Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Professional Obligations

 One of the baffling quirks of academia as a profession is that academics have a tendency to manufacture professional obligations. All professions have obligations that go beyond contractual requirements; that's one of the things that makes them professions rather than ordinary occupations. But academics are the only professionals I know who seem to make up completely fictional professional obligations and treat them as if they were real. Three cases that I have come across just in the past few months on Twitter, when I do my meanders on Twitter to try to find reading recommendations:

* There was a philosophy professor who got into some kind of argument with some other philosophy professor, and as a disparaging remark he noted that the other had no publications; to which he snidely commented something like 'You have an obligation to publish.'

* There was a physics professor who, in response to a complaint about the heavy dependence of so many job searches on letters of recommendation, said something like 'Faculty, stop complaining about writing letters of recommendation; it's your job.'

* There was an economics professor (I think he was in economics, at least) who said graduate students should not turn down requests for them to review papers without a 'reasonable explanation'.

All three of these supposed obligations are nonexistent, and what is more, they are obviously so. (The third one is very obviously not an obligation of graduate students, who don't fully have professional obligations yet, but it's not even an obligation of full-time professors.) You can refuse to do any of these things perfectly well, and still be an academic and, indeed, even a very effective one, fulfilling your professional obligations. An academic, as a professional, has a general obligation to the profession, to contribute to its research, its teaching, and its functioning. You could do that by publishing (a very popular route), you could do that by writing letters of recommendation, you could do that by refereeing papers, you could do that in a lot of ways. But here's the thing: as a professional, it's a matter of your judgment. You could, of course, have contractual obligations on top of these general obligations, arising from your institutions, and even when not an obligation at all, you might want to do something like publishing in order (for instance) to get a job at certain institutions because that is part of their requirements for whether they will hire. But the particular form the fulfillment of your professional obligations takes is a matter of your own professional judgment. You can in fact be bold and decide whether it is appropriate or worthwhile.

I wonder, sometimes, if many of the problems that plague academia are aggravated by precisely this tendency to make up fictional professional obligations, which leads to academics not taking responsibility for the judgments that structure their professional careers. Academics complain about all sorts of things in academic life. Some of these things they are required to do by contract. But for a great many of them, the question arises as to why anyone needs to put up with them at all. Many of the recognized ills of academic publishing for philosophy, for instance, arise from the fact that philosophers keep doing things that sustain them. You don't actually have to judge job candidates on their publications; you could, for instance, actually take the trouble of investing in young scholars rather than trying to poach those who have already been invested in by other people. You don't actually have to keep giving away material free or at a pittance to academic publishers who then turn around and charge libraries and independent scholars exorbitant amounts; you could just stop doing that, and confine yourself to open-access publishers or in-house journals of philosophical societies, even if that meant less publishing, or you could even just not publish except when you judge the occasion to be right and appropriate. I could increase the list quite a bit. For a lot of things, you could just not do them. Unless you've signed a contract that requires them, or they are required to comply with some kind of law, or you are trying to get a kind of position that requires them, you can in fact exercise your own professional judgment as to whether it is a good use of your time, talent, and effort.

Some such things might still be valuable for you to do, of course; that's something you might judge to be the case. But academics often seem not to think that they have any room for professional judgment about the form taken by their professional activities at all, and keep doing things because they think they somehow have to do so. I don't know what the reason for this is.