Ambiguity is always at the centre of an interesting experience because this causes us to question, to wonder why a thing holds our attention.

– Bill Henson, Oneiroi

How will the professional identity or professionalism of academics be supported, rather than eroded as the University is proletarianised?

Richard Hall,  ‘On the HE White Paper

I can’t pin down when I started to say “professional” so much. Maybe I’m gesturing towards something that might help students think outside of the frame we place around them. What if not student, if not casual worker? Future professional. A professional, I want to believe, is someone who manages frustration, responds to challenges with equanimity and not spite, who keeps it together. Be professional,  I say. And for good measure, I add that all this is sure to be helpful to them in their graduate professional future.

But Bill Henson’s right, we should stop and think when a thing holds our attention. In the era of the employability mantra, values are on the fritz. So I wonder if I’m trying to keep something on side, or whether I’m just trying to get a fix on a moving horizon.

I catch myself noticing, in much the way that Kathleen Stewart describes her ethnography in her beautiful 2008 essay “Weak Theory for an Unfinished World”:

A noticing that gropes from a haptic space in the middle of things. The objects of such a practice are things noted obliquely, as if out of the corner of the eye, but also, often, as punctums or punctures. Things that have impact. Things caught in a circuit of action and reaction.

Workshop poster on noticing details
#dlrn15 workshop on change in higher education, 2015

Professionalism: I’m noticing it everywhere. It’s in the inflight magazine, it’s in conference codes of conduct, it’s in the recruitment toolkit and the career planner. It’s in songs. It’s ironic, and hopeful, and thrown into disarray by the current condition of work. What is our professionalism within this labour market that has come so spectacularly unstuck? Who is exploiting our professionalism, and what business models are glued together by it?

I find other people using “professional” to mean two things. One is about the boundaries that keep us apart from one another. A nurse educator told me that she felt it was unprofessional for nurses to share any detail about their lives with patients, even if this made patients feel more comfortable and trusting. She explained to me that this practiced professionalism also kept nurses safe from the risk of empathy with patients who might, you know, that. Both sides are protected when the behavioural boundaries are clear.

Something similar sidles into this assertion about how university staff and students are supposed to get along:

Victoria Bateman, fellow and director of studies in economics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, believes that “the relationship between a student and an academic needs to be a professional one, rather than something more informal.

Nina Kelly, ‘Should academics avoid friendships with students?’, June 2016

The idea that the opposite of “professional” is “informal” gets some academics worked up about the value of titles, the way that students write emails, the need for standards to be unyielding, and things to be done properly. It seems we’ve awarded ourselves the contract for the moral education of students, all managed under the shingle of employability (“And, let’s not forget, any increased laxity in marking, deadlines and attendance will not help students prepare for the reality of a career after university.”) There’s something defensive and sad in all of this, as though a levee has failed and the water’s coming in.

But there’s a second meaning that Liz Morrish brought out recently in a post I’ve already cited, that’s not threatened by students calling us by our first names, and that holds itself accountable to something other than the expectations of compliance and self-management set up by the first meaning:

In what seems like a perverse project designed to deprofessionalize, casualize and atomize the academy, community has been hard to maintain.

Liz Morrish,  ‘Care in the Virtual Community’

What is this professional self, that holds itself together, that is opposed to casualisation and fragmentation? How does this professionalisation connect us to each other, and enable us to go on making community, both inside and in refusal of the perverse project of transforming higher education into a sporting contest? Can we prise it away from the ruses and routines of our credentials, our legacy of vocationalism that is suddenly transitioning into chronic volunteerism, and then notice something principled, enduring, and trans-institutional that is not fully subordinated to the market anxieties and brand vanities of our sector?

There are ideas emerging around us. When doctors refuse to return children to offshore detention centres because they have a professional commitment not to place children in harm’s way, we get a look at something beyond the ordinary verticals of career and employability. This isn’t about getting on and getting up, but about standing up for something that goes beyond self-interest.

So what is our version of this action?

At least one model showed up in Australia and internationally this week as academics responded to La Trobe University treating a Facebook comment about Australia’s flag as “serious misconduct” — and a cheer to the Thesis Whisperer for her fierce intervention on this case. It turns out Twitter isn’t just cat pictures (looking at you, Baroness Greenfield) but is some kind of professional community prepared to speak out for one another, who quickly recognised something symptomatic in this case—something really demoralising about universities playing social media gotcha with their staff without the faintest idea how the network actually works.

Mulling all this over, last week I finished delivering two courses. The first has been with a generous, creative and inspiring group of students who came together with me to use narrative methods to think about how professionalism might become a critical practice. The second has been a values-centred examination of the role of research in our cultures and our working lives, which closed on the topic of professionalism itself.

