I’ve always been interested in considering more fully the too often neglected relationship between the developing inner life of a teacher and the varied paths teachers’ lives actually take. A number of years ago I found in the writing of Parker Palmer a useful starting point. In Palmer’s terms, a professional identity is a “moving intersection” of a reflective inner life and the outward expression of that life in the integrity of one’s work. Palmer, an educator, adds that this kind of “inward integration” enables the “outward connections on which good teaching depends” (15). In his book The Courage to Teach Palmer goes on to say that “a vocation that is not mine, no matter how externally valued, does violence to the self-in the precise sense that it violates my identity and integrity on behalf of some abstract norm” (30). For Palmer, the costs of this division between dominant professional narratives and individuals who adopt them are not incidental. For “When I violate myself,” he goes on to say, “I invariably end up violating the people I work with. How many teachers inflict their own pain on their students, the pain that comes from doing work that never was, or no longer is, their true work?” (30). For me, Palmer provides a way to see more clearly how professional identities are determined through acculturation and accommodation-to the values, politics, and persons, of particular institutions, as well to the often harsh realities of academic labor.
“Identity,” as Parker Palmer defines it, “lies in the intersection of the diverse forces that make up my life, and integrity lies in relating to those forces in ways that bring me wholeness and life rather than fragmentation and death” (13). But how do we seek such connections in the diverse and often exploitative conditions of the academe? How do we make the right choices in institutions that do not have out interests in mind? Colleges and universities are, after all, businesses that consists of workers, management, means of production, product, customers, stakeholders; that run on money and are part of the economy; that produce a product called education; and that involves evaluation and sorting of individuals. How do we navigate the feudal organization of the academic institutions that are sustained by perpetuating calcified hierarchical structures complete with modern versions of nobility and serfs? How do we cultivate identity and integrity in institutions that operate with a reptilian brain, motivated only to survive and grow and that use individuals sustain the organism rather than as distinct persons with differing needs? How do we find alternative narratives that might allow us to break from the abstract norms of the profession, even if this means leaving higher education in the interests of wholeness and life rather than fragmentation and death?