Post-truth. Alternative facts. Brexit is Brexit, and statutory regulation is statutory regulation.
The virtual offer
Another academic year has begun, and we’ve finally reached the start of the legal requirement to give deaf and disabled students in Further Education an EHC (Education, Health & Care) Plan rather than the former Statement of Special Educational Need. “Statements” might still be used with existing primary and secondary school students until 2018. It is probably my imagination but things seem even more frantic than usual for this time of year. The service I work for is seeing deaf student enrolment way down at some colleges and surprisingly high at others; some of the colleges themselves still feel a bit like the Marie Celeste for anyone that was working in them five years ago, while others appear to be thriving. “Austerity” continues to nobble course subsidies, all the way down to Level 1.
Regarding the Local Offer (see Day 0 & Day 1), I’ve still seen nothing to indicate that the predicted explosion of choice and personalised services has kicked in for deaf students or their parents and guardians. It was insisted all through the planning and “Pathfinder” stages that the Offer would not just be a “directory”. But in my home borough and its neighbours, in my field, that is precisely what it is: almost completely a list of national charities and local voluntary groups, barely different from typing “deaf [my council]” into Google. The public sector service I work for is listed in its own borough’s Offer, but as far as I’m aware its clients remain only the FE colleges themselves, still the brokers of the funding.
It has been about a year since my decision to voluntarily leave the NRCPD register and I’ve done no freelance work during that time. All of the BSL/English interpreting work I’ve done since then has been through a public sector employer (this actually provides “consumers” with a higher level of scrutiny, support and accountability than any voluntary regulator can muster). Now that I’ve completed another degree and have more time to work again, it recently crossed my mind that I could re-register. And then today, NRCPD did three things:
- Announced a formal statement of regulatory intent, in which they set out their long-term but short-on-details plan to criminalise unregistered community interpreters
- Published a new Code of Conduct and complaints process
- Revamped their website slightly (I’d feel bad if I didn’t point out that they’ve stealthily removed all previously published correspondence between registrants and the Board) (Further note, 20/11/2015: the missing correspondence has now reappeared elsewhere on the site, prompting us all to remember the importance of Hanlon’s Razor.)
What do I make of all this? More below the break.
(A transcript of this video is here)
For a long time, I’ve been bothered by questions about what to do, as a working interpreter, when you are presented with a long barrage of unexpected nonsense. Most of the time, I’m fairly sure I’m working with real human beings, so it’s a regular occurrence.
I think my anxiety about it stems from a brain-curdling experience in a Higher Education art lecture that’s been nagging at me for over three years now. I wrote about it during my interpreter training in my critical reflection logs: I knew I was flailing around for excuses because I flippantly listed “jumping through a plate glass window and falling two stories in order to escape” as a potential but grudgingly unprofessional “coping strategy”. Those logs and the critically reflective essay they produced got me the highest mark I have ever received in all of my academic endeavours, which says to me that (a) my supervisor had a sense of humour and (b) I was asking all the right questions, but didn’t necessarily have any decent answers.
Sometimes, when an answer seems very elusive, it may be because we don’t understand the question. So I’ve done a little thinking and reading about nonsense, gibberish and gobbledegook. If the following doesn’t make any sense, I’m sorry for being insufferably meta. Nonsense is not all the same, so in time-honoured interpreting tradition, our responses to it are going to depend – but on what?
discrimination (mass n)
Pronounciation: / dɪˌskrɪmɪˈneɪʃ(ə)n /
1. The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex
2. Recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another
– Oxford English Dictionary, August 2014
The older you get and the more you learn, the less anything seems to make any sense at all. “Wisest is he who knows he does not know”, indeed, but it can be a proper headache.
There is a yawning divide in the UK between those who provide signed and spoken language interpreting services. We have separate qualifications, separate voluntary registers, different letters after our names and (with one recent exception) different national bodies. Yet the jobs we do are the same jobs, more or less, even if it’s one of the most varied jobs in the world.
