Friday, 11 December 2009

Being professional

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.


Rachel Phillips said...

Excuse my ignorance, if appropriate, but what brought all this on?

George S said...

Exhaustion. Despair. Old age. You name it. In other words nothing special just the things the post is actually angry about.

dana said...

George, thank you. I knew my knees were giving out for some reason. And what the hell is that above the young lady's head?! I guess asking means I'm not a professional, either. Sigh.

Unknown said...

Just been re-reading Matthew Sweet's book "Inventing the Victorians" in which he asks what about our era future generations will feel the most disgust and shake their heads over.

It's going to be this sort of thing, isn't it? Distrust. The imposition of a system of control too big and complex for anyone to control it.

Anonymous said...

You've made me remember why I was so glad to retire from my 'profession' 7 years ago. Even now though, I still have to jump through hoops - disclosure, public indemnity insurance, health and safety audits etc. What's that got to do with writing? But it's unprofessional to question their necessity.

Anonymous said...

yes, the lack of trust in people to do their job is offensive - the way everything has to be done in a particular way to be regarded as successful. 'Learning objectives', must be met 'targets' and 'percentages' achieved - and has all this led to improvements in education? I don't think so!

Mark Granier said...

'And what the hell is that above the young lady's head?! '

I suspect that's some kind of projector Dana. Either that or a giant Dalek's dildo.

I am glad to say that I have rarely had to deal with the kind of professionalism George has had to endure. But then the only regular third level teaching I do is poetry/creative writing for the Adult Education Department, and my beginners' course does not involve grading work, etc. A good friend of mine who emigrated to England worked as a full-time primary school teacher in London before giving up in despair; he and his wife home-educated the children (something I wouldn't think of attempting; far too demanding). I am not sure if the broader Irish education system is quite as bureaucratic and emasculated as the UK's appears to be, though such procedures will probably arrive here eventually, if they haven't already.

The Plump said...

There is one advantage. It has created a deadly and usable insult. If I accuse my managers of being dickheads they ignore me. If I say they are 'unprofessional' they fly into rage. Marvellous.

George S said...

I do think trust is the main issue, combined with the idea of competition in defined terms, terms subject to constant redefinition, that are meant to put the fear of God (or whoever is the funding agent) into those defined by it.

As regards trust, sadly,I cannot quite believe that the obsession with getting everyone on CCTV, on a genetic database, onto a list of those considered not too untrustworthy (what convicts call trusties) is entirely unconnected to such evidences of public disposition as I see and read. There are plenty of people who support the vetting of volunteers for anything, who are indeed suspicious of anyone who volunteers for anything. 'Why would they volunteer?' they wonder. 'I wouldn't.'

The taste is cultivated by those who have the power and means to implement it in policy. But that is only partly because they want to control absolutely everything. It is, partly, also because they too are afraid that the technological revolution will eat its own children, meaning themselves. The fear of God is in them too.

I half suspect that one of the reasons people like to get drunk is because it is a trust exercise of sorts. To get drunk together is to trust that you will get each other home one way or another. It is the bonhomie of drunkenness that people reminisce about with fondness.

Otherwise the message is, don't trust anyone, any time. In the case of the sex offenders register (30,000 currently) there's only a one in 2000 chance of you meeting one, and much less of them harming you or anyone you know, but you don't want to take that chance. Cross a road instead.