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The Old Perfessor, I mean, ranting crazy man

May I just for a moment or two rant about how much I hate the word professional?

I don’t hate it universally and in every context. The distinction between professional and amateur athletes, for instance, is worth making, even if the borderline is, shall I say, a bit fraught. It remains a useful word in that context, or in other contexts where it clarifies the distinction between the fellow who wah-wahs a trombone for the amusement of his family and friends, and the fellow who supports himself on his embouchure. Which isn’t easy, I am aware. No, it’s really professionalism that drives me up the wall, and in that context, what is professional and what ain’t, among people who are all really working for a living.

The whole idea of the professions, from the beginning, is one that we Americans should have rejected with revulsion. The professions (and there are only four: the law, the church, the military and medicine) are those things that the sons of gentlemen can do to make a living without shaming their families. Trade, obviously, is Right Out. Being a landlord isn’t Trade, of course, so long as the land belonged to your great-grandfather, nor is it Trade to invest the capital in a Limited Company for import and export. Nor, of course, is the sale of natural resources Trade. No, if you aren’t at a shop, you can still dine with Society, if Society finds your blood sufficiently aged. In America, however, we are a democratic society of levelers, and are notorious for failing to make the all-important social distinction between grubby tradesmen who run import-export companies and gentlemen who wisely invest their capital, in import-export companies run by grubby tradesmen. Also, Jews.

But instead of rejecting the idea of the professions with the mockery and scorn it deserves, we used our democratic leveling for evil, first simply calling a bunch of things professions that aren’t, and then by just using profession, professional and professionalism to widely describe… well, to describe almost anything. At its best, the norms of the workplace, I suppose, which of course vary not just from field to field but from place to place. At its worst, the bad norms of the workplace, the whims of the supervisors and the power of the employer over the employed, and the prejudices, stigmas and strictures of the society the employers keep. If an employer just doesn’t feel that an receptionist is sufficiently professional at the desk, is it because she’s fat? has dark skin? gray hair? is confined to a wheelchair? Nothing actionable, of course, nothing that would stand up in a court of law, certainly not discrimination based on any of those protected categories. If a veteran with PTSD is insufficiently professional to heft boxes for a delivery company, it’s not because of his medical condition, or his scars, or anything of that kind—it’s just about professionalism. Not that the situation is always that dire… but I’m sure that supervisors often don’t actually know exactly why an employee appears unprofessional, and supervisors are swimming in the same water as everyone else, right?

I am ranting about this now, as it happens, because the edict came down that people in the circulation department must not eat at their desks because it doesn’t look professional. I’m not ranting about the rule—it’s a perfectly reasonable rule, like the rule about eating whilst in costume, and for much the same reason. Of course, we allow food and drink in the stacks, so protecting books from crumbs is clearly secondary to the comfort of our patrons, but on the other hand, there is a lounge provided for the comfort of us on the staff, so it’s a reasonable trade-off. No, the rule qua rule is one I support (and am even willing to follow, so long as my tea is exempted). But when the explanation is that it is unprofessional, I see red.

My employer made the choice to hire part-time workers without specialized degrees, and that’s a fine choice from my point of view, but it is very specifically an unprofessional choice. They aren’t paying us what they would pay a professional, they aren’t giving us the benefits that they would give a professional, and they aren’t treating us with the kind of respect that might be implied by thinking we were professional. No, they don’t mean to imply that professionalism might include any responsibility on their part. No, it is entirely our responsibility to be as professional as possible by doing whatever we are told and not complaining. That’s the true professional relationship, isn’t it?

Look—I know this was just an off-hand comment from a perfectly good boss. It’s not worth ranting over. It’s just one of those things that people say. The thing is that I have heard that sort of thing a lot of times from a lot of bosses, not all of them perfectly good bosses. And I do really think that this rhetoric of professionalism gets applied to wage slaves and exploited workers, and that it is harmful to them, and to the social norms between employers and employees, and to the whole power relationships of employment that I think are seriously out of balance in this country. I know that ranting about the rhetoric of well-meaning bosses isn’t going to fix the problem. I suspect that even changing the rhetoric of well-meaning bosses wouldn’t do much change the balance. But oh, it makes me mad.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Righteous rant! (as was the last post, too, btw!)

Speaking as one who professes, I can say with confidence that most of the professors I know, including myself, routinely eat at our desks, and would take extreme umbrage if anyone presumed to forbid us from doing so, and we would disregard the prohibition. Ideally, we would prefer to eat at our desks less, since that would mean we could stop working long enough to have lunch. It's our co-workers who do not profess who leave their workspace for a full hour every day to have lunch. They are not forbidden from eating at their desks, but they don't need to in order to get their work done.

Just wanted to mention an important omission from your list:

"In other professions in which men engage
(Said I to myself — said I),
The Army, the Navy, the Church, and the Stage
(Said I to myself — said I),
Professional license, if carried too far,
Your chance of promotion will certainly mar —
And I fancy the rule might apply to the Bar
(Said I to myself — said I!)."

Oooh, I find this most interesting -- not, perhaps, for your main point (with which I am in complete sympathy, by the way) -- but rather for the history of The Professions that accompanies it, and its tangential relevance both to the holiday that certain of us are celebrating (or not, as the case may be -- I am writing this from my work computer [dear me, is that professional?]) and to recent conversations surrounding "professionalism" in my own, er, profession.

...and if the previous comment does not win some sort of award for Most Egregious Use of Parentheticals, I shall be deeply disappointed.

Definitely a most righteous rant. Eating at your desk--I'm assuming that this is a desk where patrons are likely to walk up and interact with you, not locked in an office somewhere--makes it look like you don't get time off for lunch, and that makes the employer look bad. Heaven forfend...

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