I always feel a little itchy when someone talks about acting professional or looking professional or wanting to appear professional. I think it's because on my campus, the word is sometimes used as some sort of weapon, a way to keep progressive thinkers in line.
Professional sometimes means conforming to the way we've always done things in this profession. No new ideas, new perspectives, or new ways of thinking allowed.
"No, you can't do that. It just wouldn't be professional."
Junior faculty are not supposed to question that line of thinking. I think they should. I love it when new young faculty bring in new ways of doing things, new ways of teaching, even new ways of dressing. I hate it when all the energy get stamped down by old-timers sneering and saying, "That new professor just isn't very professional."
A retired colleague who was one of the first women ever hired on our campus says that in her early days, her chair would tell her that she was not dressing "professionally." When she finally questioned what this meant, she was told that looking professional meant wearing a suit and tie. This was in the days before stores even carried suits for women. A suit was something found in the men's department. Often the word professional means: looking and acting like a white man in navy blue suit.
On my campus the word professional almost always means acting in ways that would be traditionally considered masculine. (I'm not essentializing here - I'm talking about the socially constructed category of masculine.) Wearing a tie is professional. Wearing a skirt is not. A short haircut is professional. Long hair is not. Carrying a briefcase is professional. Carrying a purse is not. Acting cold and distant with students is professional. Acting nurturing and supportive is not. Always acting like an expert is professional. Admitting that you don't have all the answers is not. Asking questions that really just show off your own knowledge is professional. Asking questions that you are curious about is not. Acting calm and rational is professional. Being passionate about your work or openly emotional is not.
I worry that we are not moving fast enough to change our concept of what professional means. It's not just the academy; it's the larger community as well. We still vote for politicians who look like .... white men in navy blue suits. Howard Dean gives an enthusiastic yell at a rally and his political career is over. Hilary Clinton is bashed incessantly in my conservative community, not for her political stances, but for the way she wears her hair or what goes on in her marriage. I asked my students last semester - and these are college students in the northeast, a fairly enlightened population - if they could even envision the country electing a president who didn't fit the image of the white heterosexual male. Sadly, they said no.