There has been quite the stir around here this past few weeks as the Department of History's new office space in O'Kelly Hall is being prepared, and the last of us in Merrifield Hall are anxiously awaiting access to our new digs. Much of the buzz about our new space has centered on the idea that it must look "professional". Whenever there is any conversation surrounding professionalism in the discipline of history, I'm interested -- as both my History 240: The Historians Craft and my graduate historiography class have a section on the development of the discipline of history as a profession.
Like many academic professions, history has always had an awkward relationship with the professionalization process. We have the requisite institutional components: the American Historical Association, the American Historical Review, et c. which all have esteemed and glorious pedigrees. (For example, the AHA was actually founded by an act of congress). On the other hand, unlike archaeology (for example) or other professional disciplines (like Law), history does not have frame the values and standards of the profession precisely in terms of ethics. There are, of course, ethical statement surrounding matters such as plagiarism and practices of employment, but these are rather universal rules that would be more or less at home in any academic profession. What I am trying to say is that history has few professional standards that are distinctive or unique to history as discipline. There is no professional obligation to belong to the AHA, there is no professional certification processes, there is no accrediting body for department (although departments do evaluate one another periodically), and there are no formal standards for what constitutes a B.A. or M.A. or even Ph.D. in history (outside of what the universities provide and what is expected for accreditation of the university and graduate program in a very general way). Moreover, as P. Novick has made abundantly clear, debates over issues of methodology and capital "T" truth have produced more conflict than consensus.
So, from the perspective of history as a discipline, there is some irony that we are being moved into "more professional" offices. The appearance of professionalism and professional substances should not in this case be confused with the real thing in the eyes of the public. Even if all of our offices are a lovely blue color and the floors clad in state-of-the-art carpet squares, we will still represent a cross section of the motley "professional" agglomeration that is the discipline of history.
Another concern, of course, is that the days of the traditional, homogenized, professional identities are on the wane more generally. The University has recently unveiled a series of new "branding" words which include "innovative", "creative" and "entrepreneurial". In today's economic and professional climate, these words evoke the opposite of blue walls and carpet tiles. In fact, the corporate interpretation of "professionalism" has fallen into deep repute as "perp walks" and congressional hearings increasingly involve individuals decked out in uniforms associated with the professional world. The teetering global economy challenges the traditional white-collar standards of professionalism as the traditional professional styles come to be associated with unethical or even illegal behavior, mismanagement, and violations of the public trust.
Ironically (perhaps), the saviors of our current crisis and the bastions for innovation, creativity, and the entrepreneurial spirit are the free-wheeling tech start ups with their chaotic, open offices, hipster presentation, and decentralized, bi-coastal, workspaces. Carpet squares give way to graffiti art and mismatched furniture. The future of American professionalism is not in institutional colors and homogeneity (specifically designed to promote the public trust and to hide the obscure and sneaky white-color criminals), but the bright, chaotic, informal spaces of tech start ups whose office space reveals the flexibility, edginess, and dynamism required to stay ahead of the current curve. (See for example, Twitter Headquarters, Apple, Craiglist, Friendfeed (recently acquired for an undisclosed amount by Facebook), et c.)
As universities remain one of this country's greatest assets, and there is optimism that universities will also contribute significantly to finding solutions for future economic, social, and technological problems. The intellectual life, opportunities to experiment, and innovation cultivated in American universities represent an important and powerful impetus for global creativity. So, it is reasonable to wonder whether the iconic models of professionalism represent the way forward? This question is all the more salient for a profession such as history which has always cultivated a dynamic professional foundation
To put this question another way, can we afford to paint over creativity?