouse to educational institution” and “further define the library as a Learning Center for the community.”

The use of the term learning or information commons emphasizes co-learning and co-creation for community as well as individual use, bringing to mind common good or the community commons area. At The Urbana Free Library, the 2nd floor computer lab was considered a very noisy space, with surveys and focus groups indicating regular group work as well as individual work. A collaborative process was used to redesign the space to create a more open, attractive, and flexible space that more effectively supports the group work while continuing to also support individual work. It had an immediate impact reducing the volume in the space as groups were able to work more conveniently together when they wanted, while also using the geography of the space to redirect voices away from the back wall that served as an echo chamber.

The Urbana Free Library is one of a growing number of examples of creation spaces in libraries (for more regarding libraries and Makerspaces, see this librarians guide). The Teen Open Lab is a teen-directed space that promotes creativity, peer instruction, and community building. Teens solder their own sound-making squishy circuits, use vinyl cutters to turn out patterns that they then sew on the sewing machines, record their own music, and use graphics tablets to create their own digital characters. Support for programming has come from the Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab, Makerspace Urbana, and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. But this is very much a teen-led program, and teens often help with setup just to get early access to the space after school. The graphics tablets where acquired at the request of a teen who now as an 18-year old continues to volunteer in the space, teaching others how to develop their artistic talents going from drawings on paper to digital creations. Teens not only learn cutting edge digital literacy, but broader 21st century literacies that include communication, collaboration, and civic literacy.

Dodge City Public Library was the first place I encountered librarians helping to co-facilitate groups coming together to attend webinars, much the way they also continue to co-facilitate reading groups. Citizens who don’t find attending an online webinar by themselves find it both informative and an enjoyable activity when the online learning is combined with in-person discussion. Another example is discussed more below in which 21 public libraries across the state of Wisconsin are teaming up with the University of Wisconsin Madison to give local context to a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) the University is offering on climate change.

Civic Engagement

Nancy Kranich is past president of the American Library Association, focusing on the role of libraries in democracies. In the 2012 paper “Libraries and Civic Engagement“, Kranich notes:

Nationwide, libraries are undertaking new approaches to engage communities and assist them in meeting today’s most pressing civic challenges. Their efforts are rekindling civic engagement, connecting citizens, boosting citizen participation, and encouraging increased involvement in community problem solving and decision making.

She describes 7 ways libraries are engaging citizens, including example libraries:

  1. The Library as Civic Space. Libraries offer safe, neutral spaces where citizens can turn to solve personal and community problems. Over the past two decades, communities, schools, colleges, and universities have refurbished or built exciting new spaces for their libraries—spaces that also serve as public gathering spots that anchor neighborhoods, downtowns, schools, and campuses. A good example is the Salt Lake City Public Library, which built a dramatic new facility designed by Moshe Safdie—an award-winning facility considered the community gathering place where “citizens practice democracy” (Berry 2006, p. 32).
  2. The Library as Enabler of Civic Literacy. Children and adults alike must learn a broad range of 21st century literacy skills if they are to become smart seekers, recipients, and creators of content, as well as effective citizens. School libraries, academic libraries, and, increasingly, public libraries—long committed to enabling information literacy—can extend their offerings into the realm of civic literacy (Milner 2002; Partnership for 21st Century Skills n.d.) so that their constituents can gain critical thinking skills along with a sense of civic agency (Boyte 2007, 2009). Different approaches to civic literacy all encompass active engagement with the civic life of communities, helping civic actors to apply skills for participation in civil discourse. An example of a civic literacy initiative used by an academic library is the application of James Fishkin’s (2010) deliberative polling technique at Kansas State University Libraries. Donna Schenck-Hamlin (et al. 2010) used the technique to measure whether students think more complexly and revise their opinions after a deliberative dialogue about the death penalty.
  3. Library as Public Forum and Conversation Catalyst. Many school, public, and academic libraries host public programs that facilitate the type of discourse that offers citizens a chance to frame issues of common concern, Libraries and Civic Engagement deliberate about choices for solving problems, create deeper understanding about others’ opinions, connect citizens across the spectrum of thought, and recommend appropriate action that reflects legitimate guidance from the whole community. Libraries that sponsor deliberative forums see benefits in connecting them more closely and deeply to their communities. These forums and community conversations often follow the formats developed by such organizations as the Kettering Foundation’s National Issues Forums Institute, Study Circles (now called Everyday Democracy), Choices, Conversation Cafes, the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, and others. Libraries are among those offering deliberative public forums in State College, Pennsylvania; Johnson County, Kansas; and Des Moines, Iowa. Topics range from democracy and immigration to energy and health care and involve citizens holding different perspectives in learning and participatory democracy. Librarians in Virginia Beach, Virginia, helped citizens collect and assess community concerns about redevelopment, learn about civic action, participate in democratic discourse, and develop civic leadership skills (Caywood 2010). In Des Plaines, Illinois, librarians joined forces with community partners by framing and deliberating the question “What does it take to meet the needs of Des Plaines residents?” These community conversations resulted in greater awareness of local services and new collaborative approaches for taking action (Griffin 2006). In Youngstown, Ohio, community conversations helped the public library gain more knowledge of citizen’s aspirations and apply it as agents for change, thereby strengthening community ties as well as public perceptions about the library that resulted in a successful tax levy referendum that increased the library’s budget in November 2010.
  4. The Library as Civic Information Center. Using both electronic and print technologies, libraries now deliver numerous local databases and Web sites about vital services within their communities. Joan Durrance (2004) and her colleagues at the University of Michigan School of Information have identified and evaluated successful civic library projects in communities throughout the country that help immigrants and minorities, teach youth to participate in community problem solving, and pull together essential information and communication resources that might otherwise be difficult to identify or locate. Beyond access, libraries are also facilitating e-government services (Bertot et al. 2006; Jaeger 2005; Horrigan 2004). A good example is Florida’s Pasco County library system, which helps people transact government business, search for jobs, and file online forms for food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment compensation, and more through its extensive e-government program.
  5. The Library as Community-Wide Reading Club. For many years, school, public, and academic libraries have hosted community-wide “one-book” reading initiatives. The idea was launched by the Seattle Public Library, but Chicago advanced it considerably, promoting reading by “giving a ‘public voice’ to what is usually considered a private activity … to discover or build unity in a diverse city” (Putnam and Feldstein 2003, p. 53). The Kentucky State Library linked with Kentucky Educational Television to launch a highly successful statewide reading effort with outreach and engagement activities involving a mix of 130 partners (Pennsylvania State University Public Broadcasting 2002). Other libraries offer shared reading experiences through the Civically Engaged Reader program (Project on Civic Reflection, n.d.), a diverse collection of provocative short articles designed to inspire contemplation about the central questions of civic life. With a grant from the Fetzer Institute, the ALA Public Programs Office is training librarians to use this reflection technique as part of its “Building Common Ground: Discussions of Community, Civility and Compassion” project (ALA Public Programs Office n.d.).
  6. The Library as Partner in Public Service. Pennsylvania State University (2002) launched Partners in Public Service (PIPS) in 1999 to demonstrate how collaborative projects between public broadcasting stations, libraries, museums, and educational institutions could enhance services to participating communities. With support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), PIPS produced a useful guide with case studies on how to undertake these institutional partnerships to help communities revitalize by utilizing digital technologies and fulfilling unmet needs. Considered a vision for a “community as a learning campus,” IMLS built upon the PIPS idea by funding numerous collaborative civic projects around the country that bring libraries, museums, and public media together. An example is a collaboration between the Princeton (New Jersey) Public Library,, and Princeton Community Television that “applies the power of digital media to the civic, cultural, and commercial life of Princeton” (, n.d.).
  7. The Library as Service Learning Center. Service learning combines meaningful public service with curriculum or program-based learning. Schools, colleges, and universities use service learning to strengthen academic skills, foster civic responsibility, and develop leadership abilities. Today, many require students to participate in service learning in order to graduate. An example of a school library involved with service learning is at the Urban School in San Francisco, which works with faculty and students to facilitate their co-curricular community-based research and engagement projects (Urban School n.d.). Even though one-third of college students now participate in service learning activities (Campus Compact, 2010), Lynn Westney (2006) found academic library contributions to service learning sparse. A number of MLIS programs do incorporate service learning into their curriculum. These include the University of Texas School of Information project to create a National Virtual Museum of the American Indian and a University of Wisconsin–Madison Jail Library Group student project to provide reading materials for incarcerated adults (Roy 2009; Riddle 2003). Another, based at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science program in Community Informatics, involves students interested in the experiences of underserved groups in Professor Ann Bishop’s class onsite at Paseo Boricua Community Library Project in Chicago (Bishop, Bruce, and Jeong 2009).