We rarely co-operate, although when we do it’s impressive, such as the campaign against the Ministry of Justice’s decision to farm out court interpreting to Capita/ALS. But winter is coming: there are augurs that a National Framework contract for public service interpreting is in the works, in the exact model of the MoJ disaster. If so, interpreters need to brush up on their solidarity more than ever before.
So which of the above senses of the term “discrimination” is the most faithful? Are sign language interpreters really being asked to sit in a different part of the bus, or is there a genuine and well-understood difference in their work that necessitates the silos? Perhaps it isn’t actually about the “professionals” at all, but all about their clients?
Here are some viewpoints – some of them are more opinion than fact, and I don’t necessarily buy them all in their entirety. Do you?
Unfortunately, rose-tinted faith in a leisurely future was misplaced: the light at the end of the professional tunnel turned out to be fire on the tracks. Leading up to and past the turn of the millennium (in the First World at least) the same social mobility and technological progress that enabled professionalisation to sprout also resulted in higher education (and information in general) becoming more and more accessible, more democratised, which in turn made expertise gradually less rare and thus less socially and economically valuable. A few ivory towers crumbled: nowadays, even commoners are allowed to be critical thinkers. In terms of “knowledge capital”, both old and new professions increasingly began to lose their monopolies, and their reflex response was more professionalisation. An arms race ensued, a vicious circle that demanded ever more education, regulation and organisation, spreading even as far down as the skilled trades – today most people would not notice anything strange about the term “professional plumber” but Jane Austen would have slapped you in the face in shock.
Generally armed with more knowledge and generally possessed of less natural deference to elders or betters, people felt increasingly confident in challenging a professional opinion. The social capital of professionals also took a series of sharp knocks at the marketplace due to some very public scandals (local examples at random: Harold Shipman, Lehman Brothers, Baby P, and most recently the crisis and dismemberment of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, which is inexplicably making waves for sign language interpreters despite their absolute lack of involvement in it). Those events were undoubtedly appalling, and the media (whose own processes of professionalisation and rabid competition had honed their ambulance-chasing skills to a fine art) expertly stoked wave after wave of distrust for professionals.
Their response: even more professionalisation, but also a tendency and occasional mandate to include more “lay persons” in the governance of professions. The safeguards of professionalism were no longer seen as sufficient and its core value of autonomy was increasingly seen as mere self-interest: society wanted to be closer to the alarm button and, in a rather unfortunate metaphor originating from the land-grabbing of the American gold rush, to have more of a stake; the stakeholder was born, not to the sound of trumpets but the deafening wheeze of a billion snores. In a “risk society”, autonomy must be replaced by accountability; the original values of professionalism get buried another layer of dust and professionals gradually cede control of their work to non-practitioners in the name of public protection.
As well as elevating existing occupations to professions, many new occupations were created by the professionalisation movement (perhaps we should talk more about “occupationalisation”) which went on to spawn yet more occupations themselves. For example, the UK’s sign language interpreters of 1982 dragged themselves, panting, out of the primordial muck of social work and were suddenly standing on hind legs with a real job that commanded a wage and a title and qualifications and everything. The process had demonstrable benefits to the Deaf community despite a couple of robot-related accidents along the way, and everything seemed to be going very well until a cad and bounder at Jobcentre Plus had the gall to turn some filthy dole-scroungers into Communication Support Workers, and the grubby cycle of life began anew. (This account of the rise of the CSW is brought to you via ASLI.)
Capitalist industry didn’t miss the opportunity here (it never does). With the sheer proliferation of professions and occupations, the economic response was to use and even accelerate the process by encouraging the demarcation of labour into ever smaller fractions: knowledge capital was spread ever thinner. Demarcation saves money, increases profits: it can be far cheaper to employ (and replace) ten drones to do one simple task each than to recruit and train a super-drone who can do all ten. This tendency, mainly found in the manufacturing and energy industries but also in softer “semi-professional” settings such as education (“teaching assistants”) and social work (“care managers”) started to be referred to as “deprofessionalisation”. And as the stock of knowledge capital went into free-fall, so too did the social value of professional status. This was obviously a blow upside the head for professionals, because the whole point of social status is to have more of it than someone else. What is the point in being elevated if there is no-one to look down on? Professionalism is essentially a matter of class.
