Excerpts from “Profession v. Professionalism”- Pt. 1

November 4, 2010

[I am putting the finishing touches on a paper I am writing for a seminar with a non-archives-related organization. As I started working on it, I realized that many parts of the work applied to the archives profession, at least applied to the point that they bear discussing. They also apply to the world of practicing professions or tasks in a religious environment, though the terminology might need to be changed. The subject is “Profession v. Professionalism.”  It is opinion based on experience and research. I will introduce parts of it here over time in hope of getting comments and discussion. I would prefer that folks comment online, even if you know my personal e-mail address or are attending the conference, but that is, of course, your option.]

I maintain that a person may be a member of a profession by meeting specific criteria. There may be differing opinions as to the criteria. For example, one might claim that a certain amount of education or a certification is required to be an archivist, while others might feel that any who fill the position of archivist and attempt to perform the tasks that come with that position in the best possible manner qualify as professionals. I have heard history professors make it very clear that academics are in a higher classification than a mere “profession,” (also claiming that a Ph.D. is required to be a historian and anyone who has done decades of scholarly work does not qualify as a historian without those letters at the end of his name, regardless of the quality of work,) while neurosurgeons readily refer to their “profession.” Regardless of the requirements or honor associated with the term, there are specific qualifications that a person must have or things one must have accomplished to be recognized as a professional by most people.

Professionalism, on the other hand, is an attitude, an approach. It may be equated with or include ethics, morals, etiquette, or a code of honor, or simply be expressed as attitude. It is a more intangible thing than a profession, and is judged by people by less objective qualifications. A professional code of ethics may add some objectivity to whether one is viewed as having professionalism, and violation of such a code usually can be said to qualify as unprofessional behavior, but one can still be unprofessional while technically remaining within the code. This is basically because such codes do not cover all possible areas of professional behavior, nor do they cover the motivation of the “professional.” If one does not believe that such an attitude is noticeable or that it affects a professional’s competency, one might as well forget about seeking professionalism and be satisfied with having a job.

I mentioned the attitude I have found among some academic historians. This is not the only profession where I have found this attitude, of course, nor is it universal among those of that profession, er, discipline. Two of my mentors, history professors both, encouraged me to become a public historian, one particularly emphasizing the field of archives management. He did so because I had spent many years doing research in institutions where I often encountered archivists who showed me no respect and exhibited egos that I felt far outweighed their abilities or common sense. That may have been arrogance on my part, but there were enough people out there among non-archivists that didn’t treat me like an idiot to make me feel that it was not. I just found that many of the people I met in the archives profession when I did research did not behave in what I felt to be a professional manner.

You see, one of the requirements of professionalism is respect. A professional, if he has any sense at all, acknowledges that if he is exceptional in his field, others may be exceptional in theirs as well. Unless he believes that there is a universal hierarchy where history professors outrank archivists who outrank mere researchers (including those who write the papers the professors use to teach and collect the papers the archivists eventually manage,) he must accept that his profession does not make him better than others. Yet I have had many a person who had no idea what I was researching decide how I should best pursue my work, or had a presentation criticized under the assumption I had not read the same material as the critic, and even had people who had never met me address me by my first name while requiring me to address them by some title.

My favorite instance of this was when a Certified Archivist was advising a patron and insisted on being addressed as “Ms.” while calling the patron John, as she had heard me do. She then proceeded to lecture him on the best book he needed to do his research, never once realizing that he held two PhDs and was the author of the work she was praising. She did not believe me when I told her. He just smiled, thanked her, and proceeded to do his work like the professional he was. If I had been as professional as he, I never would have told her of here faux pas. I yielded to temptation, however, and told her. I did mean it to give her the opportunity to discover that one can’t always make assumptions, particularly when those assumptions start with ones about one’s own importance, but her response was aggressive to say the least.

Respect in a profession can illustrated by the way a seaman treats an officer. When I was in the service a few generations ago, I was walking with a Chief Petty Officer one morning. A Lieutenant Junior Grade approached and the Chief and I snapped off salutes. The JG gave us a nod. A few minutes later, a Lieutenant Commander came by and as we saluted, I noticed the Chief was a bit snappier and he smartly said, “Good morning, Mr. Evans!” Commander Evans slowed, exchanged pleasantries, and asked to be introduced to me, a lowly seaman. Then we all went on our ways. I asked the Chief about it and he explained. “Lt. Barker is by the grace of God and Congress an officer and a gentleman. It is his job. You have to respect the job and the rank. Maybe one day he will do something as a man to earn my respect. Mr. Evans? He is a natural officer and a seaman. I don’t just mean he is skilled at seamanship. I mean he has the attitude of a seaman. Respect. Barker has a nice job. Evans is a professional.” [Note: obviously after many years this is not and exact quote, but the gist is there.]