Resilient Communities

Resiliency is a concept growing out of an increasing awareness of the need for strategies to address climate change, natural disasters, terrorism, and injustice that leads to civil unrest (for as John F. Kennedy famously said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”) As noted on the Center for the Future of Libraries website:

Resilience requires community involvement – encouraging individuals to make decisions that help prepare for and prevent the impact of disasters, providing resources and information to help them make informed decisions, and offerings programs and services that allow individuals to respond to issues as they arise. Libraries and information professionals may be ideal partners or providers in helping individuals adopt resilient practices in their communities.

The Ferguson Public Library has received nationwide attention and a public outpouring of support for their response in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting. The sole full-time librarian, Scott Bonner, has created a model for library response in the wake of an emergency. Businesses have used the library as a meeting space, the Small Business Administration did staging of emergency loans from the library, and the local school met with students in the library when the school was closed during demonstrations. Check out this NPR news story and Library Journal article for more on the ways Ferguson Public Library partnered with other community agencies during this community emergency.

Houston Public Library provided important services in response to Hurricane Ike. The library provided essential child care services for city employees and other first responders so that they could return to work quickly. Library programming specifically related to natural disasters like hurricanes went beyond that which would have been available at most daycares. Conversations with children about their hurricane experiences and impact at home raised the need for some sort of return to pre-Ike normalcy, and Children’s librarians improvised where the could to accommodate. Tween and teen programming also went beyond a “holding zone” approach to provide engaging programming that might also be therapeutic.

The role of libraries goes beyond responding to emergencies. As noted in the section on Civic Engagement, libraries can be a neutral, safe place for deliberative dialog and community conversations that raise people’s awareness of the different sides of core community issues in ways that proactively address issues before they become an emergency. This plays strongly into a core educational mandate for public libraries.

An important area where libraries are serving that educational role as it relates to sustainability comes by modeling green practices, serving as a test center for energy conservation innovation, engaging the community in supporting local environmental goals, and educating the public about environmental sustainability in general and local priorities in particular. For instance, the Champaign Public Library makes strong use of natural lighting to conserve on energy for lighting. The Milwaukee Public Library has a green roof and solar panels. The Fayetteville Public Library is collaborating with the city of Fayetteville to bring solar energy to market in the region, with the library serving as a solar testbed for new innovations. The Arlington Public Library in Virginia hosts a speaker’s series with prominent authors while the San Francisco Public Library’s “Green Stacks” connects residents to local environmental sustainability issues. Twenty-one public libraries across the state of Wisconsin are teaming up with the University of Wisconsin Madison to give local context to a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) the University is offering on climate change.  For instance, the small, rural Dodgeville Public Library will facilitate both in-person discussion related to the MOOC and  partnerships with local groups Trout Unlimited, Grassroots Citizens of Wisconsin—Sustain Iowa County, the Uplands Garden Club, the University of Wisconsin Extension, and the Iowa County Master Gardeners, through online participation and public discussions. The Mid Columbia Library in Kennewick, Washington, has partnered with the local university’s master gardener program to create a demonstration garden. The Horticultural Society of New York is collaborating with branch libraries in the New York Public Library system to create the “GreenBranches” program, creating both demonstration gardens and library programming. For instance, the Aguilar Branch in East Harlem includes English as a Second Language speaking classes in the library and uses the garden as a teaching space and focus. Many libraries are now serving as seed banks and tool banks, responding to the growing interest in the sharing economy, something Millennials in particular are championing.

