John Cox, University Librarian, NUI Galway
Reflection fits in well with the critical thinking focus of Rudaí 23. Some of us are more inclined towards reflection than others, perhaps depending on our preferences towards introversion or extroversion, but it’s something we all do in our different ways. Most commonly, we think about things while we’re doing other activities such as walking or having a shower. That kind of reflection works well as it’s informal and does not need any special resources or time commitment. My focus in this piece is on written reflection which is a bit different, and not to be attempted in the shower, for example! I’ll share my experiences of keeping a journal for more than a decade. This will provide some insights that might help you if you are interested in taking a similar direction, but I recognise that recording one’s thoughts is not for everyone.
I used to keep a diary when I was at primary school so maybe I was just waiting for another prompt to do something similar in my working life. That stimulus appeared when I joined the first cohort of participants in the Future Leaders Programme in the UK in 2006. The Programme placed a strong emphasis on developing self-awareness, especially through reflective practice. Starting a reflective journal was recommended; this was my cue and I’m still writing it today!
It helps that it’s easy to get started. All that’s needed is something on which to record your reflections. Some people use their mobile devices for this, but my own preference is to use pen and paper. I now have a collection of notepads (Figure 1) and I like the idea of being able to see what I’ve documented as a physical entity. More important, at least in my experience, is that writing slows things down and makes reflection more meaningful. Being offline is good too. The only downside is that my handwriting is awful but it’s not for publication and at least I can read it (most of the time). Admittedly, a digital version would allow word searching which could be handy when looking for an entry on a particular topic, but my mind works according to dates, so I can usually find what I need.
My own approach to written reflection is uncomplicated, which is probably why the habit has endured for so long. I write a journal entry once a week, usually on a Saturday morning, for about 45 minutes and running typically to two A4 pages (Figure 2). Some people take a daily approach and all options are open. I find a weekly interval good in that I can take stock of the week just past and think about the one to come. It helps to do that at a distance and Saturday works well for me as the frenzy of the week before should have cleared my head and the next week isn’t bearing down on me yet. Peace and quiet are helpful for reflection so I usually head for my study and close the door. However, simplicity enables flexibility and I’ve also written at airports, hotels, on public transport or even in the back of a (stationary!) car.
Something I like about writing an entry is that, apart from deciding when to do it, this is a rare unplanned activity. Work enforces schedules, commitments and other people’s agendas. Here, however, is something I can just do as I please. I love the freedom of opening the journal and writing what comes to mind at that moment rather than having a planned topic or set of topics. As a result, I often find that events or people from the week before take on a significance I hadn’t appreciated at the time as I rushed around. In the same vein, I sometimes see opportunities and connections among the coming week’s events that might not otherwise surface at all or only afterwards when it’s too late.
Of course, having that fetish for organisation that goes with the librarian job, I observe some sense of structure in my entries. As already noted, the focus is generally on the past and coming weeks. There is usually more coverage of what happened than what is to come. And, of course, there are weeks where one or two big events dominate so these get most attention. The previous week will often influence the next one and reflection helps me to see the joins. I find that thinking in weeks rather than days can bring better perspective, particularly in making the coming week more productive by identifying what really is important or strategic and should not be sacrificed to other distractions. At certain times I think in longer time horizons, particularly at each end of the calendar year and when returning from a break. Most of my reflections are about work but I’m increasingly including family and other matters too.
|Figure 1. Piled high: a decade of journal notepads|
Is Written Reflection Worth the Effort?
I see many benefits, while acknowledging a few pitfalls which I’ll mention also. In overall terms I think written reflection has improved my effectiveness over the years. The biggest benefit is a better sense of perspective. By standing back from things, I’m able to see the wood for the trees and to use my position for greater impact. Sometimes I realise that my use of time in a week or over a period of weeks is not optimal, with too much focus on the urgent and not enough on the important. Or maybe I will see that I need to prioritise what only I can do, leaving the rest to others.