I shared things that are personal to me, especially on the predicament of human time. In return, students shared with me their experiences as casual workers. I heard about professionalism as something you make for yourself even when work doesn’t offer much in the way of status or appreciation. It’s not how you put up with the customer that’s hassling you, but how you speak up for yourself, how you ask to be treated properly. Professionalism, they told me, is a potential for conduct in all circumstances, but it’s a contract: an expectation of dignity, integrity and a right to be engaged.

When I asked if they have the opportunity to rehearse this professionalism as students, the answers were discouraging. To conduct yourself, you have to have some choices, some range. You have to be able to see yourself setting a course of action, exercising judgment, appraising standards, reflecting, and being open to change. And more or less everything we do—with increasing force as we dig deeper into the error of treating rules as qualities—prevents students from learning these skills. We deprofessionalise students as we herd them around, organise their time for them, set their tasks according to inflexible internal standards, grade their work according to rubrics that leave no room for surprise, claim credit for their employability, prize ourselves for their graduate salaries, and bolster the competitive durability of their qualification by minimising creative tinkering with its curriculum.

So it’s not surprising that our own sense of professionalism has become imperilled as we become the functionaries to these shallow procedures. Not to mention that we’re so busy contributing two unpaid working days of our lives every week to keep our chocolate factory running at a competitive pace relative to the one up the road, that we should have no time to sustain ourselves as ethical professionals. But we do, and increasingly we do it in the network, in the things we write, share and debate online.

So this is really why universities are starting to monitor social media more closely. It’s the space to which our professionalism has escaped and regrouped. It’s where professionalism correlates as much to care as it does to competition, where despite the occasional misstep there is a resilient community of purpose, making a network of our better selves.

And perhaps because of all this, it’s also the one space where we get to welcome students who choose to join us as our collaborators, already building their own professional futures, alongside ours.

 for Paul

15 Responses

  • This is great, and professional is so over used and often used in an acceptable yet made up context

  • Kate Bowles

    Yes, I think we use it magically. I catch myself doing it. Now I really want to think about it, because I do think there’s a kind of hopeful, perhaps radical, professionalism here that’s waiting to be activated. The more I think about those doctors and nurses outside the Mercy Hospital, protecting children, the more I think: isn’t this the question we ask about doctors and nurses who haven’t acted to protect children in the past — where was their ethical, professional self?

    Something is emerging that is new.

    • Karina

      So many things here and I so appreciate this idea of a new, hopeful, ethical professionalism being slowly activated, one that’s beyond externally imposed labels and institutional status. Particularly too as I am finding that the type of professional I once hoped to be no longer exists. Or access has been cut off. Or it never really existed in the first place.

      • Kate Bowles


        This becomes very important I think: “the type of professional I once hoped to be no longer exists.” I’ve just been reading a really horrifying long medium post about someone who this year is making a gradual pivot away from a top shelf successful science career towards an industry position because the demands of academic professionalism became what they became. This has left far too many people locked out of secure work and feeling like a professional failure, when the reality is that this version of professionalism has badly, badly failed to provide in relation to the hopes that were placed in work.

        I’m surprised to find myself thinking that the answer to toxic professionalism is a different kind of professionalism, but maybe this is our homeopathic cure: smaller, safer doses to protect against the hypertoxicity of professionalism as universities are remaking it.

        (Hello you! So lovely to have you here.)

  • Francis Markham

    Thanks for noticing this creeping rise of the discourse of professionalism. My take on this is somewhat more cynical, in that I’d argue that the discourse of professionalism is not opposed to “casualisation and fragmentation” of academic work but rather is symptomatic of it.

    In old fashioned Marxist class analysis, “professional employees” make up an important part of the middle class defined by their possession of specific expertise. Because of the rarity of their skills and the difficulty in monitoring and controlling their labour, they get paid more than ordinary proletarians.

    Clearly, both of these “professional” characteristics are under attack in the neoliberal university. The dramatic increase in the production of PhDs has produced the post-industrial reserve army of academic labourers required to put downward pressure on the university wages bill. And at the same time, we’re all under increasing surveillance through the metricisation of every aspect of our academic work and the monitoring of student loads and grant income.

    All of this cumulatively deprofessionalises academic labour in the narrow Marxist sense of the term. So it is little wonder that it is this very quality that is constantly appealed to. You now have to act like a professional in the academy because you’re not going to get paid like one.

  • Kate Bowles

    Hi Francis, yes, I had some of these exact old-fashioned thoughts in mind as I was writing (not least because of Richard Hall). Where my ideas are at the moment is that it’s possible to imagine a renewed kind of professionalism emerging as a form of ethical solidarity, within and against the things we see happening at work—especially the way we’re pushing so many careers through the cheese grater of casualisation.

    But one thing available to all of us however we’re hired is the professionalism of simple professing: professing beliefs about the world and the way we choose to conduct ourselves in it. So I’m also seeing it as a kind of counter to the professionalism that gets invoked, that’s asked of us as self-restraint (don’t harm the brand, don’t offend anyone, don’t reveal what’s behind the scenes), as a brace against familiarity, or as a performance for reward.