New Librarian Positions

This is just a start of a list of the trends and example libraries within these trends. But it gives some sense of the possibilities that build from the library’s historic role in the community, maintains many of the core services, but also identifies new opportunities to support human and community development in ways unique to each local context. As emphasized in the first post, many of these services themselves are co-designed and co-delivered with a broad range of individuals and organizations in the community. And so I’ll finish this post with some new librarian positions that are emerging.

The Vancouver, Regina, Toronto, and Halifax Public Libraries (HPL) created new community development librarian positions to work in diverse urban neighborhoods and with diverse communities as part of the Working Together Project.

Over this period, the project’s community-based librarians talked and engaged with literally thousands of socially excluded community members from diverse communities in the four large urban centers across Canada. The librarians took a community practitioner–based approach. This approach moved community-based librarians’ work beyond discussions among library staff on how best to meet community needs to discussions based upon the lived experiences of socially excluded community members and the librarians who engage with them as equal members of the community. Some libraries have previously worked with targeted socially excluded groups. However, the purpose of this project was not to review other works—rather, it was crucial to have community members’ library experiences drive the project, not library-based beliefs held by librarians nor internally generated professional literature. It became clear that librarians’ traditional approach to library services did not adequately address the needs of socially excluded community members. It also became clear that it is essential to begin a discussion around the use of traditional library service planning versus a community-led service planning model as the most effective way to make library services relevant to socially excluded community members.

Sharon Comstock is the Oak Park Public Library’s Library Content Strategist. In answering what she does for the library, Comstock writes:

Perhaps I can best answer that by describing what I DON’T do: I don’t see the library as only a place of things, but of experiences. I don’t see the library as a noun, but a verb. My job is to see the rich complexity of what a 21st-century library is and define its data so together the library and the community can act on it. My role is to see the real, everyday life of the community and the library as intrinsic, transactional, and potentially transformative.

Community and embedded librarians often do part of their regularly scheduled reference librarianship work in the community. For instance, Douglas County Libraries embedded librarian program includes helping “Douglas County businesses with workshops and research; librarians volunteering with leadership groups and municipal government; and embedding children’s librarians in elementary, middle, and high schools…The Women’s Crisis and Family Outreach Center has a librarian visit families in the shelter weekly to provide library cards, books, movies, and donations of needed items such as cleaning supplies, gift cards, and grocery store cards, as well as computer and résumé-writing workshops for the adults.” Deschutes Public Library in Oregon trains paraprofessionals to answer reference questions, who are encouraged to spend 1/4 to 1/3rd of their time in their communities.

While the community librarian is not yet a formal position at any library that I know of in Champaign-Urbana, we are fortunate to have two strong public libraries, a world-class University library, many excellent school libraries, and a number of outstanding museums. This in addition to the #1 graduate school of library and information science in the nation. The quality of these institutions is due to the many remarkable library and information science professionals that work and study at these institutions and live in our communities. On their own time they contribute on a regular basis as embedded librarians.

A textbook example of the difference this can make comes from reflecting on the model citizen action that resulted in the changing of the policy related to backyard chickens. A community member, Karen Carney, with support by Mayor Gerard, organized and guided the process of bringing the issue before the city council at appropriate times through signatures and study sessions. But an essential contribution was made by local librarian Deborah Campbell who as a volunteer consistently served as a reference librarian in the process. Council members commented several times on the model way this process led to a change in the ordinance regarding chickens. I would further argue it is a model because an embedded, community librarian engaged with a community organizer, an informed community, champions on the city council, and a city planner to co-design and co-deliver the process for modifying the ordinance and implementing procedures to have backyard chickens. Ms. Campbell also later did critical research in advance of the tour of chicken coops, research that helped us avoid the spread of potential diseases between coops, pointing out the importance of ongoing support from community librarians.

Libraries have a central to play as a keystone institution within a community. But what the community needs of a keystone institution can only be determined through dialog with the community. The Champaign Public Library is a strong library because of the rich outreach to the community that is a formal part of our library services, and the various informal engagements with the community that are already happening. An important next step for us in the transition to be an engaged library is for the library board to increase its capacity as an internal engagement advocate so that we can assure the library’s vision, policies, and budget are aligned with such a transition. Dialogs with various stakeholder groups as part of the Visioning 2020 committee will be a valuable part of that step.

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Public Libraries: The engaged library

I have been a board of trustee for the Champaign Public Library since November, 2014 and am chair of the newly created Visioning 2020 committee. I accepted the appointment because I am excited by what I see as the opportunities for libraries moving forward, and want to make sure Champaign Public Library continues to evolve to assure it is a “keystone institution” for a resilient, sustainable Champaign (a concept borrowed from Michael Dudley and a host of contributors in the book Public Libraries and Resilient Cities). As suggested in the report “Rising to the Challenge: Re-envisioning Public Libraries”:

No longer a nice-to-have amenity, the public library is a key partner in sustaining the educational, economic and civic health of the community during a time of dramatic change. Public libraries inspire learning and empower people of all ages. They promote a better trained and educated workforce. They ensure equitable access and provide important civic spaces for advancing democracy and the common good. Public libraries are engines of development within their communities.

Still, it was a surprise to hear Mayor Don Gerard mention me by name in a recent mayoral candidate forum in response to a question about future city funding of the public library to restore open hours that will be cut beginning this summer because of funding shortfalls (the question is introduced at minute 53:20 of the forum recording, and Mayor Gerard’s is the second response). I will own a leadership role, bringing in the knowledge I’ve gained from my roles for the past 20 years at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, including many enriching conversations with librarians around the country and globe.