A couple of useful insights come to mind. I noticed at one point that I wasn’t giving enough attention to national issues, something I clearly needed to address as there are only seven people leading Irish university libraries and we owe it to everyone to use our influence. Also, my end of year reflection in 2014 highlighted that I was giving too much to “doing” the job and missing out on some of its opportunities, including professional writing which I’ve always enjoyed and have resumed since then, increasing my sense of fulfilment in my role.
That sense of perspective is also important in maintaining good working relationships. People and situations can frustrate but I often find that writing about them helps me to understand the perspectives of others, the challenges that arise in many situations and my own shortcomings. Writing can be a form of letting off steam, something that I can’t easily do on the job, but it usually calms me down and gets me to move onwards! Time moves on and other issues soon supersede those that seem big at any given juncture. And including my non-work life in the reflection highlights how much there is to enjoy outside the job.
There is something about writing your thoughts that leads to a deeper form of reflection than only thinking them. Writing takes a little extra effort but provides more space and allows for stronger engagement. It encourages more honesty, self-challenge, learning and better self-awareness; it is much harder to gloss over something that I’ve written and issues that are bigger than they seem may come to the fore. For example, it may be that we seem to be getting a job done but do people really feel committed to it or are things on shallow foundations? Longer-term implications come to mind on the page alongside the immediate timeframe. This promotes critical thinking. Also, many situations recur over time and it’s great to have an archive of reflection which can be consulted to see what happened last time as a guide to action. There can be consolation in realising from earlier entries that we have survived similar or greater crises in the past!
|Figure 2: a typical entry, with dodgy handwriting|
Downsides of Written Reflection
Nothing is perfect and the same holds true for written reflection. Over-analysis is a real risk and writing can compound this, making issues seem greater than they really are. I find it important to do something totally different once I’ve finished a journal entry so that my mind moves elsewhere. Writing at a weekend is a double-edged sword; there is distance from events but more time to analyse and maybe misinterpret them. Written reflection does not involve dialogue; by definition it consists of one person’s thoughts. It needs to be offset by conversations where different views are exchanged.
The time commitment required for written reflection could be considered burdensome too. Many would say that the working week is long enough without having the events of last week and the prospects for the next one intruding on the vital escape that a weekend offers. Other models may work better, perhaps involving writing at the end of each day; it’s hard to reflect effectively during the working day, however, so some commitment of non-work time will likely be needed. And for many people the idea of sitting down and documenting their reflections is anathema. We are all different and written reflection suits some more than others.
My “reflections on reflection” may have piqued your curiosity or may have put you off documenting your thoughts forever! Or maybe you already keep a reflective journal or have previously tried it? I’ve enjoyed writing this, in the same way that I enjoy doing my weekly journal entries. Ultimately, I think the key is to want to engage in written reflection. If it involves desire and enjoyment it will happen naturally for you, will bring benefits and might even go on for more than a decade!
John Cox, University Librarian, NUI Galway
Much as for the Visual Communicator and Online Networker badges, your task is to reflect on the tools or tasks that you set about trying out in the other Things for this Badge.
You can use the Gibbs Reflective Cycle noted in previous Reflective Practice Things to help shape your posts; be inspired by John Cox's own reflections; and/or use the open questions asked as part of the tasks in each of the Critical Thinker Things.
Write a reflective blog post on the content and tasks from Things 14 - 17. You can then submit this blog post in your application for the Critical Thinker Open Badge .
Cox, John. Ten years of a Future Leaders Programme reflective journal. SCONUL Focus, 66, 2016, pp. 26-29. http://tinyurl.com/hvr3mv8.
John Cox is University Librarian at National University of Ireland Galway and has also worked at University College Cork, the Wellcome Trust, Royal Free Hospital and Aston University. He has a particular interest in digital libraries, both through initiatives such as the digitization of the Abbey and Gate Theatre archives at NUI Galway and writings on library roles in digital scholarship. These include publications on communicating new library roles to enable digital scholarshipand developments in library staffing for research, incorporating a case study at NUI Galway Library. He is currently writing a literature review on positioning the academic library in the institution for an upcoming issue of the New Review of Academic Librarianship on that theme.