July 24, 2003

What is a Profession?

A "Random Reader" has issued what I think an interesting challenge to my use of the term deprofessionalization in connection with the academic humanities (comments to "Tough Love for Invisibles"):

To talk meaningfully about the 'deprofessionalization' of a 'profession' requires both terms to be defined--which they aren't, here. Teaching is often called a profession (as is most indoor work with no heavy lifting). But it's not one of the traditional "learned professions": those are law, medicine, and theology. And it doesn't have one of the primary indicia of a profession: limited access via qualification by the existing members of the profession. There's no academic equivalent of the bar exam.

True, most university teachers these days have Ph.D.'s. But it's not a strict requirement (Arthur Schlesinger famously lacks any graduate degree). The lack of a licensing requirement helps create the abundant supply that in turn drives salaries, etc., down. That's good for buyers (universities) but bad for sellers (would-be tenure-track teachers).

Random Reader is quite right: I haven't defined these terms, but have rather presupposed a shared, albeit loose, understanding on the part of my readers. I would define a profession as an occupation or vocation requiring specialized training along with some sort of certification. Though as RR points out, there never has been a licensing requirement and even the PhD is not a formal requirement.

And then, of course, "profession" carries all kinds of other connotations, some of which take us into the uncomfortable area of class. White collar instead of blue; a salary instead of hourly wages; rates of remuneration that support a middle-class life versus rates of remuneration that don't; indoor rather than outdoor work; some degree of autonomy (no punching the time clock) versus strict regulation and supervision of employees.

But this is all subject to challenge. As usual, I welcome comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at July 24, 2003 06:44 PM

Nice work, IA! You did a lot better than I ever could trying to mount a definition from scratch. So now the rest of us can just build on it. I have only 2 observations:

1. Your first definition refers to things that are very much under the control of the profession; specialized training and certification. Your second one about lifestyle/class is not so easily controllable. People or institutions have to be willing to pay a high price for the "output" of the profession. BTW, I really appreciate your openness about lifestyles and class. You leave yourself quite open to Lemon-type blasts to the effect that no one really owes you an upper-class lifestyle, but you seem to have weathered that storm. Most of us (well, me anyway) are too reticent or dishonest to even admit that we think of our profession as somehow entitling us to a certain lifestyle.

2. Here is another definition of profession that is a lot more normative (how things should be) than positive (how things are). A group of people who agree to tell the truth to one another. I lifted this idea from an old pamphlet by the Scientist/Humanist JR Brownowski called "Science and Human Values". Does this seem a valid ideal to try to emulate?

Posted by: gerald garvey at July 24, 2003 08:42 PM

Um, there's no bar exam for professors, but at this point the Ph.D. serves basically the same function -- UNLESS you're Scblessinger, you're gonna have a pretty hard time getting a university teaching job.

And that's probably a bad thing. One "solution" to the adjunct crisis in the humanities might lie in further "deprofessionalization" -- that is, opening up the ranks of university teachers to those who are interested in actual teaching, as opposed to being pure researchers. This would certainly suit the interests of most students, who really could care less about our dissertations on the social construction of the cow in 15th century Lausanne. It would substantially reduce the financial, psychological, and opportunity costs of going into university teaching -- you could teach right out of undergrad, if you were smart enough, or engage in another profession first or even at the same time. It would encourage the universities to fund academia more transparently and more directly based on need. If you are interested in devoting yourself to research, you could get funded accordingly (perhaps through private grant), while those interested in teaching would get paid for doing a teaching job.

Moreover, by straining out a good chunk of the B.S. -- the well-intentioned but unininteresting and ultimately useless "research" that is produced in so many humanities departments -- it might actually make those departments more pleasant places to work and learn. One -- not the only one, but certainly one -- of the reasons why humanities departments are such unpleasant places to work is that people often feel that their supposedly "real" research work is a trendy sham, which makes the whole enterprise feel rather pointless.

So one upside of the current adjunct crisis is that it should put pressure on the odd, unstable, and ultimately unnecessary connection in humanities departments between teaching and research.

Posted by: karlsruhe at July 24, 2003 09:39 PM

Karlsruhe, that is an excellent proposal, and I think you're right in that it would make universities far happier places to work. I would be delighted to see it put into practice!

But imagine the furor over deciding what would go in the tests . . . .