For the past decade public libraries have once again been reinventing themselves. There has been a growing movement to challenge the centrality of collections and collection management as the means and ends of the library. This is not to minimize the value of the collections by any means! But I believe it is an example of implementing the change called for by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his statement “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.” In the earliest stages, libraries work to be more user-focused or user-centered. With this comes increased outreach to help community become aware of library services. But more advanced stages see libraries entering into a deeper engagement with the community. The library becomes increasingly user-driven, partnering with a wide array of institutions, individuals, and organizations to co-create and co-deliver user-centered services.

Given this change in library services, there can’t be a single leader or expert. This is not something the library director, a librarian, I or any paid library consultant that we might bring in from the outside can design. It is not an end product, but instead is a dynamic, never-ending process of co-service development and delivery. Thus, a wide range of community members need to each play a leadership role at different times and in different ways to building this public library as keystone institution.

PublicLibraryEngagementBoundarySpanningRoles-DiagramI wrote a piece for the March, 2015 issue of Strategic Library in which I reflect on being a new library board of trustee. This diagram regarding engagement boundary-spanning roles at public libraries is included in that article. The whole social ecology of the library needs to be intentionally developed and continually drive towards a process of engagement to support such a user-driven keystone institution. Librarians and other library staff, the library director and other administrators, the library board, the Friends, Foundation, and our many donors, and the community at large all have important leadership roles to play.

The expertise isn’t in any one of us, it is distributed amongst all of us!

I firmly believe that Champaign will not be all that it’s citizens dream of it to be unless the Champaign Public Library evolves in line with the broader public library trends. This is not because the library is a weak library — quite the contrary, it is an award winning library. Rather, it is because the dreams of each of us individually, and as a community, continue to evolve as society more broadly continues to evolve. And so to, then, does the library need to evolve if it is to remain an award-winning library.

In my next post, I’ll do a first draft listing some libraries exemplifying various trends in public librarianship. I suggest this is a first draft because I hope others will followup with me through comments or by email providing still other examples.

In the meantime, here are a few resources of possible interest related to this post.

Reports and Websites


  • Public Libraries and Resilient Cities. 2013. Michael Dudley, Editor. American Library Association. ISBN: 978-0-8389-1136-5
  • Reflecting on the Future of Academic and Public Libraries. 2013. Peter Hernon and Joseph R. Matthews, Editors. American Library Association. ISBN: 978-0-8389-1187-7
  • Transforming Libraries, Building Communities: The Community-Centered Library. Edwards, Julie Biando, Robinson, Melissa S. , and Unger, Kelley Rae.  2013. Scarecrow
    Press. ISBN-10: 0810891816; ISBN-13: 978-0810891814.
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Creating a personal theory of community, engagement, and social change to foster community

Our community engagement class has crossed the mid-point and is now on spring break. The challenge over break is for us to review course readings to date to come up with our personal theories of community, engagement, and social change to foster community. So often we respond positively or negatively to an engagement program or methodology without grounding that evaluation in a theory, lived and academic. Here are my reflections on the readings and discussion questions that have most informed our class journey so far.

Readings within each section are listed randomly. (As an aside, a helpful reading was brought forward regarding how to read for graduate school by Miriam Sweeney that others might find helpful in working through the readings below.) Each section, On Community, On Engagement, and On Social Change plays off the other, building from the one before and benefiting from the sections that follow. Each also benefits from the lens of our histories and experiences in community as an action/reflection praxis. As such, a community of practice discussion group is recommended to bring together a rich diversity of field experiences with reading reflection and discussion. Discussion questions here are a hodgepodge of those raised by various class participants. Please feel encouraged to add in your own in the comment section.

On Community

Key Readings

  • Blackshaw, Tony. (2010). Setting the Record Straight: What is Community? And What does it Mean Today? In: Key Concepts in Community Studies. Sage Publications.
  • Randy Stoecker (2004) The Mystery of the Missing Social Capital and the Ghost of Social Structure: Why Community Development Can’t Win. In Silverman, Robert Mark (ed.) Community-Based Organizations: The Intersection of Social Capital and Local Context in Contemporary Urban Society. Preprint available online at:
  • Chaskin, R.J. (2013). Theories of Community. In: Weil, M., Reisch, M., and Ohmer, M.L. (eds) The Handbook of Community Practice, 2nd Edition. Sage Publications, Inc.
  • Stoecker, R. (2014) What If? AISHE-J 6(1) Downloaded from:
  • Aldo Leopold (1949) The Land Ethic. In A Sand County Almanac. Chapter available online at:

Key Questions

  • What are the different definitions of community as described by the readings?
  • It’s easy to think of the modern “liquid community” and “consciousness of community” as described by Blackshaw as progressive, and to consider the pre-modern “community consciousness” as regressive. But would it really be regressive, and is it even possible, to choose to put community authenticity above individual identity? (Perhaps the Amish are a model of this — does that make them “backwards”, or can they serve as a model in some ways?)
  • How would things change if we all incorporated Leopold’s Land Ethic into our definitions of community?
  • What is our own ideal of community? Do we have just one, or might we have different theories for different contexts?
  • Is social capital a positive concept, or does it potentially weaken community? Do we potentially weaken a strong-tie community when we urge them to build their social capital?
  • In what ways do these readings help us better understand the theory of community others bring to engagement?
  • How do we balance our own theory of community with that brought to our engagement by others?

On Engagement

Key Readings

Key Questions

  • What is the difference between outreach and engagement?
  • How are Arnstein’s ladder of participation and the IAP2 engagement spectrum similar? How are they different? Should it always be our goal to engage at the deepest level of participation as defined on these spectrums?
  • When might our interactions with others turn out to be more negative than positive?
  • How is pluralism different than diversity? What does it mean to do engagement when we allow for different ways of knowing and different knowledges?

