Friday, 11 December 2009
I can't quite remember when this highest form of praise was introduced. I do remember it was around some time in the late eighties when, as schoolteachers, we were exhorted to be professional at all times. And then, when I moved into higher education, some senior member of the college came in to welcome us as professionals and academics, people with proper professional pride. 'So and so is a true professional' was the equivalent of five gold stars. We were doing things properly, by the book. We were 'of the professions'. We were truly, as Márai might have said, not just, 'respectable citizens' of the republic of something but, most importantly, professional respectable citizens.
To act professionally was not necessarily to act kindly, to act with understanding, to act according to conscience or to act with devotion to the underlying cause, but to be proper, to act by the book according to the current conception of the book. Professional conduct had been defined by leaders and committees and might be redefined next year, but for this year it was such and such a procedure, and following it was professionalism. The army were 'the professionals'. There was a television series called The Professionals. Highest praise. The worst thing you could be was 'amateur'. To be amateur was to be hopeless. No standards. A mess.
But I have never felt professional in my life. I have felt conscientious, occasionally to the point of agony and sleeplessness; I have felt devoted at times and indifferent at other times; I have tried to understand those in my care as best I could; I tried to be interesting and friendly and interested: but I never regarded these things as professionalism. Professionalism was getting my reports in at the right time, phrasing them in the correct way, taking my part in the career structure, making constructive criticisms and looking for ever greater efficiency, or rather, ways of registering ever greater efficiency even when the result of registering was less efficiency.
This process has come a long way. First, students were invited to evaluate classes on forms, which is fine and even useful. Then students were instructed to anonymise their work so that we shouldn't be able to discriminate against them, and to put their evaluations of the class into an envelope that we might deliver their sealed evaluations to the appropriate place. Then it was further determined that only students should carry the envelope to the appropriate place. Why? Because we were not to be trusted, of course.
Not trusting us, or anyone, is truly professional. Distrust is the one true mark of the professional.
At one place we were invited to sit in on each other's classes and observe, and then, together with the observed colleague, put together an A4 sheet noting the general condition of the class. But that A4 sheet was far too simple and amateurish. Soon it was broken down into sections and micro-questions. This was then fed through the system. It was very professional. On one occasion I simply wrote '[Colleague] X is a privilege to work with' and fed it into the system. No one complained. No one even noted the fact. That too was professional. Everyone is so busy being professional they rush to file things away and don't have the time to read them. Filing is professional. Reading is amateur. Unless you are a lawyer, of course.
After all these years I have grown pretty well certain that my deepest instincts are deeply unprofessional. When I see a group or an individual in front of me at some institution of learning I don't think: there is a professional procedure to go through, I think: they are people, let's talk. I actually trust them. Do they trust me? God knows. I know the institution doesn't. That's because it's professional.
People are in free fall. Professionals move steadily, ever upward. What was professionalism in the eighties is sheer amateurism now.
I continue to genuflect to professionalism because that is what I have to do when I am on duty. But my knees are getting very tired. And so are the knees of the other people in institutions. Or so I suspect. Can we trust each other to say as much? Oh no. Not professional.