But working conditions and “class struggle” were already tied fast to our collective notions of “a profession”. A profession’s status is supposed to be proportional to society’s level of need for the functions it performs. If the need is great enough, stable working conditions are likely to be created: salaries, contracts, tenure, working rights, piffling benefits such as sick pay, maternity leave, holidays, healthcare … A small occupation that is composed almost entirely of disposable freelancers and zero-hour contract staff is clearly not that highly valued and can’t really consider itself to be a “profession”. Are anyone’s working conditions really guaranteed in the 21st century?
Returning to the spiral of professionalisation, an arms race by definition requires bigger and bigger guns, and the nuclear deterrent here is statutory regulation. This measure was originally reserved only for the “old professions” and later for those few whose potential for abuse or exploitation was above a fairly high threshold, but in theory, if distrust and suspicion of a large and important enough profession begins to run so high that no measures of increased accountability and decreased autonomy can allay society’s concerns – or, alternatively, when the professionals’ anxiety about their status becomes debilitating enough and their wish that it be protected in law becomes unbearably shrill (“but anyone can call themselves a sanitary engineer!”) – it can, very rarely, be deemed no longer sufficient that professionals organise themselves voluntarily: the state will intervene and mandate some form of “protected status”.
Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether a government can really control the use of an agent noun formed from a very flexible verb in common everyday use (to pick an example at random, “to interpret”), it’s unfortunate for statutory regulation campaigners that successive governments blow very hot and cold on the issue; we’re currently in an ice age. The problem here is that society, not being the monolith we all pretend it to be, is fickle and has many voices, no matter how much a regulator wishes it would speak in perfect unison. The state, meanwhile, is torn between its desire to control and its newly-found antipathy to bureaucracy or, indeed, spending any money on anything at all. The perfect example of the unreliability of government support for statutory regulation in recent years is the current situation for Further Education teachers, who went through the following blink-and-you’ll-miss-it professionalisation and deprofessionalisation process accompanied by the birth, swelling and punctured collapse of the Institute for Learning, like a supernova with elbow-patches:
- Teaching in FE is an unqualified occupation;
- becomes a voluntarily regulated and mandatorily qualified profession with 266 initial registrants;
- becomes a statutorily regulated profession with 200,000+ members, some with new letters after their names;
- goes back to being a voluntary one with 33,000 members following the Lingfield report;
- gives up and becomes an occupation again, with no compulsory qualifications and no professional body.
All in the space of just twelve years; the time lasted under statutory regulation was a mere five years. So are those 200,000 teachers “unprofessional” now? Were they ever professionals? Clearly no-one else cares. Perhaps they shouldn’t either: they have much more important things to worry about.
Teachers know better than anyone else that if you hand over control of your job to non-practitioners, you open the door to performativity and the death of the soul of your work, which we have already covered. However it is also just about possible, if you work really hard, that you might just nudge the definition of professionalism onto a slightly new course, perhaps sneak in another “trait” or two. In many of the social professions, you will now find some new bullet points on the list of “professional standards”, most commonly a requirement to undertake Continuous Professional Development (CPD, or Continuing Education Units in other English-speaking countries) and a directive to engage in reflective practice. There is nothing wrong with these aspirations. No-one sane could argue that there is no value in learning new things and refreshing what you think you know, and in actually examining your reactions to your work and being just the tiniest bit thoughtful. The real issue is having adequate time and provision of resources to do those things, and the question of how those activities are going to be measured and accounted for does not have a particularly happy answer. Performativity will infect and corrupt even the best of intentions. The observer’s paradox is a real problem: measuring something changes it, usually into something drab and fake.