Posted by: Mr Tall at July 24, 2003 09:48 PM

I'm not sure that the concept of "profession" is a very useful one anymore. It originated in the days when jobs requiring a high level of education, combined with considerable discretion in job performance, were few and far between. Now, such jobs are the norm. Is a professor of literature more professional than an electrical engineer? Is a doctor more professional than an air traffic controller? How does a lawyer's level of professionalism compare with that of a sales executive?

Posted by: David Foster at July 24, 2003 10:09 PM

Hmm, well the etymologist in me demands that the term "profession" should cover the occupation of somebody who is called a "professor". Would the non-doctoral teachers at the new university be called "deprofessors"?

Posted by: Jeremy Osner at July 24, 2003 10:20 PM

The separation of teaching from research produces stagnation. Those who come to feel that their research is a trendy sham do so out of some unrelated crisis in their lives, I suspect, and not out of a glimpse into the noumena. (I assume here that they haven't been told already by those in a position to know.)

A more fundamental question is why do humanities departments exist still? Remedial writing instruction can be provided far more efficiently in classes geared specifically for it. Literature, history, philosophy, and other arts rather clearly don't add market value to an education; in fact, the more you know about these things, the less likely you are to be economically successful.

The only kind of political science or sociology paid attention to is the kind used by states to justify their actions, so they're a different case. Economics, also.

Science pays; and, regrettably, we can't tell what's going to pay and what isn't, so we have to let them muck about. Math fits in here somewhere.

The modern university should thus be arranged, as it is or is becoming at the state universities, largely around the business school (law and medicine will also remain). Without the misguided general education requirements, there wouldn't be an adjunct labor problem to speak of.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 24, 2003 10:55 PM

I don't think that the humanities are worth abandoning, or that there's a lack of demand for basic knowledge in them -- the continuing popularity of books in history and literature speaks well to this, and there's certainly a demand from university students themselves for humanities courses. Business schools and english lit departments can exist in the same institution, and attract some of the same students -- and we'll be better off as a world if that's true. Most people with business or professional experience will attest to getting some value out of their humanities courses, although they may have been baffled with the irrelevance of concepts thrown around in advanced seminars.

The question I'm trying to get at is why we've decided, as a nation, to emphasize the "research" component of the humanities profession over and above the teaching component. Undoubtedly, some research in the humanities should be done, and it is probably a public good that should be subsidized by the state or private charity. But the modern university judges its history, english, and french professors chances for advancement almost exclusively on the basis of their research. That seems to me like a massive over-subsidization of such research, given what most of the members of such professions, at least in their moments of honesty, will admit is the limited value of such work. Other than the fact that we locked into a nineteenth century German belief that philology and history should somehow be "scientific" and require "serious" research programs in order to be respectable, I can't think of a compelling reason why we set up our humanities departments in the way that we do. Of course, tenure only exacerbates the problem (but that's been discussed here already).

Get rid of the research component as the be-all and end-all, and you can start to reward the people who teach the History 101 course that thousands of undergraduates will take, enjoy, and learn something from in proportion to their efforts. If the universities start paying salaries in accordance with actual demand for their "product", adjuncts in the humanities can only win.

Posted by: karlsruhe at July 24, 2003 11:21 PM


I see a problem with this statement:

But the modern university judges its history, english, and french professors chances for advancement almost exclusively on the basis of their research.

It isn't even close to being true. At a 3/3, 3/4, 4/4 kind of school, which make up the vast majority, research is tangential. Too much probably harms a career more than it helps. There are disturbing trends among some upwardly mobile institutions that point towards research-institution expectations for their teaching-college faculty, but these are still very much in the minority.

As I mentioned before, I'm all in favor of abolishing humanities programs, most especially history. But I do think we have to realize the qualitative difference between Stephen Ambrose and whatever fancy 'academic' historian you want to name: the former's books sell. Sure they may be inaccurate and jingoistic where not plagiarized, but no one will remember in a few generations. I'd quote the lines from Brave New World that Hitchens used as an epigraph in his Harper's essay about the teaching of American history a while back if they weren't full of such obscure and forgotten names.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 24, 2003 11:41 PM

Why do you favor the abolition of history programs? I'll admit I'm biased, but when it comes to the humanities, I'd argue that history is one of the basics.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 24, 2003 11:44 PM

Because I'm an obscurantist. Knowledge, especially historical knowledge, is too dangerous to try to teach to the unprepared. The popularity of conspiracy theories is a direct result of historical education. If we focused on teaching students things they needed and could understand, they'd be less prone to think that Skull & Bones Illuminati shot JFK.

