Wednesday, December 07, 2005

What is professionalism?

Here's another case of a blogger being punished because his blog was considered "unprofessional": a Marquette dental student has been suspended and forced to take a semester over because of remarks on his blog about unnamed teachers and students. The article only mentions a few examples of his remarks. At one point he calls someone "a (expletive) of a teacher." (The expletive was redacted by the newspaper or someone earlier in the chain of transmission of this quotation, not me.) At another point he revels in a display of incompetence by a student he dislikes.

Let’s look at the remarks themselves before we get to the deeper issue here. The first remark probably isn’t even an insult. Odds are that the redacted expletive is “fuck” and “a fuck of a teacher” is a compliment. I would be overjoyed if any of my students called me a fuck of a teacher on their blog. The second remark expresses an ignoble feeling, but a commonplace one. I myself have written and recorded an entire song about workplace schadenfreude (mp3).

So we know already that the blog is hardly controversial. But there is a deeper issue here. The student was called "unprofessional." Does this raise a higher standard? If the Ivan Tribbles of the world are to be believed, having a personal blog at all is unprofessional. What's really going on here?

A job becomes a profession when its practitioners decide that even though what they do has a profound impact on others, they ought to regulate themselves because they feel that others do not have the expertise to regulate them well. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, and engineers are all good examples of professions in this sense. These are people laymen have to trust because we don't have the knowledge to evaluate what they do, except in the most general way.

The ability to regulate yourself in such a sensitive position is a right that must be earned. It is earned by regulating yourself well. The first rule of regulating yourself well is not to betray the trust of your client by having a secret conflict of interest. (I use "client" to cover "patient" and "student" as well.) This is why the first rule of professional codes since the Hippocratic Oath has been not to have sex with clients. The second rule is to do your job well. Keep your skills up to date. Don't slack off because no one is watching you. many professional societies keep lists of "best practices": the best techniques in general for designing a bridge that doesn't fall down, for instance. An engineer can be sued for not using best practices. It is worth noting here that college teachers are woefully behind when it comes to identifying and promoting best practices.

Way, way down on the list of things that a professional must do is "look and act the part." Professions have lots of tokens of authority: robes, lab coats, Latinate lingo. These are important for evoking a feeling of trust, but really what is more important, evoking a feeling of trust or genuinely deserving trust?

I have encountered a number of unprofessional teachers in my career. Teachers who run extension courses where everyone gets an A without showing up and are curiously popular among full time students looking to graduate on time. Teachers who cancel more that a third of their classes in a semester and never hold the other classes for the full hour. Teachers who actively scoff at the idea of honing teaching skills.

I have never encountered a teacher who was unprofessional because of their blog.


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