New Professionals in the Writing Classroom

In his article*, “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited,” Parker J. Palmer offers that he became a professor “animated in part by the belief that education can humanize us.” Palmer asks “Does education humanize us?” and concludes, “Sometimes, but not nearly often enough” because we “turn our graduates loose on the world as people who know, but do not recognize that our justice system often fails the poor, that corporate logic usually favors short-term profits over sustainability, that practical politics is more about manipulating public opinion than discerning the will of the people, that our approach to international relations is laced with arrogance about our culture and ignorance of others, that science and technology are not neutral but rather means to social ends.” Palmer asserts that “If higher education is to serve humane purposes, we who educate must insist that knowing is not enough, that we are not fully human until we recognize what we know and take responsibility for it.”

Palmer makes the case for “educating a ‘new professional'” as in “a person who is not only competent in his or her discipline but has the skill and the will to deal with the institutional pathologies that threaten the professional’s highest standards.

Palmer mentions two important realities undergirding his “call for a new professional who can confront, challenge, and help change the workplace”: (1) “our large, complex institutions are increasingly unresponsive to external pressure, even on those rare occasions when an informed and organized public demands change” and (2) “the functions of a profession are not necessarily those of the institutional structure that house it . . . We need professionals who are ‘in but not of’ their institutions, whose allegiance to the core values of their fields makes them resist the institutional diminishment of those values.”

In seeking to answer the question of, “What would the education of the new professional look like?” Palmer shares “five immodest proposals”: (1) “We must help our students uncover, examine, and debunk the myth that institutions are external to and constrain us, as if they possessed powers that render us helpless — an assumption that is largely unconscious and wholly untrue” (2) “We must take our students’ emotions as seriously as we take their intellects” (3) “We must start taking seriously the ‘intelligence’ in emotional intelligence” (4) “We must offer our students the knowledge, skills, and sensibilities required to cultivate communities of discernment and support” (5) “We must help our students understand what it means to live and work with the question of an undivided life always before them”. Palmer suggests that overall, “The education of the new professional will offer students real-time chances to translate feelings into knowledge and action by questioning and helping to develop the program they are in . . . an academic culture that invites students to find their voices about the program itself, gives them forums for speaking up, rewards rather than penalizes them for doing so, and encourages faculty and administrative responsiveness to student concerns.”

In his conclusion, Palmer suggests that “The word ‘professional’ originally meant someone who makes a ‘profession of faith’ in the midst of a disheartening world. That root meaning became diminished as the centuries rolled by, and today it has all but disappeared. ‘Professional’ now means someone who possesses knowledge and techniques too esoteric for the laity to understand, whose education is proudly proclaimed to be ‘value free.'” Further, “The notion of a ‘new professional’ revives the root meaning of the word. This person can say, ‘In the midst of the powerful force-field of institutional life, where so much conspires to compromise the core values of my work, I have found firm ground on which to stand—the ground of personal and professional identity and integrity—and from which I can call myself, my colleagues, and my profession back to our true mission.'”

I found Parker’s piece so moving and significant, that it of course prompted me to think about how I can take advantage of opportunities within my own coursework (including GEDI) to transform into a “new professional” as he outlines throughout his article. For starters, I think I may assign this article as the first reading in my First-Year Writing (ENGL 1106) courses here at Virginia Tech next fall. I believe this piece gives students an conceptual excellent framework for understanding the need for a broad well-rounded education, including the ability to write. Secondly, inspired by Palmer’s work, I want to cultivate an environment in my classroom where my students feel free to critique the program itself. I plan to have students make some early decisions as a group about what we will study, how we will study it, and to make frequent check-ins with students to check the pulse of the class and how the learners are interacting with it. Lastly, I also hope that my writing classroom can help students develop the skills needed to cultivate and hone their professional identities, to be able to articulate their views and their opinions and needs in a clear, compelling manner.