And you have to be careful with creating new weapons: your arsenal can be taken and turned against you. Part of the Lingfield review’s justification for the deprofessionalisation of Further Education was that there is no evidence that fashionable “best practice” in the form of make-work, tick-off-the-bare-minimum CPD has had any effect on improving the standard of teaching. What other ideas about “enforced professionalism” are a matter of blind faith?
All of these forces inevitably result in the planks of specialist knowledge and “professional practice”, for which the requirements for most of the rest of the traits of professionalism are supposed to logically follow, being more and more frequently kicked out from below until there is no status left for the professional to stand on. By the 1990s, sociologists (who arguably got us into this mess in the first place) had, for the most part, long since abandoned the term “professional” as not especially precise or useful, and – apologies for using the W-word – began talking instead in terms of “knowledge workers”. Professionals have become that which they most wanted to escape, just another worker: today there is no practical difference between the organisation and attributes of most “professions” and most “occupations”.
But many aspiring “professionals” didn’t get the e-mail and have carried on regardless, still gate-keeping, still trying to stay on top by putting others down, still robotically trying to forge a status for themselves that no longer really exists except as a medieval figment, a bedtime story, a lullaby.
The question of whether we are in a profession or not is not so much a red herring as a massive crimson whale. In a wide variety of fields, even trainees’ textbooks and their tutors openly discuss the arbitrary smoke-and-mirrors nature of much of the trait-based “professional standards” criteria. Most “professions”, such as mine, can only consistently tick the first one of them off, anyway: we are not necessarily educated to a high level; we are not “certified to practice” the way other “professions” understand the term; we are certainly not autonomous and self-regulated (although we have bags and bags of formal organisation – there seems to be no limit on the number of factions our professional bodies can split themselves into); research repeatedly shows that we only opportunistically adhere to prescriptive, deontological codes of ethics (and our working conditions often force us to ignore them); and we’re somewhat hit-and-miss on the altruism too. There are many other things we also do not have that people expect from a profession, but this is all well known and again, we have been here before.
So we have essentially failed to achieve something which was completely made up in the first place. That is even harder to do than it sounds. Well done us.
And I still don’t have a jetpack.
I’ll leave you with this:
No code can replace the need for psychologists to use their professional and ethical judgement. … Thinking is not optional. The code has been written primarily to guide, not to punish.
– British Psychological Society’s Code of Ethics and Conduct, 2009
A rulebook which has a rule which says that rules are only rules. That is better than “professional”: it is true. And truth is beautiful.
Let’s try for a bit more beauty in our lives, while we still have a shred of collective soul.
Ball, Stephen (2003): “The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity”, Journal of Education Policy, 18:2, 215-228
British Psychological Society (2009): Code of Ethics and Conduct, accessed online on 22/7/2014 at http://www.bps.org.uk/system/files/documents/code_of_ethics_and_conduct.pdf
Lingfield et al. (2012): “Professionalism in Further Education: Interim Report of the Independent Review Panel”, Department of Business, Innovation & Skills, accessed online on 22/7/2014 at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/32351/12-670-professionalism-in-further-education-interim.pdf
IfL (2014): “The proposed future of IfL: FAQs”, accessed on 4/7/2014 at https://www.ifl.ac.uk/our-work/what-were-working-on/the-proposed-future-of-ifl-faqs/
Lunt, Ingrid (2008): “Ethical Issues in Professional Life”, in Cunningham, B. (ed.) Exploring Professionalism, pp. 73-97, Bedford Way Papers
Runté, Robert (1995): “Is Teaching a Profession?”, in Taylor, G. & Runté, R. (eds.) Thinking about Teaching: An Introduction, Harcourt Brace
TES Connect (2014): “Institute for Learning to close over fears it will run out of money”, accessed on 4/7/2014 at http://news.tes.co.uk/further-education/b/news/2014/07/01/institute-for-learning-set-to-close-over-cash-fears.aspx
It is surprisingly difficult to pin down what a profession is, or was – if you don’t believe me, try reading around for yourself. It is an immensely depressing voyage of discovery, as though Magellan set off to find the route to Asia but found himself sailing down Bromley High Street instead.
