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)