There's a relevant cliché I'm trying to avoid here.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 24, 2003 11:50 PM

"The popularity of conspiracy theories is a direct result of historical education."

I disagree; and I am at a loss to even hazard a guess as to the grounds on which you make such a claim. I believe the popularity of conspiracy theories should rather be attributed to a lack of historical education.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 24, 2003 11:59 PM

Doesn't such a position assume that historians are the only source of historical knowledge, though? Given the many, many bad sources of information about the past (and some that are factually sound but ideologically suspect -- meaning that the facts are chosen to fit the ideological ends, not necessarily that a particular ideology is invalid) I've always felt that good history courses, taught by professional, practicing historians, are necessary to provide some balance and to teach our students the skills needed to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to identify when (and how) they are being manipulated.

Oh. That must be why society doesn't want more humanities! ;)

Posted by: Rana at July 25, 2003 12:03 AM

My post is in response to Chun's, not IA's

Posted by: Rana at July 25, 2003 12:04 AM

I've lost the struggle: "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

You're right, if you're talking about serious historical education, which is exactly what the vast majority of college students do not get. Rather, they get a semester or two of World Civ, which I argue is worse than not knowing anything at all.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 25, 2003 12:06 AM

I think that Chun is using irony. If not, I think that we should shoot him. Painlessly, I mean, and for his own good.

Posted by: zizka at July 25, 2003 12:06 AM

Chun, I think you are pulling our chain. Surely you don't *really* think that the teaching of history should be abolished.

You seem to favor business schools. What precisely do you think is taught in the average B-school (outside of strictly technical courses such as accounting) that would be more valuable to the future executive than would the study of history? Shouldn't those who aspire to lead organizations learn as much as possible about how organizations (including nations, armies, etc) have been run and have interacted in the past? Isn't this more valuable than spending time learning the trendy personnel management theory of the month, or the whizzbang strategic analysis tool of the week?

Posted by: David Foster at July 25, 2003 12:10 AM

Are we in the midst of a Socratic dialogue that I didn't know about? :)

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 25, 2003 12:18 AM

Does anyone remember when Homer wrote his thank-you letter to Mr. Burns?

To be perfectly sincere, though, I do think there's a lot to be said for eliminating history education. As is, I think it does immeasurably more harm than good, though this is mostly to be blamed on primary and secondary rather than higher education.

To show that I'm not a hypocrite, I think the same argument applies (with less force) to literature. And who doesn't admire the dynamism of business school? Look at any large college campus: notice how the students milling around the business school are much better-groomed and untroubled by thought or want than their counterparts in the liberal arts ghetto? They are the ones living the American dream, not the ink-stained malcontents with their piercings and angst.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 25, 2003 12:18 AM

PS. Someone explain 3-3, 4-4, 5-5 for me. My first guess was "three classes for three of four quarters", etc., etc., but where do you have five quarters?

Posted by: zizka at July 25, 2003 12:44 AM

Class, professions, and academia, all in one post? Now we're talkin. I think RR's definition of profession is the oldest one, from the very early universities of the German empire. Weber's is probably more recognizable to us; Edward Reiss points out that "Non-Marxist sociologists, stemming from Weber. . . [focus] on a personís occupation, which is thought to be one of the main determinants of lifestyle, income, social status, connections, and marketable skills:

A Higher professionals
B Managerial and Technical
C1 Skilled non-manual
C2 Skilled manual
D Semi-skilled
E Unskilled" ("Marx", 50).

You look at the types of labor here, and levels of education seem to pretty much be the determinant. GG, I'd suggest that skilled non-manual / skilled manual /unskilled laborers agree to tell the truth to each other all the time, too, often over pitchers of PBR.

But IA, I think you're on-target, and there are always going to be exceptions. As for deprofessionalization, that sounds to me like loss of professional *status* because of the power relationships at one's job, which is a different thing entirely, much closer to Marx's concept of class struggle. (Not that I'm a Marxist, or even a Marxian, but I'm one of the poor benighted souls who didn't know what he was getting into and so am currently working on my dissertation on -- yes -- class, as made manifest in the wired writing classroom, and so I've been confusing myself with umpty-billion different definitions of class.) And I think your weblog here is all about struggle. Deprofessionalization would seem to be part of the larger trend towards increased insecurity in the workplace, where even those with once-secure *professions* are subject to the whims of the market and its demands on the university.