Skipping a millennium of boring stuff about divinity and guilds and semi-secret all-male professional societies with a trowel and apron fetish, I’m given to understand that in the early twentieth century, the West’s budding sociologists made an early stab at these questions and produced “trait-based models” of professionalism: this largely consisted of using a remarkably blunt instrument to nail down a few jobs everyone pretty much agreed were probably professions, and then listing the elements they all had in common. To this day, you will still see the same general kind of list in textbooks or on the pamphlets and websites of regulators under the heading of something like “professional standards”:
A member of a profession:
- has a specialist set of skills informed by abstract knowledge
- has been educated to a high level, usually at university
- is certified to practice
- is part of a formally organised, self-regulated and autonomous body
- adheres to a Code of Ethics or Conduct or Practice
- provides services out of altruism
The lists do vary – there might be five, seven, nine items – but these six are representative. There are many problems with them but the glaring one is the horrible circular logic that informed their selection. Listing the features of something you found lying around is not explaining it or understanding it (sadly, Bloom’s taxonomy was yet to be invented), so this is really just a hall of mirrors. If a profession has these qualities because doctors, lawyers and surveyors are professionals and they have them, why then are doctors, lawyers and surveyors professionals? Because … they also have those qualities. The ones they … already had … because they are … professionals. The list, standing alone, does nothing to explain why any of these things are necessary in order to constitute a profession, or why some different attributes would not do just as well instead (or be even better). As an explanation of why a “profession” has these things, it’s about as mature as stamping your foot and saying “Because”.
You’ll also notice that payment is not listed. Many people’s (and some dictionaries’) first definition of a professional would be “someone who is good enough at what they do to get paid”, the antonym of “amateur” (from French via Italian via Latin, “someone who does it only for the love of it”). So why do wages (or love) not appear in the trait list? We are concerned here with the differences between a profession and an occupation, what is special and better about a professional. Bin men, abattoir workers and even the untouchable scum that work in advertising also get paid but they are not “professionals” in these terms, notwithstanding jokes with a particle of truth about the elevation of bin men to “sanitary engineers”.
A more thoughtful version of the trait model was the “functional-structural model” of professionalism, developed mid-20th century. Attempts were made to logically link certain of the traits together in order provide an interdependent web of justifications for their a priori existence. For example, if a professional requires expertise in the form of abstract knowledge (1), that knowledge must come from somewhere reputable and its attainment should be independently verifiable, which connects logically to the requirements of higher education (2) and certification (3). Likesay, traits 4 to 6 can be explained as mutually necessary due to the understandable public concern that an expert in a position of power requires some form of oversight and restraint, due to mankind’s more regrettable instincts: to protect the hapless public, and since a professional’s competence can only really be verified by another professional, we require peer scrutiny, which requires autonomous self-organisation and a prescriptive framework; a general sense of do-goodery and selflessness won’t hurt either in putting a limit (or at least a spotlight) on exploitative or harmful and therefore “unprofessional” behaviours. But despite these improvements, the model was still a lot more descriptive than explanatory: the specifics and first causes of professionalism are still pretty much bootstrapping themselves out of vacuum and do not explore alternatives or improvements.
At very roughly the same time, artisans and other skilled and semi-skilled workers (who unlike medics and lawmen rarely held actual powers of life and liberty over others but were still very able to influence and be valued by the community) realised that if all it takes to become a “professional” is that you follow this recipe, we could all become professionals. Remember that the 1950s was a time when the spectre of world war was seemingly forever exorcised and a dog had died in orbit: it was being confidently predicted that any day now, obsequious robots would be doing all our housework (and definitely not becoming self-aware and exterminating us), and we would all be flying around in atomic jetpacks on our six out of seven days off, or eating space food in space hotels in space, served to us by someone with an amazing beehive hair-do. “Progress” and “social mobility” must have seemed to have no horizon, not merely in terms of automation and the re-division of labour across class/race/gender/robot boundaries, but with the tantalising promise of ever-rising standards for all human endeavours. “Professionalisation”, the process of becoming more like a profession, became a real word and a trend, and over the next few decades, the “old professions” rapidly lost their exclusivity.