On Social Change

Key Readings

Key Questions

  • Often we define justice in the negative by pointing to the injustices around us. How would we define justice in the positive? That is, what might be the core aspects that we would find within a just society?
  • How would the U.S. be different on a daily basis if, as a country, we had as a core fundamental for how to achieve the “good society” the capability approach instead of neoliberal market economics? How would news coverage change? Education? Social programs? Success and the cult of celebrity? Other dimensions?
  • If a visitor from another world dropped in and observed us, what would they say our values are that drive our engaged programming?
  • Do we need to lay our values aside and take on the values of the community when we do engagement? Can we be neutral? On the flip side, if we do bring our values to the table when we do engagement and their’s strong opposition between our values and the values of those with whom we engage, can the engagement move forward? But if we insist on our values and agendas and we come from a position of privilege and power in relation to the community with whom we are engaging, isn’t this just another exercise of our power? How do we do engagement instead of oppression?
  • What is the relationship between dehumanization and oppression?
  • Can a society founded on competition and hierarchy also be non-oppressive, or does non-oppression require a society grounded in cooperation and non-hierarchical egalitarianism? Can we have a society that is non-oppressive, if so?
  • How does oppression tie into ideology and hegemony per Marx, the Frankfort School, and Gramsci? Into discourse per Foucoult?
  • Where are we on the map of intersecting oppressions given our personal histories and experiences? How does this impact our engagement with others? How does it impact our vision of a just society and our theory of social change to foster community?
  • Freire is championed as a way to educate others regarding the capability approach. Why this tight link?
  • In what ways can our choice and use of technology work against our social change goals? If so, what are some strategies to better negotiate, evaluate, and renegotiate our choice and use of technologies to assure they are aligned with our community’s values and goals?
  • Is allyship a good model for engagement leading towards positive social change? How does our own understanding of oppression, our role as oppressor and oppressed, and our personal healing from oppression setup our ability to serve as an ally to others who are oppressed?
Posted in Community Engagement, Social Justice | Leave a comment

Sociological Imagination & Diversity Gaps

I appreciate the introduction provided me by Randy Stoecker to the concept of sociological imagination, a term coined by C. Wright Mills in 1959. It is a way of seeing the broader sociological situations that result in many people experiencing similar outcomes.

And so it was with interest that I read a piece regarding the diversity gap in Silicon Valley. This is one of a series of diversity gap studies that include: the Academy Awards, the Tony Awards, the Emmy Awards, the children’s book industry, The New York Times Top 10 Bestseller List, Sci-Fi and Fantasy Films, and US politics. That it is a series really stood out when I read this, and led me to pondering several questions…

To what extent do we work to address the diversity gap as separate issues in different industries, and to what extent do we come to grips with an overall shared societal situation that normalizes being white, male, and heterosexual? Much is made of the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education at the earliest grade levels to increase diversity in the pipeline. But what if every other part of child rearing still reinforces these norms? Can we piecemeal our way out of this system of marginalization and oppression? Or do we need to follow Martin Luther King, Jr.’s path in the last year of his life in particular, when he recognized that we must address the multitude of oppressions in their entirety because oppressions and the systems that propagate them are massively intersecting?

Posted in Reflections, Service-Learning | Leave a comment

Summer 2015 Community Informatics Studio: Digital Literacy for ALL Learners

The following is a working draft of a summer 2015 Community Informatics Studio course (LIS490ST)  that I will be offering. This is a hybrid class, allowing both on-campus and online students to participate. While this course is offered through the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, we seek graduate students and upper level undergraduates from multiple disciplines, such as education, social work, human and community development, gender & women’s studies, African-American studies, informatics, etc. Sections STG (graduate on-campus), STU (undergraduate on-campus), and STL (graduate online) meet concurrently. On-campus students traveling during the summer can elect to join class online as needed.

Weekly Meeting Time: Wednesday 6:00-8:30pm, May 20-August 5

Course Description: Studio-based learning, which is common in art and architectural education, is an opportunity to bring together the knowledge of students, instructor, in-field professionals, and community to address a real-world question in our profession as described below. Students will develop specific knowledge and skills related to the question for the semester while receiving teacher mentoring, in-field professional modeling, and peer support as an engaged information professional leader.

While not limited to specific student histories, this studio is a special opportunity to apply learning in the field for those who have already taken or are currently taking instruction/engagement/justice-related courses, including but not limited to Instruction (LIS458), Social Justice in the Information Professions (LIS590SJL), Community Informatics (LIS518), Community Engagement (LIS418/LIS490YS), or the equivalent from other disciplines such education, social work, human and community development, informatics, etc.

Pre- and Co-requisites: Junior or senior standing and consent of instructor for undergraduates; consent of instructor for non-LIS graduate students.

Learning Objectives:

  • Individual: To advance the development and exercise of student’s leadership role as a professional by combining real-world community informatics project-based research, studio-based learning pedagogy, and student’s rich past experiences and education.
  • Team: To promote collaboration and teamwork across different domains of knowledge by having students work as a member of an interdisciplinary team within a studio space and in the field applying a critical interpretive socio-technical framework in collaboration with community partners.
  • Community: To prepare students to play a lead role in inclusive partnership development and community engagement on behalf of their community anchor institution by guiding students in a process of racial and cultural awareness, consciousness, and positionality through their engagement with different socio-economic and culturally-based communities.
  • Project: To foster their project management skills by affording students the opportunity to engage in multiple phases of a large-scale community project.

Case for Summer 2015:

Overview: For the Summer 2015 design case, teams will partner with one or more organizations to 1) develop and share innovative popular and progressive digital literacy programming; and 2) develop evaluation rubrics using sources such as the International Society for Technology Education (ISTE) standards and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) outcomes-based evaluation guidelines. Projects for summer 2015 could focus on teen and/or adult literacy programming. The results of this studio will immediately inform programming at partner sites, but will also be made widely available on to inform the work of LIS professionals, K-12 educators, and other digital literacy trainers more broadly.

Additional DetailsPhysical spaces like Fab Labs and Makerspaces along with their associated curriculum, and online resource like and, provide rich ports of entry into 21st century skills and digital innovation. Some go further to bring together non-digital and digital technologies to further enrich opportunities. Public and school libraries, community centers, and other community anchors are increasingly utilizing these resources to meet their missions of lifelong learning, enriching and inspiring experiences, and ongoing innovation. However, these curriculum and programs don’t always maximize their potential – they can sometimes be too technology-centric and overly generic.

