Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Red Queen Theory of Professional Development

Alice never could quite make out, in thinking it over afterwards, how it was that they began. All she remembers is, that they were running hand in hand, and the Queen went so fast that it was all she could do to keep up with her and still the Queen kept crying "Faster! Faster!" but Alice felt she could not go faster, though she had not breath left to say so.
The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and other things round them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything. "I wonder if all the things move along with us?" thought poor puzzled Alice. And the Queen seemed to guess her thoughts, for she cried, "Faster! Don't try to talk!"
Not that Alice had any idea of doing that. She felt as if she would never be able to talk again, she was getting so much out of breath, and still the Queen cried "Faster! Faster!" and dragged her along. "Are we nearly there?" Alice managed to pant out at last.
"Nearly there!" the Queen repeated. "Why, we passed it ten minutes ago! Faster!" And they ran on for a time in silence, with the wind whistling in Alice's ears, and almost blowing her hair off her head, she fancied.
"Now! Now!" cried the Queen. "Faster! Faster!" And they went so fast that at last they seemed to skim through the air, hardly touching the ground with their feet, till suddenly, just as Alice was getting quite exhausted, they stopped, and she found herself sitting on the ground, breathless and giddy.
The Queen propped her up against a tree, and said kindly, "You may rest a little now."
Alice looked round her in great surprise. "Why, I do believe we've been under this tree the whole time! Everything's just as it was!"
"Of course it is," said the Queen, "what would you have it?"
"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, you'd generally get to somewhere else -- if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."
"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.
If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"
~~from "Through the looking-glass, and what Alice found there," by Lewis Carroll

Working in a school library means working with education, information and technology - areas that all seem to be changing almost hourly these days. Wise leaders see institutional value in offering community members the time and resources to evaluate and develop their skills and knowledge.

Unfortunately, in many places the Red Queen rules. Like Alice, we run faster and faster, attempting to keep up with changes that are continually confronting us, springing out of the path like so many jacks-in-boxes. It's rare that time is taken out for reflection on the underlying philosophical shifts that are happening and on finding ways to capitalize on them, rather than looking for ways to keep them from disrupting business as usual. The institutions that do spend time this way may be incurring short-term costs, but they will undoubtedly reap long-term benefits in their abilities to weather the storms of progress.

The good news is that today's personal learning options increasingly allow for self-directed professional development. There are many outstanding resources that are freely available on the internet. But, is it fair for the Red Queens to depend on an employee's self-direction and use of personal time to fill the gaps that have been left in the wake of institutional policy (or lack thereof)? This is what I wrestle with, personally.

Take the case of a person who loves the new 2.0 technology - they read about it, talk about it and frequently play around with it for hours, which is really the only way to become familiar enough with it to fully understand its potential and to find ways to incorporate its use. But, because that person is doing all this on their own, the time they spend on learning (on developing themselves professionally) is time they're taking away from housework, from homework, from yardwork and even from their families. There are some easy answers, of course - hire a house cleaner, hire a yard service, hire a baby-sitter...but these luxuries are not an affordable option for everyone.

So, say this person is not in what the institution considers to be a "professional" position and therefore is not eligible for an institutional investment in their "professional development." But they're interested, they're dedicated to improvement, they like to learn and use new things, and they carry all this new knowledge to work with them every day. Is it right - is it socially just - for an institutuion to willingly take advantage of the personal passions of these employees, who are most likely among its least compensated members, in terms of both money and personal time? While its more highly compensated "professional" members can afford to spend their much more generous allowance of pay and personal time on travel and costly leisure activities that are purely for their own personal enjoyment?

Am I wrong or are there some ethical issues here that are not being addressed?

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