Yesterday, upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away
– William Hughes Mearns, 1899
Burning your reserves to establish just how “professional” you and your colleagues are is not a new activity. Workers in almost every occupation have, at one point or another, expended a considerable volume of blood, sweat, bile and a whole shelf of other secreta in pursuit of the question of just where in the pecking order their avocation lies.
The matter is especially loaded in those occupations sometimes described as “semi-professional” because of the dubious not-quite-status one acquires from living on a fault line, classic examples being teachers and social workers (my preferred colleagues for interpreting work). Liminality is both sexy and corrupted, and is very much a characteristic of the era: it is no coincidence that popular culture in the West is currently heaving with tales of vampires, zombies and morally ambiguous superheroes having torrid and needlessly complex liaisons and daddy issues on the eve of apocalypse. Identities are not what they were. The ink on everyone’s labels is running, like the tear-streaked mascara on a hard-working but second rate drag queen.
But even in the proper world of proper grown-up work, the wider questions of what a profession really is and whether it is desirable, useful or indeed possible to be a member of one are typically left unasked. It is all just assumed. Professionalism is an ideology: magically levitating, but you can’t see the strings. Challenging it takes some persistence and will probably be seen as a threat. If you have difficulty with professionalism, you must not be professional enough.
We forget (so easily) that the very broad concept of “a professional” is socially constructed, and like much else built out of bits of language and history, from semi-conscious mass participation in medial ephemera, the idea is really a bit of a dog’s breakfast. We construct an infinite variety of narratives about ourselves in our continually renegotiated attempts to make sense of anything: one story of “what a professional is” is never quite repeated, but cultural themes will re-occur. White coat, grey suit, red robes: the symbols of the old professions of doctor, accountant and judge have been created by a continual process of broadcast and regurgitation (literature, film, pub banter) that began in the Middle Ages; they are almost universally, if unconsciously, recognised. I knew I’d really graduated as a “master” of my “art” only when I saw the fuck-off-huge gold sceptres those blokes were nonsensically hefting at the ceremony.
“Professionalism” is not only symbolic but archetypical, a super-class, an abstract interface: a “profession”, a specific instantiation of professionalism, is more of a stereotype. For example, assuming some common cultural background, I can say “nurse” to you and can reasonably predict you are now thinking in terms of either Angel or Slut (and that’s just the boys). In 2014, Monty Python performed for the final time the sketch where the chartered accountant wants to be a lion tamer and everybody rolled around clutching their sides as if it were still 1969. An accountant who wants to be a lion tamer is silly.
We all “just know” what “professionalism” is, and of course, we all want to achieve it if we’re not certain we already did; we want desperately to hang on to it if we think we might have. Professionalism is inescapably bound to aspiration, because a professional is good marriage material; a professional has the respect of the community; a professional has power over the lives of others and is therefore a repository of trust, with responsibility and competence and integrity. A professional commands a rare wage, a prestigious status. A professional is an expert practitioner of an incomprehensible art, mysterious: much, much more than a mere “worker”. Small wonder we all want to be one.
There’s just one small problem: there is no such thing as a profession.
If you want to know what it’s like to be measured, observed, judged, ask a teacher. They will tell you that we have turned professionalism into a circus.
Teachers are usually interesting: teachers of teachers, squared. Recently I’ve been lucky enough to work with an exceptionally knowledgeable bunch. They introduced me to Professor Stephen Ball, well known in the field for his work on the sociology of education, national and international education policy, and performativity, a word my spell-checker is petulant about but which I first encountered decades ago when I was a (useless) gay activist. Perhaps this work could give us a glimpse into the future of the interpreting industry.
