The start of the semester is almost provokes me to reflect. As always, I’m forced to at least consider the hopeless question: what am I doing here?
While I’ve been at universities for my entire adult life, I continue to struggle to feel at home in these institutions. Part of it is because I’ve struggled to internalize the goals of the university (at least in an American context) or, better still, to reconcile the goals of the American university with its methods, or maybe more narrowly, to understand how and whether I should contribute to the goals (and methods) of the contemporary American university.
Recently, I’ve struggled particularly with the concept of professionalism. It seems to have become a standard insult (or at best a critique) against an opponent (or even just as an expression of frustration) that someone is behaving in an unprofessional way. Usually this is directed at someone who missed a deadline, who spoke out of turn, who ignored some or other social, institutional, or political mandate. At its best, describing someone as unprofessional reflects a kind of hope that our professions can produce better worlds if we just stay the course and avoid giving into unprofessionalism, which seems to be imagined as the anarchic wasteland of governed by the repressive weight of long-standing convention. The good, the best, and the brightest at many institutions promote a professionalism that is the partner of democratization and an agent of a non-cynical meritocracy which rewards accomplishment (or at very least diligence). Professionalization produces shared standards, levels the playing field, and creates a space where individuals can succeed or fail according to their own devices.
So when someone calls someone else “unprofessional,” they generally mean undemocratic or, more broadly, unfair. This is usually, in my experience, leveled at the individual and the assumption is that the institutional context for unprofessional behavior is democratic, perhaps, or at very least fair. It goes without saying that most of us know that the very institutions that support professional behavior have little interest in promoting real democratic values or even simple fairness and this is readily apparent within academia. Most often the case is that calls for professionalism are efforts to make the achievements of individuals who benefit from the system seem earned or at very least ethically warranted.
Fred Moten and Stephano Harney recognize this in their famous chapter “The University and the Undercommons” from The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013) which I tend to try to read at least once a year whether I need to or not. It’s not only a remarkable and inspiring piece, but also impossible to understand completely. At times the words, phrases, and sentences seem to tumble over each other and create spaces that intentionally defy systematic efforts to categorize, conceptualize, and recognize their arguments. Rather than this being a flaw in their work, I think it is a deeply poetic asset.
Their work is a good reminder to me that being unprofessional has to be more than just being a critical academic. As I understand it, this means that being unprofessional or anti-professional or in alignment with the undercommons means being anti-professional. This requires us to steal the tools from our institutions and recognize this as a form of resistance (as well as a way to liberate knowledge, enlightenment [with a small “e”], wisdom, and power from those who seek to use the professional character of universities as a way to preserve the status quo and to marginalize and control individuals and groups who either don’t have access to these institutions or seek to operate and to thrive outside of the systems in which these institutions developed.
I read the other day Tim Ingold’s recent article “In Praise of Amateurs”. Unsurprisingly, he does not cite Harney and Moten. He continues in a long-standing tradition among anthropologists in criticizing the bureaucratization of knowledge making. For Ingold the “Amateur” was less the anti-professional and more the academic critic who recognized the limitation of the bureaucratized university. He doesn’t push for academics to “steal” (metaphorically, but I suppose literally as well) from the university as much as guide it to revert to its earlier form where “amateurs” where encouraged to range freely within its institutional borders and engage in a wide range of methods, ideas, and commitments.
Ingold associates this amateurism to the ethnographic traditions in anthropology which requires anthropologists to immerse themselves in lifeways that are not only sometimes fundamentally unprofessionalized, but also to communicate, document, and interrogate these lifeways through engagements that resist standardization. It would be easy enough to see this call for amateurism as an effort to protect the unique character of anthropological knowledge making, but Ingold expands his call to describe the challenges for disciplines like anthropology (and I’d include history, archaeology, and many of the social sciences, arts, and humanities in this) to survive in an academy increasingly committed to a method of instruction that requires clearly assessable outcomes at nearly every step of the learning process. Needless to say, disciplines that require the kind of gradual increase in understanding such as anthropology or that lack a clearly define method (such as history) have found themselves increasingly at the margins of institutional priorities.
This bring me around to my own attitude toward teaching, research, and learning. I can’t help but feel increasingly alienated from the standards of professionalism that suffuse my own institution (and, at times, my disciplines). I recognize as someone who has benefited (tremendously!) from these institutions and their standards, that I am in a distinct place of privilege (much like Ingold tacitly acknowledges) which allows me to associate with the undercommons without taking on the risk of their positions.
On the one hand, I flatter myself if I imagine that I’m genuinely a supporter of the undercommons (the adjuncts, the non-tenure stream, the struggling students who work full time, the part time graduate students, the foreigners, and those “hangers on” (to use a disparaging term) who nevertheless continue to live a thoughtful life at the margins of academic institution).
On the other hand, if I do more to embrace the spirit of amateurism that exists in the study of history and recognize how professionization serves to define and marginalize the undercommons, maybe I can do more with my own privilege and surplus. I’m not much for resolutions, but this feels like a good goal for 2023.