*Parker J. Palmer “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited.” Change, vol. 39, no. 6, 2007, pp. 6-12.

9 Replies to “New Professionals in the Writing Classroom”

  1. I like your idea about cultivating an environment where students have some say in the course content. I have had a few professors do this recently, and my first thought was that it was a terrible idea. They are supposed to be the expert! I want a week by week course syllabus with everything defined! You cannot just let students decide things! However, after doing it, I found that my class experience as a student was so much better because it was more personal and beneficial to my educational journey. It definitely requires some willingness to give up control (which I am so bad at doing!), but the outcome is a better overall experience for students. Good luck with this! I hope it works out well!

  2. Yesss, an especially powerful point on the need to fight the unethical power structures that comprise our system, so to speak, by empowering our students and seeing them as full-on humans with pulses and feelings and lives away from academia. (Crazy thoughts!)

    Also, the etymology of “professional” is noteworthy here. How has the definition evolved from one focused on faith to one that denotes a sense of empowerment, of elitism, of otherness?

    I’m excited to hear more in the future about your endeavors with your 1106 class! Your plans for the course are healthy—and, in such productive health, unfortunately, unique. Giving students a voice will create that much stronger of a learning environment.

  3. On the topic of seeing students as people, I think a point that needs to be reiterated and is almost completely lost in the current American culture, is that people should work to live, not live to work. The American mindset of work work work, at most two weeks vacation in a year, the majority of which is used up for taking care of children, and work work work some more, is incredibly unhealthy and poisonous. Add to that the difficulty many people have in getting any kind of leave for childbirth, and that if they do get time off it’s considered “short-term disability,” is disgusting and short-sighted. As educators, we need to engender in our students a feeling of self-worth, that they can demand and expect better pay, more vacation, and flexible work hours. Because it does work, Europe has its problems but its people routinely score higher on happiness and education metrics, two areas that should be on the top of the priorities list for any country. I keep ranting in these comments, my apologies, but thanks for your post!

    1. To Savannah and as a response to Jackson’s comment, I think we can start students thinking of work and all of our eventual professions this by presenting ourselves as whole people with interests and skills outside of the scientist/historian/teacher they see us as. Essentially, being a role-model of a well-rounded person living a healthy life and also doing good work.

  4. Savannah,

    Props to you for being willing to introduce flexibility and critique into your classroom at such an early point in your teaching career. When I think about my pedagogy at a theoretical level I believe that this is important, but when I think about actually doing it in practice, it scares the heck out of me! I would definitely be interested to see how this approach works for you. One challenge in innovating is dealing with students who are programed to work and learn in a certain way, but as Palmer says, when become part of the problem when we lean into our institutional constraints.

  5. It is much more difficult to propose a solution to the problems than to point out the problems. I am glad that you are willing to try to reform it. You will be a pioneer of the new professionals!

  6. Hey Savannah,
    Thank you for your post. I actually hadn’t read the article before reading your post, but your post made me enthusiastic about reading it. I hope you do use this article in your classroom next semester. I would be curious to learn how your students respond and what emotional response they have to Palmer’s call for action to create a new professional. Your plan for next semester sounds great! Thanks again for sharing.

  7. You are right, Parker`s piece is very significant. It is worth to assign to students. I think your students will be inspired and in their turn make others benefit from this article. I wish many students could have a chance to read it. Thinking about food science students I have no idea on the kind of assignment I can create to have them read articles like Parker`s. This fact makes me think again about ways education can better “humanize” learners before they integrate universities where they will be focusing on specific fields of studies. I am pretty sure if I was not accepted in a teaching scholarship and get my adviser encouraged me to take the Preparing the Future Professoriate Certificate courses I would not encounter the so instructive themes we explored throughout the semester.

  8. Thank you for this interesting post. When I was reading it what I was reminded of his Humero’s example, when he came to the class and explained how difficult it was to convince the department people to agree for PBL strategy to be used for a class. And I think more such brave people are needed in this profession.

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