Professionalization and Fragmentation

I’ve been thinking a good bit about professionalization lately, and this is largely in response to Dimitri Nakassis’s recent efforts to come to grips with the Future of Classical Archaeology (over a series of blog posts in preparation for a paper that he’ll deliver at a conference held at Smith College next week). One of Dimitri’s interests is the professionalization of Classical Archaeology and the resulting (relative) democratization of the discipline. 

As I thought about this more and more, I found myself interested in three questions:

1. How did professionalization of the disciplines across college campuses lead to greater inclusiveness?

My understanding of this narrative is that professionalization and industrialization went hand-in-hand with the latter setting standards for professional expertise based on the needs of industrialized economy. An engineer had to be qualified to perform certain tasks consistently and well. Disciplines established standards that vouchsafed for the expertise of an individual allowing employers to feel confident that a graduate from MIT and Easter North Dakota University had similar qualifications. While this is oversimplifying a complex process of change, the development of professional disciplines in response to economic needs and the increasingly complicated and specialized economic landscape rippled out across university and college campuses. As a result, even disciplines such as history, which did not have a direct and obvious tie to the industrial economy, developed a set of disciplinary standards that established the qualifications of an individual as a historian. This framework, then, shifted the writing of history from wealthy men of leisure to a professional class of university professors.

This process created a framework for a qualification-based system for establishing disciplinary knowledge, and these standards supported a more inclusive model for knowledge production. If disciplinary knowledge was based on certain “objective” criteria, then anyone who could achieve these criteria could claim the status of disciplinary practitioner. (And, I recognize that claims to “objectivity” or even impartiality were largely spurious, but the framework had emerged by the turn of the 20th century to accommodate academic knowledge production as a practice based on established professional criteria.).

2. Did this professional framework for the production of disciplinary knowledge lead to hyper specialization and fragmentation?

I recognize that today, disciplines represent an important bulwark to local administrative, economic, and political pressures on universities. At their strongest, disciplines maintain professional standards through complex accreditation procedures and clearly articulated policies that define qualified practitioners. These range from detailed descriptions (and even tests) designed to establish the kind of knowledge a qualified practitioner possesses to ethical guidelines. The loss of accreditation in a university program results in students who are not recognized professionally. Even disciplines, like history and Classics, that don’t have accreditation procedures have active professional organizations that work to establish standards for knowledge, best practices, and take ethical stands that represent professionals in the field.

Historically, the establishment of clear criteria for recognition as a disciplinary practitioner both anticipated industrialized practices that required specific expertise, but also projected this kind of specialization onto universities where these professional individuals were trained. In other words, disciplines required department and departments advocated for the value of their specialized knowledge and the university developed methods that allowed each discipline through their departments to manage the imparting of this specialized knowledge in the student. Within departments a similar effort to ensure that multiple areas of specialization existed creating an environment where the group of faculty worked together to produce a comprehensively educated student and professional. 

This kind of industrial specialization, evocative of the assembly line, coincided well with the establishment of clearly defined professional criteria for expertise in a particular field.  If the goal of the undergraduate education was to produced qualified professionals, the requirements for the faculty employed to produce these qualified individuals emphasized their mastery of specialized knowledge. In some ways, the complexity of the larger university environment where specialization reinforced autonomy encouraged faculty to become more specialized. If discrete knowledge was autonomous knowledge (and specialization the key to economic utility), then the key asset for an individual faculty member was distinct and specialized knowledge. It didn’t hurt that such distinct specialization was rather more easy to evaluate in determining an individual’s expertise. Moreover, it eliminated the messy task of determining whether someone was “right” or “wrong” in an assertion or argument, and shifted attention to the simpler task of determining whether some body of knowledge was “new” or not. After all the best speciality is something that no one else does, anywhere, ever.  

I think that I understand the pressures to specialize as a product of disciplinary knowledge production and industrial practices both on the larger economy and at the university. Part of the result of professionalization, then, was the narrowing of specialized knowledge. As the criteria for professional standing – both as a faculty member and a student – became more specialized, it became more democratic. Novelty of specialization emerged as a nearly universal criteria for evaluating mastery of a disciplinary knowledge, and this contributed to a more inclusive academy. 

3. The question then becomes whether our move toward transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary, or even anti-disciplinary knowledge threatens the larger professionalization and democratization process at universities?

This is where I get stressed out. On the one hand, few can claim that modern universities are less inclusive than they were at the turn of the 20th century. And this is a good thing. Moreover, the professionalization of university education was a major engine of innovation in the American economy over the past 100 years (along with, cough, war, but whatever). These are both good things, I think.

We can also observe how universities and colleges established to develop the workforce for particular states, regions, or even professions, have the deepest commitment to professionalization. Normal schools, established to train teachers, technical schools to prepare engineers, and law and medical schools to prepare doctors and lawyers had the clearly defined requirements for faculty to ensure that they produced skilled practitioners of their respective professions. To this day, hybrid universities, like the University of North Dakota, where I teach struggle to balance the need to produce “workforce” and the need to do bigger more globally and universally significant work. The former need pushes departments and programs to specialize – particularly in terms of skills – whereas the latter coaxes faculty to think more broadly. After all, human knowledge is not specialized or organized into tidy disciplinary and departmental boxes.

But as faculty push to escape their disciplinary silos they undermine the role of the discipline as both a promoter of (let’s say) impartial criteria establishing professional specialization and as a check against parochial pressures facing universities. Anti-disciplinary knowledge remains a kind of holy grail among those who want to transform higher education (e.g. Louis Menand), but it also has anti-democratic tendencies as well. As new economic, social, and political pressures melt away the disciplinary criteria for professional expertise, they also challenge the autonomy of disciplines, departments, and faculty who have long established the validity of their expertise both in the classroom and in the economy.  

One of the interesting trends that I think that I detect is that elite private and public institutions have attracted faculty who move easily between disciplines and “disrupt” traditional standards of disciplinary knowledge production. Second and third tier schools, with their historical commitments to workforce development and traditional disciplinary knowledge production, continue to employ rather narrow – and perhaps even “traditional” – disciplinary specialists. In other words, some of the most interesting, exciting, and influential faculty are challenging the limits to disciplinary knowledge even as we recognize that disciplinary knowledge was the framework for professionalization and its attendant benefits of inclusion. 

This is especially significant in the 21st century as higher education has entered a period of particular precarity. Do we embrace the challenge of an anti-disciplinary world at the risk of exposing ourselves to the vagaries of parochial and political interests? 

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