Part of my conclusion: One can expect or even demand respectful actions when one is a member of a profession. A professional offers and earns respect by behavior and attitude. No respect? No professionalism. This, by the way, extends to employers, employees, colleagues and patrons.

[There is an absence of some context in this opinion piece. It might help the reader know that this is near the beginning of the second section of the paper and precedes a section on the importance of people in professional behavior.]

More to Come.

The Heretic

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2 Responses to “Excerpts from “Profession v. Professionalism”- Pt. 1”

  1. Leslie said

    Hi:
    I came across your blog as I was searching for blogs about archiving. My chosen field of library science–news libraries–is getting so small that there are really no openings anymore (unless someone retires and I don’t see that happening soon). I have an interest in archives but I’m not sure if this is the direction I want to take. My first love is research and then law, politics and government documents.

    My comments on your article on profession vs professionalism is that you need to delineate the two concepts more definitely. Also, there are two ways to define professionalism: one is behavior between persons connoting respect and equality and the other is the movement to standardize the work product of a profession.

    In order to clarify your arguments, I suggest that you read some articles/books on the rise of professionalism through the 19th and 20th century. The move toward professionalism has political/sociological motives of power, gatekeeping, and standardization all designed to keep “interlopers” out of the small world of true professionals. Getting a Ph.D is like hazing–it allows the “best” and “worthy” to enter the sanctum and keep those out who can’t pass the requirements.

    See review of Larson (1977). http://pas.sagepub.com/content/9/3/373.1.extract
    Plus her books for more expanded arguments.

    Berman (http://www.jstor.org/pss/4501749) Would need to access full article from JStor.

    I think you can clarify which meaning you are using with a footnote (oops- shows how old I am)…I mean a sentence/phrase in parenthesis with a citation to the meaning you’re not using.

    I am impressed to see you writing articles. It’s one of my New Year’s resolutions but I’m not sure where to start. I also like that you are upfront about your Christianity. When I was at Johns Hopkins, one of the nicest things a professor said to me was that, even though she was an atheist, she admired my balance of faith and reason. Something that all people of faith should strive for.

  2. The Heretic said

    Thank you for your comments. I have read Larson, or at least some, and someone sent me the Berman link after I delivered my paper (a bit grandiose term, “deliver,” as the group was much less formal than a conference would be,)though I must confess to having just scanned it. I would welcome any other references, as this is, in my mind, a most interesting topic. I approach archives from the public history side, and the field is shrinking from here as well, by the way.

    I will say that in the full paper, which was designed as a talk more than a publication but with knowledge that I would likely put the thing “out there,” I do draw a distinction in the way I use the terms professional and professionalism. I set specific definitions as ground rules simply because there are several meanings. You could use other terms without changing the essential argument. I intended to put more of the work up sooner, hoping it would have been clearer, but did not get done what I intended. I have found I cannot just grab a section of the paper and post it, but must tweak it to make it stand alone. I need to either add another post or 2 or come back and clarify this one.
    I have been asked to give the talk a third time, so I haven’t added to the post yet. I may change some of it. Again. (I confess some family obligations have also caused me to choose between on-line forums for awhile.) I will eventually release the whole thing under my correct name.

    The main thing is that I am distinguishing the words by defining professionalism as an attitude, motivation, methodology, etc. that fits with specific ethics and morals that do not meet Larson’s definition. I link it with integrity and feel that there is an element of etiquette involved. It is not about being in control.

    I define, for the purposes of the paper/talk, a profession more along the lines of Larson’s views, at least as I understand them. In this way of defining the terms, I would say the definition of “the movement to standardize the work product of a profession, was not professionalism but rather promoting a profession. I distinguish between the two and argue that the lack of many to do the same has harmed many professions and caused a reduction in “professionalism.” In short, by not maintaining standards of integrity, “respect and equality,” we undermine and perhaps eventually will destroy, them.

    I will try to add more soon. I have come in late, but enjoy the conversations this topic has stirred, mostly in person but also by e-mail and now by yourself, and wanted to respond.

    As to writing an article, if you wish to post one here to start we can arrange it. As a guest blogger. I’ll have to hook up with an e-mail off site so you can send it to me but that would not be too difficult. I have a junk email site I can post and you can send me a place to send you a better address. If your views and mine are different, all the better. I won’t edit, just comment back.

    I have no choice but to speak of my faith, and thank you for your support. It is odd how much the archives world and church administration resemble each other at times, though.
    Be Blessed.
    The Heretic

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