And the university itself (a good additional question, beyond defining profession and deprofessionalization, might be, "Which university?") has changed considerably in the past 30 years, especially with the growth in power of the administrative arm, which responds not to questions of equity (as many discussions here seem to involve) but to questions of *efficiency*. And on the balance sheet, hiring adjuncts, as much as it really flippin sucks, is efficient.

I think there are bright spots, ones that don't involve smug lemony-fresh arguments that "Well, *I* made it, so the system *must* be fair." There are some departments who make it a matter of policy not to hire adjuncts. Yes, bad for adjuncts; good, I think, for the system. There seems to be a growing consciousness in some disciplines (even outside of the political left) that class and exploitation are matters of concern. But I think as long as the university remains a place for four years of vocational training for tomorrow's wage-slaves, and answerable to a chairman and board and administration more interested in the bottom line than in what the university ought to do, things are only going to get worse.

(On this very topic, I just checked out of the library here Clark Kerr's "The Uses of the University," Aronowitz's "The Knowledge Factory" [yes, I'm aware of his history; his history doesn't make his voice immaterial], and Bok's "Universities in the Marketplace". I'm all psyched.)

On preview: Chun, your talents are impressive, and worthy of the Tutor's whip, over at

http://www.wealthbondage.com .

The students you speak of are indeed living the American Dream, where you will surely make it If You Work Hard Enough, and if you don't make it, then You Didn't Work Hard Enough. Enough of this liberal education nonsense. Marketing 101 and McJobs for all! Huzzah!

Posted by: Mike at July 25, 2003 12:47 AM

Zizka, it's 3 fall semester, 3 spring semester, and so on. 5-5 is a harsh load. Research 1 usually equates to something like 3-2 in good places. I think,

Posted by: Mike at July 25, 2003 12:49 AM


I took a look at the site you recommended and found it inimical to my family values. Also, 2/2 is how the R1 classes live.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 25, 2003 01:10 AM

I thought the approved marker of a 'profession' was that it was self-regulating: had some standard of behavior and belief that, meeting, existing members were required to accept you; breaking, they threw you out. For university teachers, it was originally a theological statement, yes? The Scholastics were required to profess?

Semi-obviously, an occupation needs respectable market power to patrol its own borders. I'm told the battles of the doctors, surgeons, apothecaries and midwives are illustrative.

Seems to me the PhD, and peer-reviewed publishing, are a self-policed standard of entry. Presumably there is some degree of cheating that makes one truly unemployable in 'real' universities?

Is Gaudy Night still applicable?

It worries me when all you humanities lot use so little humanities knowledge defending your right to be a middle-class profession, because I can't even tell if you generally believe it goes without saying (so why no potted history of 'profession'?) or have actually given up on applying it to your particular situations just because you've been convinced you have no universal truth.

Posted by: clew at July 25, 2003 01:58 AM

Glad clew is here to correct all us humanities lot; it's a good thing he's Read All The Humanities Knowledge and can set us straight; shame he had to leave so quickly after showing us how much smarter he was.

Raymond Williams, in Keywords, notes that the term "middle class" is a marker of relation, while the term "working class" is a marker of activity. The "professional" class, including -- according to U.S. Census data and the Department of Labor -- teachers, doctors, systems analysts, librarians, and engineers, is a subset of a marker of activity, and (as shown from above posts) has changed considerably over time. The occupational handbook at labor.gov has some interesting insights about what it means to be a professional today; in fact, its section on "postsecondary teachers" is really worth a look for the insights it offers re what the U.S. government thinks the defining characteristics of The Profession are:


Check it out.

And, Chun, 2/2 may be true for you, but the mileage of some of us at R1 institutions may, in fact, vary. Still, 3/2 versus 5/5 is good evidence that academia is truly topsy-turvy, since it would seem that 2 pair and a full house beat five of a kind. Unless we're playing lowball -- an apt metaphor for the profession, perhaps.

