The Shop Talk of Amateurs & Professionals

by Jeff Schmidt

Nothing reveals more clearly the degree to which employed professionals are alienated from their subjects than does the sharply contrasting behavior of the hobbyists or "buffs" in their fields. When hobbyists encounter one another at a social gathering, before long you will find them talking eagerly about the content of their subject of common interest, showing an excitement, enthusiasm, wonder and curiosity that is reminiscent of beginning professional students. This rarely happens when professionals talk casually with their colleagues. Unlike the amateurs, the professionals don't talk much about the work itself; they often appear detached from their subject, as if they don't derive much satisfaction from it. Yes, they "talk shop," but their focus is so far from the content of the work itself that you would have a hard time if you had to guess what kind of "shop" they work in. A commercial bank? A junior high school? A government agency? A university department? Casual conversation among professionals tends to focus on the actions and personalities of employers and powerful figures within their fields -- the standard gossip topics of the powerless. Their gossip is by no means idle, however, for the politics are central to their work as professionals.

Thus, at the wine-and-cheese reception after an English department colloquium, a first-year graduate student musters the courage to approach the speaker, a well-known professor from another university, and ask a question about literature. But before the conversation has gotten very far, a local faculty member walks up and derails it with the question that he has been waiting to ask: "Is Jones really planning to leave Yale? I heard a rumor." Soon the two professors are engrossed in a wide-ranging discussion about job openings around the country, research grants, book contracts, journal editors and who's jockeying for power in the field. The graduate student, realizing that the conversation is not going to return to the evidently less important topic of literature, retreats back into the crowd. Versions of this generic scene occur frequently in every field.

The professors here symbolize the tragedy of all employed professionals who started out as students loving their subjects. Such students submit themselves to the process of professional training in an effort to be free of the marketplace, but instead of being strengthened by the process they are crippled by it. Deprived of political control over their own work, they become alienated from their subjects and measure their lives by success in the marketplace.

SOURCE: Schmidt, Jeff. Disciplined Minds : A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. From Chapter 8: pp. 145-146.

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Uploaded 21 June 2001

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