Coined by Professor Judith Butler and often related to Foucault’s discourse analysis, “performativity” was a term for the process of boot-strapping identity out of behaviours (especially with regards to gender and sexual orientiation). Ball’s usage is more specific to professionalism and managerialism but I feel it does have a little of the Butlerian performativity in it, the sense that what you do shapes your idea of what you think you are and not, as is more usually assumed, the other way round. In Ball’s influential 2003 paper “The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity“, he describes performativity as “a new mode of state regulation” which “requires individual practitioners to organize themselves as a response to targets, indicators and evaluations”. What it means to be a professional teacher has become a performance: a continuous process of inspections, of evidence, of quantitative measurement. It is no longer enough to simply be a good professional: you must be seen to be one, and to achieve that we need to create deontological criteria as a quantitative substitute for the messy, human sense of quality. This leads to cyclical scrutiny and inspections (by Ofsted in the case of teachers, by Signature/NRCPD in the case of BSL/English interpreters) which breed with market forces to create a new managerialism in a process of competitive intensification: a vicious cycle of inflating workloads and targets driven by bosses, lay industrialists pitted against other lay industrialists, professionalism as Excel spreadsheet formula.
The professionals, whose behaviour is now entirely controlled by non-practitioners, have lost autonomy. They no longer decide the targets to which they work or the nature of the work itself. They are continually tempted to create fabrications of the “evidence” they don’t really care about. The “recipe” for a “successful” Ofsted inspection no longer has anything to do with mere teaching or learning: it is all about framing the data (thanks to colleague Kim for pointing this link out), something which will be familiar to anyone who has heard of p-hacking. We live in a psychedelic professional world now where basic arithmetic no longer holds: every school must be “outstanding”, everything can all be above average. This has been a T9000 theme: anything below optimal isn’t good enough.
And so the identity of the professional becomes completely “empty”, soulless, and is now only an engine of alienation and existential terror. The identity no longer contains anything in itself, it has become something purely responsive to external demands, to the ticking of boxes and the establishment and subsequent enthronement of “standards”. The sum of this process, according to Ball, is that “the policy technologies of market, management and performativity leave no space of an autonomous or collective ethical self”. The central question of ethics – what is good in my work? – is no longer really asked: we don’t have enough time to ask each other questions like that. Teachers wonder just what on Earth they are doing with their lives – who the hell did I become? – and two-fifths of new ones leave the profession.
You could replace the word “teacher” with many other UK professions in all the text above. Now, I’m all in favour of Continuous Professional Development (CPD). In 2013 I logged something like quadruple the hours I needed to renew my registration as an interpreter. I was doing CPD before I took on the identity of An Interpreter – I thought everyone thought that training was useful and enjoyable. But for what purpose did I log those hours? Am I better at my job now (not really, no), or was that not the point of the CPD ritual? Are those logs audited because it makes us better (the official reason) or because it creates the spectacle of professionalism? We know we are professionals because we have standards and professionals don’t. Therefore you stop being a professional if you don’t sign up to them: it does not seem to matter that those standards read like Dr Seuss in comparison to academic interpreting literature. Professionalism in the 21st century needs to be reified, like those Tibetan prayer wheels which, if stopped from continually turning, will result in the objective universe being snuffed out like a candle.
The ASLI conference is coming up and this year it is titled “Professionalism – Lifting the Lid on Interpreting”, as if interpreting professionalism were Schrödinger’s cat in its lead-lined box, simultaneously dead and alive and neither and both, waiting for its quantum waveform to be collapsed by a passing observer. Of course, Schrödinger was just conducting a thought experiment, he didn’t think anyone would actually ever try it. In the real world, if you wait long enough, opening the box will reveal that the cat will simply be dead, every single time. The lid will be on a coffin; the soul will have long since fled.
(Edited May 2016)