Posted by: Mike at July 25, 2003 02:55 AM

Let me quote Dr. Zhivago, "Poetry is no more a vocation than good health"

As someone who has taught many MBAs and undergraduate business students, I've found that a good grounding in humanities (particularly literature, ethics, philosophy, and history) is far more useful to them than you might think. A man should be greater than his profession; simply because one did not choose to professionalize their love of Austin or Hume or 20th century African history, does not mean that one has no passion for them.

Posted by: Matilde at July 25, 2003 10:22 AM

One issue not yet raised in this thread concerns the way the word "professionalism" has become an evaluative rhetorical category. "Professional," as it is used in academe and other contexts, no longer refers only to specialized training and knowledge, or the achievement of certification, it also has come to refer to a distinct set of social and ideological values, modes of behavior, and forms of analysis and speech. As a value, "Professional" standing appears to entail adherence to the tenets and codes of a specific institutional culture, a kind of strict submission to stated and unstated rules of what can and cannot be said. Within the institutional culture of academia, for instance, to take a stand in opposition to adjunctification, or to raise the issue of the structure of academic labor, or the specter of unionization, is to risk the worst epithet that can be thrown at someone: "unprofessional." Analogously, within other "professional" cultures and contexts, to raise the specter of anything even remotely political is inevitably to risk going astray of the rules of "professionalism."

Posted by: Chris at July 25, 2003 11:13 AM

Well, in 1967 when I was working in an early McDonald's I was told that professional appearance, attitude and behavior were all very important. Sometimes "professionalism" just means "conforming yourself completely to what the job demands". At McDonald's this included wearing a necktie, which seems to be important in all the other professions too.

As for academia not being a real profession because some non-PhD's are allowed in: my impression is that this happens less and less by the decade. And second, peer-review of writing is the ultimate standard, with the PhD process merely being a very formalized case of that. Someone who writes a book which makes a splash among specialists (e.g. Arthur Schlesinger, who is close to 1000 years old btw) passes a different and actually much more rigorous peer review (since most dissertations are scarcely read by anybody except the committee).

Professionalism as we know it really is only a century or so old. Becoming a lawyer, doctor, or college teacher was a lot easier in 1900. All these traditions goes back a long way and they have been formalized slightly differently.

Posted by: zizka at July 25, 2003 12:15 PM

In his 1957 masterwork The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, Samuel P. Huntington posited that a profession has three characteristics: expertise, responsibility, and corporateness. Professionals are experts "with specialized knowledge and skill in a significant field of human endeavor." Such expertise is acquired only after extensive education and experience and is sufficiently abstract and universal as to be applicable "irrespective of time and place." This knowledge is transmitted in formal schools as well as through journals, conferences, and rotation between practice and teaching assignments. Professionals have a unique responsibility because they perform a service that is "essential to the functioning of society." Finally, professions have the characteristic of corporateness, "a sense of organic unity and consciousness of themselves as a group apart from laymen."

I'd say university professors make the grade, since they meet those requirements.

Posted by: James Joyner at July 25, 2003 12:48 PM

(Piffle, Mike, I couldn't have written a more tentative post without crossbreeding a Valley Girl to Henry James. I see that your link describes the current meaning of 'professional' academic; "Job prospects will continue to be better in certain fields-computer science, engineering, and business, for example-that offer attractive nonacademic job opportunities and attract fewer applicants for academic positions." Quite. Have you read Gaudy Night? (This is not a challenge to your professional literacy. This is wondering why you missed a neon signal of not claiming authority.))

In my work experience, "professional" has evidently meant an expensive but uninteresting haircut; expensive but uninteresting shoes; and clothing and posture to match. Also, no funny jokes allowed. What zizka said, more or less; also relevant to the "good looks == survey approval" finding.

Nowever, to get more seriously to what I don't understand in the majority (??) self-definition of the academic humanities - the quote above,

Such expertise is acquired only after extensive education and experience and is sufficiently abstract and universal as to be applicable "irrespective of time and place."

vs. the view forcefully expressed in another comment thread that beliefs about universal truth always depend on what's convenient to the believer. The difference between those statements bothers me. Are they not contradictory? can you think in parallel for each one, as it might be in Euclidean or non-Euclidean geometry? Or is this another culture war in the humanities, or is it aligned with the sex-and-labor culture war?

Posted by: clew at July 28, 2003 08:30 PM