Second Thoughts About 'Professionalism'

I’m not sure what is meant by professionalism. I suppose it has something to do with  knowing what you are supposed to know on the job. Nobody wants an amateur hair cut. But then, some professional athletes behave very unprofessionally and seem to have little concern for excellence or the level of their performances. Some professionals provide tangible services others need, and they have the tools (intellectual and materiel) to get the job done. Of course, they have skills which a relatively few possess.

April 13, 2007

I’m not sure what is meant by professionalism. I suppose it has something to do with  knowing what you are supposed to know on the job. Nobody wants an amateur hair cut. But then, some professional athletes behave very unprofessionally and seem to have little concern for excellence or the level of their performances. Some professionals provide tangible services others need, and they have the tools (intellectual and materiel) to get the job done. Of course, they have skills which a relatively few possess.

Think of it. If you need a 220 volt line installed at your house, you can call the electrician. She will come over and get -r- done, you won’t be electrocuted and the job will be done “right.”

I have been thinking of late about professionalism and identity in the community college setting. Surely, no one can argue that “appropriate” and knowledgeable behavior in the work place is a bad idea.

But what does professionalism in education mean? I sense that professionalism at the community college has to do with a code of behavior, a belief system, which defines how instructors and administrators should act. This professionalism involves a kind of accountability ethos, which was spawned in the colleges of education,  or was legislated into existence in late 20th century  America as a response to global competition, or was borrowed or absorbed from the business or corporate world.

Professional educators will talk about community building, their quest for diversity, commitment to excellence, doing it for the students, partnering, character development, multiculturalism, assessment -- you know the phrases, you probably use them in your speech and writing. And we can see them on the home page of every two-year college in America (and on plenty of university home pages, too). The suits and ties we have wrapped around our minds look good and sound executive, but....

What if educational professionalism is also a type of intellectual space filler, a kind of philosophical compost, which has displaced learnedness and action? Should community college instructors know something other than how to function as professional educators?

I think the emergent love affair with professionalism in my work place, the community college, has not always had a healthy or beneficial effect on the teaching-learning process. In fact, I would venture that the current educator-as-professional movement (which I believe began in full corporate earnest with the school reform movements of the 1980’s) has created a somewhat misfit work culture for educators -- a culture where business models and practices are held in high esteem and the buzz mimicking the corporate conference call saturates community college board rooms.

We aspire to function like the corporate world, a world where profits drive industry and salaries and titles proliferate.

I think that our professors, especially at community colleges, at times prefers to see themselves through the same corporate lens, not as learned or helping individuals who have chosen a life dedicated to academics,  committed to a reflective and thinking awareness. My own experience has taught me that many who teach at community colleges see education as a kind of career that begins with classroom teaching and ends behind the vice president’s (or -- better yet -- president’s) desk. Or at least a career that provides  plenty of release time for committee work.

We are giddy with misplaced possibilities. Around the water cooler, we whisper about interim presidents and task forces and the need for more employee representation and further conversations.

The fallout from this emphasis on professional educator development, I believe, is that it replaces more traditional graduate school curricula with oftentimes “muddy” institutionally generated “professional” development. I sense that, increasingly, our obsession with the “new” professionalism may very well make us professional educators at the expense of knowing how to do anything other than quibbling over conference schedules, management styles, and career development.

It’s as if we spend our time trying to figure out how to teach (during professional development activities) because we never internalized anything that our students expect (or need) to learn. One more innovation, one more conference, one more summit, and one more retreat -- and we’ll get this figured out.

Emphasis on quality control, technological innovations, market strategies, conversations, strategic plans, leadership changes, and internal job postings keeps the professional educator occupied -- both literally and figuratively. The daily diet of staff reporting line charts, values statements, meetings, meetings, and committees is heady stuff and keeps everyone occupied and gives us something to report and minutes to publish (and heatedly dispute) on the shared hard drive.

Like the learned scientists at the grand Academy of Lagado in Gulliver’s Voyages, we are focused and “employed.” So focused we can’t be distracted -- even by the day-to-day realities of those persons whose intellectual needs we are employed to meet. So many valuable student interactions displaced by urgent meetings!

