Ways of Seeing and Being

Walking east on a sunny forenoon in Chicago gives you the double exhilaration of moving fast and not being able to see.  The late-morning sun was full in my face, and on every side, business guys and lawyer women and accountants strode to the city’s center. I was fresh off the Metra and headed towards a late-morning lunch with Trinity alumna Melanie Jackson Krutcheon.

We soon found a place to perch in the courtyard of the Roti Mediterranean Grill, and with plates of mixed greens and cous-cous and chopped chicken we set to talking about the last five or six years of living since Melanie graduated.  Not only was it great to enjoy family news (we both have middle-school kids), but it was great to see her flourishing in her work, having enjoyed a pretty steep promotion in her event-planning division: her administrative role gives her a great deal of say in the pre-production, marketing, and execution of events at her company (Northwestern University Medical). 

On a whim—and because I’m teaching a senior seminar this fall—I asked her what she looks for in professionalism from her employees.  I told her I had just read an article about college students’ inattention to the norms of professionalism. 

“Do you see any of that in your office?” I asked, still playing the role of the professor, still asking leading questions, still hoping for discussion-starters.  I needn’t have been anxious about a response from Mel.

“I could talk about that all day,” she said.  So, in a conspicuous role reversal, I (her erstwhile professor) reached into my backpack and pulled out a notepad while she (my former student) began holding forth, almost in lecture style, on what she’s come to think that professionalism entails.

She talked about dressing modestly and listening intently and writing thank-you notes.  She warned about Facebooking your boss (“Watch what’s on your screen!”) and being overly casual with executives and using gender-exclusivist language.  And she said that when it comes to meetings, put the phone away, away, away.  

By the end of our conversation, I had professional mandates to share with my senior seminar students as they enter the workforce next year.  If you’d like to see this list, I’ve geekily uploaded it to my Evernotes and would gladly show you. It is in effect a Ten-Commandment-style list of thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots in professional life.

This energizing conversation with Mel has opened another question—one that we had to forgo so we could finish our cous-cous and get her back to work.  Here’s the query: is professionalism a sufficient norm for what employers are hoping for in their employees? 

I mean, it’s easy to imagine someone being crisply and strictly professional and still being a deplorable co-worker.   (I’m thinking of a rather unprofessional expletive that I might use to describe such a person.  But I’ll refrain.)

Something to consider: Michael J. Hyde’s The Life-Giving Gift of Acknowledgement explores the ethical richness of an apparently simple action: acknowledging the other.  This, he says, is different from simply recognizing someone.  To acknowledge someone is to be open to their humanness; it is to speak and listen in such a way that you make a space for others to be who they are.  It is amazing how often simple things like respect and focus and care and intentness surfaced in Melanie’s remarks.  And that makes me wonder if what we’re hoping for in professional life might be encapsulated in this idea of acknowledgement

Yesterday, while talking about this with my senior-sem students, Kaitlin Feddema raised the point that professional life doesn’t always allow us time to offer a deep acknowledgement of the other.  If you tried to practice a deep attention to everyone in the office or on the jobsite, it would be like trying to wave at every driver you passed on the Dan Ryan.  But my favorite thing about Hyde’s notion of acknowledgement is that it’s stubbornly practical.  Put differently, it’s stubbornly situated.  He’s interested in appropriateness to the setting.  Shared work in the laboratory or in the corner office or at the archeological dig site asks of us a different sort of attention than we give over a glass of wine.  Accordingly, Hyde encourages us to acknowledge one another, not simply to strengthen our interpersonal relationships, but in order to pay attention with others to matters of shared concern.  Acknowledgment is not just a way for me to attend to you–it is that, of course–but it’s also a way for me to attend with you to something that matters to both of us.    

This Honors Blog Post, I admit, has a more professional focus that most do.  But I’m wondering if acknowledgment might offer a richer way of approaching not only the highly disputable norms of professionalism, but also the norms of being an Honors Student in Christian community.  

Today you’re thinking mostly about your immediate reading assignments and the journal entries you have to submit tomorrow afternoon and the four-mile run you have to fit in somewhere.  Today you’re already wondering if you’re up to all the work your professors have conspired to create.  You might feel like I did on that sunny morning on a Chicago avenue this past July, swept along by a current of busyness and hurry: exhilarated by the momentum, but a little blinded, too. But as you take up the work of the semester—and as you wend your way towards becoming contributors in contemporary society—I wonder if you’d give thought to the usefulness of this way of being and seeing, this practice of ethical attention.  I’d encourage you to practice acknowledgment today on sidewalks, in classrooms, in dorm rooms, not just for the sake of being a VeryNicePerson, but for the very practical sake of attending with others to communal tasks of teaching and learning, learning and teaching.  


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