What’s a Professional?

“Full- and part-time faculty members teaching off the tenure track are professionals who make indispensable contributions to their institutions.”  This point turns up in a February brief by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, called “One Faculty Serving All Students.”  The Coalition does good work, including this brief aimed at persuading universities and college to treat contingent workers decently.

But take a close look at this way of using the term “professionals.”  It has at least three common meanings.  (1) It often refers to athletes and others who play for a living, in contrast to amateurs.  No problem.  (2) It’s also often used to credit people whose work is skillful, dedicated, based on sound knowledge, and so on.  No problem here, either–except when this meaning blurs into the third one:  (3) a person who works as a recognized member of a recognized profession.

What bothers me about the blurring is that it conceals the institutional and historical basis of professions.  In the present context, it also serves as a wishful pat on the back to “freeway flyers” and other teachers in meager circumstances, who wanted to be professionals in the third sense, but are shut out.  Some of these did not finish, or have not yet finished, Ph.D. work.  But many do have the degree.  “A professional is a person who is licensed–by earning a degree, taking an examination, or passing some other qualifying test–to practice in a specialized field.”  Louis Menand gives this definition in his (very worthwhile) new book, The Marketplace of Ideas.  But what if the person has given up trying to practice in the field, or is practicing without the compensation and autonomy that are supposed to reward all that graduate work?  It is good to praise the qualifications and competence of teachers not on the tenure track, but I don’t think it clarifying to think of them as professionals.  Through no fault of their own, they are not fully “members” of a profession.  They do not share the benefits that professions try to guarantee for their members:  good pay, job security, freedom to do their work according to standards set by the profession itself, control (in academic fields) of what they teach and how, academic freedom, socially acknowledged authority in their fields of specialization, and so on.  Nor do they join much in taking responsibility for their profession’s continuance:  regulating its principles and practices, developing its curriculum, contributing to its body of knowledge, admitting new members, monitoring and regulating careers.  Contingent teachers put in the work, money, and time (11 years on average in the humanities) required to earn their degrees, but most of them will never really be “in” the profession.

I know, everything in that paragraph needs qualification.  But I believe people keeping track of U.S, higher education will recognize its basic, dismal truth.  So what do we call a profession that goes on licensing the number of entrants that successfully joined it in 1968, for the next 40-plus years of a declining job market, to the point where, in this recession year, half or more of its new Ph.D.’s will not have regular professional careers?  (That’s the grim situation in English and the other modern languages–see my last Radical Teacher blog.)  Call it a failed profession, maybe?

Not to point the finger of blame just at those safe inside its market haven, or at its members (including yours truly) from previous generations, though the institution we built in the two decades of postwar growth was cobbled together and in some ways self-indulgent.  I think our profession has declined in strength and coherence, along with most of the other traditional professions, chiefly as a casualty of the economic and political transformation that has been privatizing public goods and casualizing labor across the entire field of capitalism, and most vigorously in the U.S.

If so, what do we do–give up?  Some thoughts on that question in a later blog, I hope.  Meanwhile, I hope for comments on this one.

–Richard Ohmann

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