The engaged librarian is well situated to harness their social knowledge of community values and goals to develop programming wrappers around these more generic digital literacy and innovation activities and curricula. In so doing, they not only can address local interest and issues, but also advance community agency and self-efficacy while challenging exclusionary forces to encourage progress from passive use of technical artifacts to co-creation of innovations-in-use by community, in community, for community.

Digital Innovation Leadership FrameworkThe case for the 2015 summer Community Informatics Studio will be to develop and share models for contextualized digital literacy and innovation programming that empowers citizens to affect social change. The first few weeks of the semester will use reading/discussion and minimal lecture to explore foundational “digital literacy for all learners” concepts such as demystifying technology, computational & design thinking, inquiry-based and popular education, and the critical interpretive socio-technical framework. But the bulk of the semester will be spent in an action/reflection praxis with in-field public & school librarians, educators, and other community trainers to develop programming for specific community-based initiatives, supported by in-class peer support, instructor mentoring, and critical reflection. That is, the classroom studio will be our office supporting our professional engagement on the class projects.

By the end of the semester, students will be expected to have assisted in the delivery and evaluation of a digital literacy/innovation program and/or design of a learning space that they have helped to develop, and to generalize and document the work to share with other in-field professionals. Projects can come from a wide range of 21st century literacy, digital manufacturing, digital media production, and data analytics initiatives, and can incorporate existing curriculum in support of their program development. The intent is to harness foundational “digital literacy for all learners” concepts to create contextualized programming wrappers around existing curricula, adding new curriculum only where there are gaps. From this, we will work to advance a generalized model to inform other in-field professionals regarding how they can similarly create programming.

This is a hybrid class, allowing both on-campus and online students to participate. The instructor has contacts with several adult and teen initiatives in the Champaign/Urbana area associated with public and school libraries, the University of Illinois Extension and 4-H, and teen centers. In at least one case, there is an opportunity to work closely with teens to co-design not only programming but the space itself. But students are also welcome to consult with the instructor on opportunities they might have with libraries and community centers with which they are already engaged to serve as a project site for the course. This is especially important for online students, given the more limited number of contacts the instructor can provide nationally/internationally.

Course Structure Overview: Studio-based learning (SBL) is rooted in the apprentice model of learning in which students studied with master designers or artists to learn their craft. The pedagogy emphasis is on “learning to be a professional” as opposed to “learning knowledge needed to be a professional.” SBL is also closely related to John Dewey’s inquiry-based approach to learning.

Using SBL methods, this course will bring together students, instructors, professionals from related fields, and community members in a collaborative environment to address a real-world problem or “case.” Project work will be very much student-led, with the instructors and outside experts serving as mentors and professional role models. Students will be asked to work individually and in teams in a working environment meant to closely mirror a professional workspace.

Readings, class discussions, and pre-recorded lectures during the first few weeks of class will provide students with background knowledge and information related to the case for the semester to inform creation of an initial plan. The remainder of the semester will primarily emphasize “learning through doing”, with the majority of class time being dedicated to peer support and instructor mentoring to inform project development.

Doing project work will require more than the limited time available during class, and students should expect to spend time each week working individually or together as a team outside of class. In this way, as implemented the studio brings together the best of class lab and class discussion formats with a group practicum/service-learning experience. In some cases, this will include travel to partner sites as necessary to collaborate and conduct interviews with stakeholders and collect information needed to create a viable proposal/implementation in response to the needs of the case.

Using a Critical Friends approach, critiques will be incorporated into class meetings at regular intervals throughout the semester. Some of these will be informal or “desk critiques” while others will be more formal presentations of progress, culminating in the final presentation of project(s) and critique on the last day of class. Project work will be posted on appropriate course-related sites throughout the semester, and the final documentation will be posted on

SBLDiagram-Rev1The overall flow of the course is represented by our adaptation* of Brocato’s** SBL design path proposal, highlighting the role that readings, discussion, and community engagement play in our studio design process.

* Wolske, M., Rhinesmith, C., and Kumar, B. (2014) “Community Informatics Studio: Designing Experiential Learning to Support Teaching, Research, and Practice.” Journal of Education in Library and Information Science, 55(2).

** Brocato (2009) Studio based learning: Proposing, critiquing, iterating our way to person-centeredness for better classroom management. Theory Into Practice, 48, 138-146.

Required Readings: We will use extensive readings from the following required books in addition to occasional articles and online readings.

  • Dewey, John. Experience and Education. Paperback. 1938. Macmillan. 1997 edition:
    ISBN-10: 0684838281; ISBN-13: 978-0684838281
  • Kuhlthau, Carol C., Maniotes, Leslie K., and Caspari, Ann K. Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st Century. 2007. Libraries Unlimited. ISBN-13: 978-1-59158-435-3
  • Kincheloe, Joe. Critical Consructivism. 2005. ISBN-13: 978-0820476162; ISBN-10:
  • Eubanks, Virginia. Digital Dead End. Hardback. 2011. MIT Press. ISBN-10: 026201498X; ISBN-13: 978-0262014984

Assignments and Methods of Assessment: Students will be graded on a 90% (A), 80% (B), 70% (C), 60% (D) scale. Graded assignments and the overall percentage for each category of assignments are listed below.

Professional Journal (40% of grade): Each week students should spend about an hour writing down their reflections on the in-class discussions and in-field experiences from the past week. These will be posted to the Professional Journal forum. Students should also periodically comment on the reflections of other students to affirm and expand upon lessons learned. In all posts, students will be expected to develop their capacity to bring into dialog: 1) personal histories, field experiences and knowledge; 2) the insights of authors from this and other classes; and 3) lessons learned from in-field professionals and community members. Overall, in lieu of more classroom contact hours, students will be expected to use professional journal entries and open discussion forum to extend dialog on in-field experiences, readings, and project ideas.

