On Suits, Shoes, and Professionalization

Last fall I was at a workshop—at Princeton, to flash some “professional” credentials at the start.  My colleague and fellow blogger Lauren Osborne was there, too—even more “professional” than me, because she had submitted a paper for the group to discuss.  She and I were standing outside a room waiting for a key-note to begin, and we were talking about this gig, the blog, and the Craft of Teaching program more broadly, which we understood as an initiative in response to a long-standing lack of emphasis, on behalf of the Divinity School, to issues of “professionalization.”  We said something, one of us, to the effect that this was a good thing, getting grad students to think about academia as a profession, helping folks prepare for and land jobs.

But there was a very senior scholar standing in the circle with us, and he became what I would describe as borderline irate.  “Professionalization,” he made clear, was, in his opinion, a useless goal, a misguided focus for time and energy, and, worse, the reflection of a nefarious and malignant misconception of what it is we do, our calling.  Being a professor, he said, was about more than the kind of suit you wear.

a8aa39bf979da58fb04a37cf0d948684I wasn’t entirely sure, at the time, how to interpret that last comment, though part of me was quick to read it as a personal indictment, a public reveal that my own suit covered an academic pretender, that my garrote-tight Double Windsor was merely an attempt to mask my lack of real “professional” qualifications.

But I suspect that what he meant was something more in keeping with the complaint addressed by Peter Kaufman.  In our discussion of a graduate program’s attention to practical, career-focused advice, this scholar heard a neglect of core values: seminars on job interview strategies versus the Life of the Mind, a contrast reeking of the notorious administrative thrall for the quantifiable.

I think this senior colleague—whose work, whose life, has been characterized by an infectious wonder for his subject matter, by a kind of insatiable intellectual wanderlust in the exploration of it—was, in his own brusque way, defending the old approach of the University of Chicago, which was his alma mater, too.  The Life of the Mind, after all, isn’t one of these recent consultant-generated “brand” devices—it is a statement of audacious commitment, a means of framing and navigating ones vocation as a professor, as a scholar and a teacher and member of academic communities.

It is, likewise, an expression of stunning privilege.  And what this guy had over Dr. Osborne and me was, you know, a tenured senior post at one of the most resource-rich universities in the world.  To put it in very basic, if understated, terms: he had solid job security, a decent salary, good students, and daily access to a pretty nice library.

But I want to weigh in on this blog’s quarter-long forum about “professionalization” with a reconsideration of this too-brief conversation at Princeton, in part because it troubles me that it ended so quickly, with an interjection rather than an exchange.  I regret that we did not all rephrase and clarify our stances, communicate rather than talk past each other, because I think that while Dr. Osborne and I were and are quite correct in our opinion that the Divinity School should care about issues of “professionalization,” I think the senior scholar is equally right, that “professionalization” is, at best, beside the point and, at worst, a serious distraction from what we actually do and why we should do it.


Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842

Don’t get me wrong: I teach in a suit, I write for a blog aimed at preparing graduate students for future careers, I pursue “professionalization” and tend to my c.v.  That Princeton workshop, for instance, was, for me, a coup, a kind of laurel, and I did not tire of reminding folks at my institution where I was flying for the week.  But—and, again, don’t get me wrong—it was far from only that.  There was a suit aspect to being at Princeton: shiny, nice creases, a tailored cut.  But there was the far, far more important shoe aspect: hikes of the mind, getting lost in discussion and debate, learning, talking dream interpretation and slave rebellion, ancient techniques for linking information and the political implications of Max Müller’s canonization of certain texts as “scripture.”

We don’t go to graduate school to get jobs, to wear suits; we go to graduate school because we are pursuing the audacious notion that we can devote our lives to the encounter, analysis, and exchange of ideas.

“Professionalization” seems not merely narrow but petty, and while I, like the senior scholar at Princeton, am speaking from a place of (relative) privilege (employed, tenured), it’s worth saying plainly that anyone reading this is probably standing in a pretty privileged spot, too, you graduate students and academics, at the University of Chicago and elsewhere, who, through some combination of luck and luck,  have managed to take refuge in the academy and pursue, via its shelter, these meandering pathways of the mind.

Such luck is not without responsibility.  Maybe part of true “professionalization” in the sense of training students for academic careers should also be a reminder of this responsibility, which includes, I believe, the need to challenge, even subvert, the corruptions inherent within the very system that offers us such opportunity, such refuge.[1]  The academy is a capitalist industry reiterating divides of class and race and offering sanctuary for sexual predation; we must change this.  Moreover, I believe that we, as elite beneficiaries of a system of elitism, must struggle to open access to such possibilities, and this requires a recognition that the Life of the Mind is also always material, a matter of very physical resources.  The suits of “professionalization” are part and parcel of all this, preparation for and part of the leverage of power within the academy as system, as milieu.

800px-wanderlustBut I’d like readers of this blog to, following the now heavily interpreted suggestion of the senior colleague at Princeton, put less stock in suits and more in shoes.  To link back, as is my charge, to the craft of teaching, let me propose, in conclusion, a pedagogy of the flâneur, an approach to our work—as scholars and colleagues and, always, teachers—that prioritizes relentless, passionate wandering.  I had intended to write something about taking students on a travel course, abroad, a very literal application of the pedagogy of flâneurship, but the approach I’m defending here doesn’t require any actual walking or actual shoes.  It’s the desire to wander, to travel in and through ideas—this, I believe, is why we entered the academy.  And we should foreground this desire in all of our approaches to academia as a career.

The best “professionalization” might well be an approach which defies the standard use of the term, emphasizing, rather than narrow, practical, job-related concerns, some reminder of our initial wonder at the possibilities of the university.  It’s useful to revise your c.v., of course, but it’s of far more use, ultimately, to your future as an academic, to wander through the stacks of the Reg one day (or the Firestone, or your local public library branch), strolling through unfamiliar categories and sections, reacquainting yourself with a sense of awe at the vastness and variety of ideas, expression, and inquiry.  This, I submit, is basic to who you are, to the professor you will become—far more, certainly, than the suit you wear.

[1] One recommendation for study and discussion: Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons, accessible here: http://www.minorcompositions.info/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/undercommons-web.pdf.


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