How professional should you be in your work?

Salaita, Khalidi

I discovered a 2009 post from Terrance Tao’s blog entitled Be professional in your work when someone linked from it to this blog, most probably because Piper Harron’s much-discussed thesis, mentioned breaks most of Tao’s sensible rules.  For example,

being frivolous is fine with friends, but can be annoying for your colleagues, especially those who are busy with similar responsibilities.

One’s writing should also be taken seriously; your work is going to appear in permanently available journals, and what may seem witty or clever today may be incredibly embarrassing for you a decade from now.

The tone of the writing should be neutral and professional; personal opinions (e.g. as to the importance of a subject, a paper, or an author) should be rarely voiced, and clearly marked as opinion when they are.

“In short,” Tao concludes, “you should write professionally.”

Tao isn’t any more phallogocentric than I am, and his rules are all very rational.  In and of themselves, such rules are not responsible for the

oppressive atmosphere, which is carefully maintained and even championed by those who find it conducive to success.

to which Harron refers in her Prologue.  The professional attitude, however, is not an emanation of pure reason; it has a history and it serves stabilizing functions, and both the history and the functions have been analyzed by people whose business it is to analyze such things.  Some references are given in notes 65-68 to Chapter 8 of MWA.  On pages 242-248 of MWA, and again on pp. 253-256, there are some thoughts about the history of professional seriousness in mathematics, but since it’s not my business to analyze such things, I limit myself to speculation.

Much of MWA was written deliberately in a style that tests the boundaries of professional seriousness, and this is precisely because one of my goals in the book was to make manifest the arbitrariness and historical contingency of the canons of professorial decorum.  (Also because, as this paragraph illustrates, when I try to adopt a serious tone the words get so ponderous that they overwhelm the content.)  For me this is an innocuous exercise in style, but Steven Salaita — pictured above to the left, in a photo I took on October 6 at Book Culture in New York, with Rashid Khalidi on the right — experienced the full coercive force of rules of professional civility in the academic setting when the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign cancelled his tenured appointment as associate professor in the Program of American Indian Studies, justifying this decision on the basis of Salaita’s “disrespectful” tweets in the wake of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.  Since Salaita had resigned his previous position, this left him without a job.  Substantial material consequences ensued from the judgment that the tone of his writing had not been “neutral and professional,” and this judgment was based on his writing off-campus; imagine what the punishment would have been had he tweeted rudely on university time.

The case was taken up by the University Senate Committee on Academic Freedom, and by the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, whose comprehensive report on the case makes for very interesting reading; Section VI, on the responsibilities of university professors to be moderate in our extramural speech, is a matter that concerns us all.  Lawyers were also contacted, and a month after I heard Salaita in October he reached a settlement with UIUC.  I mention Salaita because, as he explains very clearly in his book Uncivil Rites,

My discourse may appear uncivil, but such a judgment can never be proffered in an ideological or rhetorical vacuum. Civility and incivility make sense only in frameworks influenced by countless social and cultural valuations, often assisted by misreading or distortion.… In colonial landscapes, civility is inherently violent.

Or, to quote the Committee A report,

“civility” is vague and ill-defined. It is not a transparent or self-evident concept, and it does not provide an objective standard for judgment. Historians have shown that over the centuries (whether used by aristocrats to distinguish themselves from the bourgeoisie, by the bourgeoisie to elevate themselves above the lower classes, or by Christians to establish their superiority to Jews and Muslims) the notion of civility consistently operates to constitute relations of power. Moreover, it is always the powerful who determine its meaning—a meaning that serves to delegitimize the words and actions of those to whom it is applied. So, to take one example, students engaged in peaceful sit-ins in the 1960s in Greensboro, North Carolina, were deemed by local police to be behaving in an uncivil manner. Or to take another from the nineteenth century, Western European imperial powers often justified their conquests as efforts to “civilize” native populations.

Salaita, who is perfectly capable of adopting the register of professorial seriousness (and of speaking eloquently at the same time, which is not so common), uses incivility tactically, it turns out, in order to highlight power relations, in the explicit spirit of anti-colonial resistance.  This is not so different from Piper Harron’s departure from accepted standards of discourse in the writing of her thesis, and not so different from the tactical use of a variety of registers, not all recognizably professorial, in MWA.  One big difference is that, as a specialist in American Indian Studies, it is his business to call established power relations into question, and to do so using rhetorical tactics as well as scholarly analysis.  The bigger difference is that he paid a huge price for his departures from the norms of civility.








1 thought on “How professional should you be in your work?

  1. Pingback: The diversity statement controversy, III | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

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