Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Professorial Bureaucracy

The word "professional" has different meanings depending on what you choose to contrast it with. In one sense, it simply means getting paid for what you do, and is then contrasted with "amateur". In another sense, however, it points to a subclass of all those who get paid for the work they do and is to be contrasted with a word like "labourer". The professional, we might say, is not just in it for the money but is not quite doing it for love either.

Then there is professionalism, a sort of work ethic, a particular kind of seriousness about what one does. Here "professional" is best contrasted with "personal". Professionals don't take sucess or failure personally, and they don't serve people they like any differently than people they don't like. (Doctors and lawyers are committed to this code for natural reasons.) Some people take a hard line on this, refusing to do anything job-related for their friends. They simply won't mix business and pleasure. They're professionals.

Professionals are always specialized. Their professionalism applies to their use of a particular subset of their skills, not to everything they know how to do. And these skills are always "knowledge intensive", i.e., the product of a long period of education and (often) apprenticeship (or internship). Professionalism is very much about the authority that this knowledge gives them in the exercise of their competences. Mintzberg makes the interesting point that the education of professionals also includes a great deal of "indoctrination". A concerted effort is made to make sure that the professionals in our society use their skills in the service of "the good". That is, professionalism implies both epistemic and ethical formation.

It has seemed to me for some time that scholars are becoming increasingly "professional" about their work. This was once a paradox, but Heidegger was probably on to something when he said that the scholar is simply disappearing from the "modern" scene. The "professional" scholar is really not a scholar at all but a "researcher", and this is indeed the more commonly used word for the employees in the "operative core" of a university. Professional researchers are more likely to separate business and pleasure, work and play. Also, they maintain a certain formality about their authority, which also, like most professionals, allows them to be quite informal about who they are when they are not directly engaged in research and teaching. They have a keen sense of their obligations.

I want to make another important contrast to the "professional" stance, namely, the "professorial", i.e., the traditional stance of the scholar. The professional holds knowledge for the sake of some practical end while the professor, traditionally, holds knowledge "for its own sake". The professional must be able to do particular things, while the professor must believe certain truths (and, of course, have an understanding of them). It is the job of the professor precisely to "profess" these beliefs.

It is the social function of professing that is being lost in the modern university. In an important sense, even seeing the university as a "professional bureaucracy" is inappropriate (at least on strictly philosophical grounds), and doing so may have been part of its undoing, its devolution into a machine bureaucracy. Knowledge is justified, true belief, and the professional is not actually obligated to believe anything personally. So our conception of knowledge (our epistemology) is changing because the social function of our knowers is changing.

Next week, I'll try to clarify these thoughts a bit more by distinguishing professional and professorial writing. As always, I think the culprit is social science, which has been reshaping the way we "know" about each other—and ourselves—for about a hundred years now.


Jonathan said...

I don't think of myself as a bureaucrat or as part of a bureaucracy. Those are the administrators. It is interesting that the number of administrators has no become equal (more or less) to that of "ladder" faculty in the UC system. In other words, there are more people running the bureaucracy than doing the intellectual work of teaching and research.

Thomas said...

Well, neither the security guards nor the special agents of the FBI probably think of themselves as bureaucrats. Just as the worker on the factory floor doesn't, even though they arguably work in machine bureaucracies. The cafeteria worker is a member of what Mintzberg would call the "support staff".

The distribution of intellectual and administrative work you mention is typical precisely of "machine bureaucracies". In so-called "professional bureaucracies" the administrative staff (the technostructure) is relative small.

Ezra Pound once complained that too much money was spent in universities on building maintainance because the campuses insisted on overwrought gothic architecture.

It can sometimes be argued that a large administrative staff frees up the intellectuals to actually think and teach (rather than deal with the logistics of research and teaching).

My worry remains: something essential about knowledge is getting lost in the current organization of scholarship. Your image of cordon sanitaire has been useful in thinking about this. Heideggger talked about "the administration of being".

Thomas said...

PS: I've gone with the more conventional spelling of bureaucracy now. (I don't know what got into me. I've been trying to Americanize a little.)