In-Field Program Delivery (30% of grade): Each student will participate in at least 15 hours of digital literacy programming during the semester. This programming should be related to the semester project of the student’s design team.

Final Project Paper (20% of grade): Students will write and present their model for contextualized, empowering digital literacy programming as part of a end-of-semester juried presentation to be held the last day of class. The paper will be posted to as a part of our ongoing documentation of digital literacy programming. Because this course is offered as a capstone that innovatively applies the disciplinary knowledge learned in other courses, the grading of the final paper is not based on the successful application of a single skill (for instance, successfully building a database or a networked computer lab). Indeed despite all best efforts by students, instructor, and community partners, some projects face insurmountable obstacles or prove unworkable. But if effective community-based research and participatory design and evaluation strategies are used, this does not detract from the valuable progressive education for all participants that results from the experience. Therefore, the grade for the final project paper will be based on the quality of the theoretical framework supporting the guiding question and project design, the caliber of description of the methods and results, and the depth of critical reflection on its execution and impact within the community as considered within the grounding theoretical framework.

Instructor Evaluation (10% of grade): The instructor  will evaluate student attendance, active participation, and overall progress throughout the course of the semester. The following rubric will be used to assign a score at the end of the semester.

  • 10 = Student has been an active participant in class discussions based on assigned readings and lived experiences and is demonstrating an increasing grasp of the key concepts covered in class.
  • 8 = Student has been an active participant in some of the class discussions based on assigned readings and lived experiences and is demonstrating some gains in grasping key concepts covered in class.
  • 6 = Student is occasionally active in class and is demonstrating some learning, but it is clear they are not performing to their full capabilities
  • 4 = Student has missed several classes and/or is not always active when attending class
  • 2 = Student has been absent frequently and/or rarely is active in class
  • 0 = Student has consistently missed class during the rated period

Attendance and Participation Policy: Students are expected to attend all class sessions except in case of emergency. If you have an emergency, communicate with the instructor as early as possible to prevent negatively impacting your grade. Unless otherwise negotiated with the instructor, students with an excused absence will still be expected to complete professional journal entries.

It is expected that students will participate actively in the class activities and discussions in a professional manner, showing respect for differing ideas and a willingness and ability to defend their ideas by referring to relevant readings.

Library Resources:;; 217-333-3804

Academic Integrity: Students should review and follow the University policy on academic integrity, available online at: . When you submit an assignment, you are certifying that the work is your own, or that of your project group, and that all use of other people’s material is used in accordance to fair use and copyright policies and is properly referenced.

Statement of Inclusion: The following is adopted from the Chancellor’s Commitment Statement (

As the state’s premier public university, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s core mission is to serve the interests of the diverse people of the state of Illinois and beyond. The institution thus values inclusion and a pluralistic learning and research environment, one which we respect the varied perspectives and lived experiences of a diverse community and global workforce. We support diversity of worldviews, histories, and cultural knowledge across a range of social groups including race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, abilities, economic class, religion, and their intersections.

As applied to LIS490ST, technology is broadly defined as a socio-technical system that includes the physical component, its design, its application, and the training on and use in community. The class recognizes that technology as applied in society is not socially or culturally neutral. Every technology instance reflects the cultural and societal history, norms, and values of those who participated in its design and implementation and equally reflects the absence of the cultural and societal history, norms, and values of those who did not participate in its design and implementation. Further, the adoption of technology will have unique positive and negative impacts within each community. However, considered, participatory adaptation of technology has the potential to help make its adoption more inclusive. The readings and in-class discussion are meant to help each of us take a more considered approach to the adaptation and adoption of technology in community. Difference is a critical resource in this process, and every student is asked to complete readings in advance of class and to bring their insights to the discussion to inform us on the issues as expressed in the statement of inclusion.

Accessibly Statement

To obtain accessibility-related academic adjustments and/or auxiliary aids, students with disabilities must contact the course instructor and the Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) as soon as possible. To contact DRES you may visit 1207 S. Oak St., Champaign, call 333-4603 (V/TTY), or e-mail a message to

Posted in Community Informatics, Education | Leave a comment

Problem-posing Education

It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.

Eugene Ionesco

I am an educator both as vocation and avocation, although I do not have a formal education degree. And while I can deliver a strong 3-hour lecture with the best of them, I much prefer to leave behind the banking model of education — education in which students receive, memorize, and repeat the learned knowledge and wisdom of the instructor. I remember the frustration when, as a teen, I would share information or an idea with my dad that would go ignored until later when it was delivered by the expert on TV or the radio. Embarrassingly, I’m sure I did the same with my sons and indeed sometimes continue to do so with my wife, although I try not to because I truly do respect and value their insights. When I work with other youth, such as when leading the Twin City Bible Church mission trip to East St. Louis each summer, or when I was a scout leader, I try to be more a guide on the side channeling and infilling their knowledge and leadership rather than being the authority with all the knowledge and ideas to be meekly implemented by students. This is even more the case with my masters students, who had they instead entered the workforce would have been valued for their skills and knowledge gained through their bachelors program of study.

The guide-on-the-side teaching model has been well described by John Dewey in his book Experience and Education. For Dewey, experience serves both as the means and the goal of education. Our past experiences, combined with our learning purposes, can be brought together into a current learning experience. Not all experiences are the same, though, as only some truly work to progress our education as one step in lifelong learning. Further, this progressive education should be situated within community, be conducted by community, to achieve the goals of the community in what Chip Bruce and others have described as community inquiry. That is, it is a type of problem- and project-based education that is vitally situated within the experiences of the people in a community. Community-centered experiences serve as the means for progressive educational experiences in, by, and for the community.

One of the joys when we approach education as a teacher-student — someone who has certain responsibilities as a teacher but who also brings in the humble attitude of a learner seeking insights from student-teachers — is that our thinking is constantly challenged and richly expanded. And so it was this week as our Community Engagement class reviewed Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. While some were encountering this book directly for the first time, others of us were revisiting this classic work.