Leadership seems to be a key concept in the “new” educational professionalism. I sometimes think administrators promote the idea of professionalism (and its cousin leadership) so that teachers will be more interested in taking part in “managing” their colleges. In other words, administrators promote the idea that participation in decision making is valuable for teachers who wish to “grow professionally” and perhaps become administrators themselves later in their career lives. Certainly broad-based decision making is healthy for an institution when it actually occurs. Surely managerial stasis is not. Assuredly, our community colleges would benefit from an injection of imaginative or academic intellectual capital.

Many teachers will tell you they spend too much time at meetings, too much time reinventing the wheel, too much time trying to manage the institution. What about our fresh concerns with “becoming”   teaching and learning communities? Does this fundamental ideal represent some new or forgotten goal?  Wasn’t Joliet Junior College a teaching/learning community by 1918?

We have so many specialists, so many reorganizations, and so many requests for healing. Titles, meetings, leadership conferences -- the stuff stars are made from. But this ed-corpus is the culture that community colleges nefariously developed.

Or have not developed. Do you suppose a core problem with the community college is that it has never evolved a “modern” theoretical framework since the lovely open door idealism of the 60’s? We have deified technology, applauded self-esteem building, attempted work force development, worshiped the customer service metaphor, and trained every employee between 1993 and 2002 in TQM.

Who (intrinsically) speaks for the community college identity in 2007? Where are the native theorists? Attempts at community college theory construction seem to take place primarily in online leadership degree programs and at elegant conferences.

By expanding multi-purpose mission statements (developmental education, workforce development, global awareness, transfer education -- you know the roll call) we can celebrate our purpose but may be unable to sustain (or validate) our continued existence. Does constant innovation denote worth and value? Do corporate-like salaries for administrators bring in more FTSE?

Most community colleges were founded with a county or local charter. Now, we, seek to be higher education global players in areas (geographical and culturally), where, quite frankly, we often don’t know how to compete. Perhaps we should not dabble in costly international education agendas -- look at what is going on in my state on this front.

Perhaps we should be focused on educating the local tax base that pays our wages.

I remember taking a course called The Philosophy of Education back in the early 80’s. You know, that old time college stuff. I remember it contained rigor and challenging ideas and required study. I remember considering essentialism, social reconstruction, values education, and social learning.

Perhaps we should re-evaluate our newly developed “corporate” education structures in terms of such "old school" philosophical concepts. Perhaps those older views should be revisited and revitalized. Perhaps they hint at a non-corporate theoretical framework for  community college educators.

True professional growth, I should think, would come from the inside and not be grafted on like a cadaver's skin patch. Who should provide an identity for community colleges?  ITV? Margaret Spellings? The Massachusetts Transit Authority? Bond election consultants? AQIP?  Flow charts?  The League for Innovation? Microsoft? Texas?

What is at the core of community college education now -- especially now -- that helps us reach students? Does a typical community college student assess and analyze her college’s core value statements? How far has our culture moved away from the day-to-day needs and expectations of students? Where are the community college theorists of the 21st century? Let’s get-r-done right.

Here is a quick summary of my beliefs.

  • The grand stuff of our daily “professional” lives may have nothing to do with promoting student learning.
  • The community college sense of professional development may have more to do with career enhancement (rather than the intellectual development) of teachers and their supervisors.
  • The community college is much like Madonna. It redefines itself every few years but remains the same anyway.
  • The problem with educational professionalism is systemic -- the problem is not with your institution or mine -- it is endemic to community colleges.
  • A new school of theorists (outside of technology circles and education leadership programs) must emerge from within the community colleges.
  • If we are to get-r-done, we must detach ourselves from the current obsession with corporate manifestos and come to terms with a 21st century “native” community college conceptual framework and identity. If we do not, the proprietary schools and universities will overrun us. They have the money, social support, and intellectual firepower to displace us from our tentative hold on the community college experience.
  • Most important, we need to reemphasize the concept of “real” service to the local “community.” Let’s put the “community” back in the college.  


Jeffrey Ross teaches English at Central Arizona College.


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