    I’m concerned all this could be naive, and at the same time, I see hopeful signs and I want to speak up for them. To me the response to the standing down of Roz Ward was heartening, because whatever the backstory and issues in play in that political context, the fact is that at a senior executive level someone saw a red flag and felt it was entirely within bounds to announce this as serious misconduct. Where were the checks and balances? Where was the small voice that said “Er, no, let’s not do this.” Five years ago this wouldn’t have spread rapidly, and wouldn’t have led to petitions. But now I think there’s a sense that it’s not just our professional conduct open to scrutiny.

    The historical assumptions of professionalism are important, I agree. And that’s what I mean by ambivalence. I’ve been stewing about all this for a while, and I can’t quite settle my score with it.

  • Francis Markham

    I agree that there is the potential here for organising around these practices of professionalism, and that the response to Roz Ward was heartening. I’d venture that another ambiguity, in addition to that which you are so beautifully articulating, is crucial.

    In one sense, the competition for the resources required to start, maintain or advance an academic career (if such a thing can still be said to meaningfully exist) run so contrary to professionalism in your second, emergent sense that acts which once would have been taken for granted as routine academic responsibilities now become recognisable as acts as resistance.

    But alternatively, I’d propose that it is the conduct of professionalism that precisely enables the reproduction of the neoliberal academiy. After all, it is professionism or a sense of obligation to our students and our vocation that is behind it is those hours stolen away from our nearest and dearest and the dessication of our non-work lives. Without those hours, we know, our students’ educations would be impoverished.

    In the end, I think the valence of professionalism is radically open. I’d suggest that whether our professionalism becomes merely another resource from which our managers will appropriate value or whether it becomes a foundation for rebuilding the academy depends on our ability to act collectively.

    The point, I think, is to find tactics for organising so that professionalism can become a point of solidarity, rather than a means for our further atomisation and exploitation.

  • Kate Bowles

    Yes, this is exactly where my thinking sits. Like health professionals who don’t want to take action that will harm patients, we experience professionalism-as-obligation as the basis of our vulnerability to exploitation (especially academics who are working casually, for even more terrible reasons).

    To activate this other emergent, resistant professionalism we need simultaneously to be confronting ways in which assumptions and expectations use up so much of our time that acting collectively is well beyond us.

    Something I’ve learned through writing this is that I believe the network is precisely the place where we are most effective at keeping to the task.

    I really appreciate your comments Francis, they are very helpful.

    • Francis Markham

      Thank you for starting this conversation and tolerating my tedious intellectual travel in your wake.

  • I’ve come to hate the word “professionalism” partly because I notice that in the drive to serve the great god “employability” it’s being used more and more to control student behaviour.

    ‘Go on a protest against the treatment of refugees? Think about how that on your professionalism if a future employer looked at your social media’.

  • Kate Bowles

    Welcome Charles, yes, this is why it has taken me so long to start to think this through — because whenever I found myself saying “professionalism” I felt like I’d fallen into the employability trough. I also think this recent case in Australia has shown that universities are fully prepared to use professionalism as a hammer. So can we recuperate something from this that is more similar to the doctors who stood together against returning children to offshore detention, despite extraordinary pressure to cave in? What does it take for professionals to have a sense of belonging to something bigger than their employer’s business plan? In so many ways, this is about the recovery of agency.

  • This is my first visit to your blog as I write a paper on the ‘Loneliness of the Long-distance Lecturer’.
    and I have been challenged to rethink my ideas about ethical professionalism as a form of solidarity. In my previous feminist study of teachers’ professional identities, I became intolerant of the term ‘professionalism’ which was hijacked by managers to inform, deform and reform teaching as a masculinise cultural space with its emphasis on the rational, the measurable and impact!
    As an Academic in the University I have largely avoided the surveillance of my teaching through ‘professional standards of competence’ but I have been victim to student surveillance, misinterpreting critical pedagogy as tutors ‘doing less work than students’ in a framework of creative and critical engagement to meet ‘learning outcomes.

    Paradoxically, I have volunteered to submit my practice for validation through the HEA to gain Senior Fellowship status, but this was useful as my own lodestone to judge my ‘personal best’. I also saw the UKPSF as barometer that would measure pedagogical climate, so in other words the Professional Standards Framework [PSF] allowed me as an ‘ethical professional’ to use standardised tools in a way that was appropriate for my own self-awareness and reflexivity, not as a device for punitive control.

    My commitment to feminist critical pedagogy remains fairly cynical about the growth of a standard formation ‘professionalisation’ and I will continue to argue for more ‘active’ forms of professionalism, but your writing has changed my thinking. Actively re-claiming ‘ethical professionalism’ as form of solidarity and resilience against corporate neo-liberalism within the university will serve the social justice agenda more coherently.

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