Personally, this most recent visit had me reflecting especially on Freire’s discussion of limit-situations, limit-acts, and generative themes. As conscious beings, we have the ability to separate ourselves from the world around us and also our own activities. In so doing, we can identify and act to overcome situations that keep us from being more human. That is, we can actively work to negate and overcome limit-situations through limit-acts. Thus, it is not the limit-situations which serve to bring about a sense of hopelessness, but rather our inability to move beyond seeing them as insurmountable barriers to instead recognize them as shackles that can be overcome.

Subsequently, as we nibbled around the edges of Pedagogy of the Oppressed in class discussion, one of the participants began to explore more deeply Freire’s alternative to the banking model of education — the problem-posing model.

In problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.

Banking education treats students as objects of assistance; problem-posing education makes them critical thinkers. Banking education inhibits creativity and domesticates (although it cannot completely destroy) the intentionality of consciousness by isolating consciousness from the world, thereby denying people their ontological and historical vocation of becoming more fully human. Problem-posing education bases itself on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action upon reality; thereby responding to the vocation of persons as beings who are authentic only when engaged in inquiry and creative transformation. [emphasis in original; pages 83 and 84 of the 2011 edition translated by Myra Bergman Ramos]

Freire’s description of problem-posing education is fully consistent with Dewey’s progressive education and Bruce’s community inquiry. But what the class discussion helped me to more fully appreciate is the importance of posing more critical questions if we are to not only address immediate local issues, but to also advance knowledge power. A few weeks back I posted regarding the impact goal of allying with citizens to affect social change, based on my reflections of Randy Stoecker’s writings regarding two forms of social change (for instance, in his recent paper “What If“).Digital Innovation Leadership Framework

This past week has me further refining my understanding of these ideas. I continue to believe that in affecting social change, citizens set about fostering community. But from this most recent reading and discussion on Freire, I now further understand this to be a work of transforming reality so as to liberate all people from limit-situations. These limit-situations serve to dehumanize us as they keep us from our vocation of being more fully human. These limit-situations exist because there are persons who are directly or indirectly served by these situations — the oppressors — while others who are being curbed by them — the oppressed. But both groups are dehumanized and less than fully human because of the limit-situation. The work of problem-posing education, then, is to specifically act and reflect within the knowledge power cycle in such a way so as to affect social change that works to liberate both the oppressed and the oppressor. To do otherwise would only risk the oppressed becoming the oppressor, thereby exchanging one form of being less than fully human with another form.

While not trivial, we can readily consider how to harness progressive, project- and problem-based education to address local issues. This is important work. But if we struggle further, we can hone and deepen our critical thinking through dialog such that we continually revise our awareness of limit-situations and participate in limit-act projects that speak into existence a new reality. As thus practiced, education is not an individual work, but a work done in community as we come to know through dialog our objective situation and also our awareness of that situation. We have a perception of our previous perception and a knowledge of our previous knowledge. And as we engage as co-investigators in action and reflection — praxis —  to transform and create material goods and social institutions, ideas, and concepts, we simultaneously create history and become historical-social beings within epochal units.

An epoch is characterized by a complex of ideas, concepts, hopes, doubts, values, and challenges in dialectical interaction with their opposites, striving towards plenitude [the condition of being full or complete]. The concrete representation of many of these ideas, values, concepts, and hopes, as well as the obstacles which impede the people’s full humanization, constitute the themes of that epoch. These themes imply others which are opposing or even antithetical; they also indicate tasks to be carried out and fulfilled. Thus, historical themes are never isolated, independently with their opposites. Nor can these themes be found anywhere except in the human-world relationships. The complex of interacting themes of an epoch constitutes its “thematic universe” (page 101)

The task of the dialogic teacher in an interdisciplinary team working on the thematic universe revealed by their investigation is to “re-present” that universe to the people from whom she or he first received it — and “re-present” it not as a lecture, but as a problem. (page 109)

The epochal units of themes can occur at multiple levels simultaneously. For instance, at the broadest level we might consider the global theme of domination. At a more local level, we might consider racism as constructed individually and structurally within the United States. And at still a more local level, we might consider racial bias in Champaign schools as identified in cases presented by African Americans to the Office of Civil Rights in 1996. If we apprehend reality only as non-interacting fragments, it is impossible to truly understand reality. By using the methodology that Freire calls conscientization — learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality —  the dialogic teacher leads a co-investigation of themes that in turn generate new investigations. These generative themes begin to introduce the student-instructor to a critical form of thinking about their world. The challenge is to lead towards a comprehension of the total, interconnecting reality, for only then can we proceed towards isolation of separate elements for effective intervention.

This is my sixth time reading these concepts. But true to Freire’s description, as we complete a cycle of dialog that names our understanding of the world, we stand at the cusp of a new reality to be perceived. And thus in the intervening months between visits to Pedagogy of the Oppressed, my praxis has brought me to a new cusp of understanding of these words because of my dialog with various other authors, dialog with students, colleagues, and community, and intervening creative works.

Consequently, light bulbs went off as I looked at the Eugene Ionesco quote that hangs on a cabinet in my office: “It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” My responsibility as a teacher is to create a learning environment that fosters community dialog along with a critical form of thinking. Then, as we engage in co-investigation, my responsibility is to help the team reflect on the thematic universe being revealed through our investigation in a way that generates additional enlightening questions. Along the way, problem-posing education concurrently works to “facilitate the discovery of the interaction among the parts of the disjoined whole”, leading towards even richer sets of questions initiating further enlightening investigation.

I wish I could say with full confidence I thoroughly understand Freire, or even what I have written above. I wonder if the best evaluation whether I am advancing in my understanding is with regard the types of problems posed by me and my students. Over time, do the questions leading to new investigations and interventions demonstrate an increasing comprehension of the total reality even if they are directed at an isolated element for co-investigation? Thus, my strongest evidence to the affirmative is this paragraph itself as I further reorient my evaluation from answers to questions, from the works created to the questions used to inspire and investigate those creative works. And as I deepen my practice of progressive education to practice problem-posing education.

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