Professors of vision

Faced with the discord between two kinds of practice, the one managerial and the other collegial (in a sense, crafted), some have argued that they can be reconciled.

Given the role that administration must play at the university, it is proposed that a compromise can be reached, perhaps by levelling the influence of management, or scaling it down to accommodate ancient priorities, including those now rebranded technocratically as “active citizenship” and “community engagement”. In any case, it is further argued that the corporate university, to survive at all, must retain some remnant of academic value to retain credibility.

We believe that such reconciliation is impossible. It is inconceivable that a regimented structure, driven by an objective of standardisation, career-centredness and profit, as well as conformity to myopic state policy, is compatible with a communitarian formation whose modus vivendi is multifarious intellectual enrichment.

This fundamental incompatibility is amply demonstrated in historical shifts in the meanings of “professional” and “profession”. In the modern corporate dispensation, a professional efficiently executes the explicit requirements of an occupation and is financially rewarded—sometimes handsomely (as in sport)—and accepts that the job is worth doing. The standard, characteristically bourgeois, is that of all-round skill or expertise, and of steady competence and reliability.

This rationale of “professionalism” has become a norm for the academic as well, despite collegial requisites that through the centuries have been fine-tuned to meet the exigencies of rigorous scholarship. It was once sufficient to be an academic—that is, one highly qualified to teach and research—to do the job expertly.

The current term “professional” has migrated from an earlier sense that, ironically, was closely allied to the academy. The term derives from the idea of “professing” (Latin profiteor, pp professus = to acknowledge, confirm, promise, confess), of laying claim to one’s expertise. In the academic field the term “professor” denoted a scholar who was hired on account of a proficiency in a specialist academic domain (certainly not administrative or managerial) and, as a lecturer, was in a position to “profess” or publicly avow a commitment to that domain. Thus a professor is, by definition, a person who has expert knowledge and lives by his or her calling.

Jacques Derrida makes capital of this etymology: “‘To make profession of’ is to declare out loud what one is, what one believes, what one wants to be, while asking another to take one’s word and believe this declaration.”

Derrida highlights the necessity of acting out one’s conviction in order for the “professor” to come into being, to exist.
This necessity constitutes the professorial self and is not simply a function reflecting position or rank. The acting-out constitutes a public statement that is given authority by those to whom it is addressed—the students or fellow colleagues, not bureaucrats and entrepreneurs. What we see in action is the intellectual taking a stand, being in the truest sense of the term ‘accountable”. Furthermore, in a performative realm, the art of professing by its very nature would require constant reinvocation and reiteration, lest it lose its purpose and become moribund.

In the course of time “profession” has lost its confessional nature and has been appropriated, via the prestigious professions, to designate any occupation by which one may respectably earn a living. The idea of public declaration or avowal is gone. The professor’s “profession” has lost its public voice and commitment, as well as its distinctiveness.

Together with the university, “profession” has been corporatised and, in consequence, vulgarised. The managers who ironically still call themselves professors (as if their true status depended on it) have emptied out by their very persistence the historical significance of the designation, implicitly inducting all professors into management.

What are the grounds for naming oneself, or addressing someone as, professor who professes nothing? Certainly a technocratic, entrepreneurial professor cannot be reconciled to his or her illustrious former self, and any attempt to do so will result in fragmentation.

Edward Said, in his Reith Lectures, indicated that the keynote of modern academic professionalism is conformity, compliance and amenability. Clearly, the corporate would opt for a docile employee rather than have on its hands one who is at odds with the system.

In considering the situation as we have it now, collegiality in all its aspects is yielding to a social manifestation that is deeply embedded and seemingly unstoppable. What Charles Derber calls the “triumphal age of corporations” or “corpocracy” means the end of academic autonomy—of an encounter with knowledge that is independently motivated and consensually affirmed. Called to account on the grounds that “academic” work is supposedly—in the words of Marjorie Garber—“artificial or impractical or merely theoretical”, the lecturer is reduced to a white-collar employee functioning within a specialised service industry, the primary goal of which is to enhance economic growth by providing multitudes of qualified graduates for the workplace, or useful knowledge for commerce. From the point of view of commerce, the university is a breeding ground for future trained employees.

Ultimately, the “knowledge practitioner” serves the anti-intellectual inclinations of the capitalist state.

What alternatives are there? Short of rebellion or striking, which are not easy options because they harm the residual idea of vocation, there is another path that has been followed with this directive: oblige the system in so far as its due requirements are concerned and pursue your own interests in your own time.

The disadvantage of this approach is that it leaves the opposition between management and collegiate unresolved. It fractures the academic’s commitments and does nothing to ameliorate the actual conditions of work or the status of the university, which itself is being downgraded to a business. At best it is a half measure, a weak compromise and a survival tactic.

A more dramatic and more fruitful proposition might be offered, with the prospect of breaking the deadlock without returning nostalgically to a dispensation that has been vulnerable to inimical influences. This would be to argue that professors should, one and all, embrace the nobility of the “profession”, claim their academic being, affirm their academic duties and provide strong academic leadership that was formerly wanting. Consciousness of this responsibility is surely repressed in the diehard line-manager who every succeeding year does less and less academic work.

By its very nature, the assumption of authentic identity would reinvigorate the humanities over which administrators preside only in name, unconscionably permitting the critical temper to dissipate in the present circumstances. This bold commitment on the part of the professoriate would have an inspirational effect on a presently fatigued, isolated and demoralised lecturing staff, which, it must be emphasised, was never directly responsible for the capitulation to an alien dispensation induced by corporate stakeholders, policymakers and their acolytes in administration.

The idea is to sustain the academic profile throughout the university and to recover the collegial unity that once made the whole of “management” unnecessary. While a campus revolution is very unlikely, given the added lethargy or indifference of many academics, hope remains in a sustained dissenting literature that is the articulate academic elucidation of the impasse, questioning the system as it is wont to do and, as a profession of faith, reclaiming—in imagination at least—a threatened habitas.

Perhaps with bold interventions of this nature, the corporate model might begin to dissolve. One must not assume that this model is here to stay forever. Historically models come and go and it would be no surprise if, in time to come, the present hierarchy—indeed corporatisation itself—would seem as reprehensible to society as those hierarchies of the past, such as the feudal system or ancien régime, which, at the time of their ascendency, might have seemed written in stone.

It should be recalled that the university once freed itself from religious and political surveillance without too much fuss. This could act as a precedent for reasserting its autonomy. Moreover, rationalisation taken to extremes has the seeds of its own destruction.

It is food for thought that the idea proposed by Derrida for the future “sovereign” university is one that has never yet materialised: in brief he recommends “a university that would be what it always should have been, or always should have represented, that is, from its inception and in principle: autonomous, unconditionally free in its institution, in its speech, in its writing, in its thinking”.

Derrida conceives a reclamation of the humanities at the core of the university. His is not a rehash of the older and now dubious position that a university education inevitably improves one. Rather, he identifies the domain of the “as if”, of the possible and of the full stretch of the imagination, giving to literary representation—the realm of figurative expression—a significance it has never yet assumed within the university. His is the visionary approach and leadership that the academy is crying out for.

Professor Alan Weinberg and Dr Greg Graham-Smith are lecturers in Unisa’s department of English studies. This is a condensed version of part three of an article intended for international publication in 2011. Parts one and two were published in the past two editions of Getting Ahead and can be accessed on M&G Education

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