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A DISCIPLINE VERSUS A PROFESSION
In addressing this issue, I’d like first to draw a distinction between a “discipline” and
a “profession.” A discipline is a branch of learning; it represents a body of knowledge
and accepted modes of inquiry, as well as historical and critical perspectives on that
particular subject. For example, chemistry and anthropology are disciplines.
A profession, on the other hand, is an occupation that involves the application
of knowledge and training in a discipline. Being a chemist or an anthropologist is a
profession. There is a discrete body of knowledge utilized, but we can distinguish
such knowledge from that of the discipline itself. For example, the chemist knows
how to structure an experiment and control some things while others are variable.
An anthropologist knows that certain practices of researchers’ immersion in a culture
can influence how the people being studied behave. These concepts are not
knowledge about chemical elements and their behavior or about humans and their
social interactions; instead, they are about the practices through which scientific and
anthropological understanding are applied in the work of the profession.design
Professions share some things in common: a documented history; a concern
for the development of methods; a code of ethics and standards of fair practice;
publication of substantive literature on the body of knowledge in the discipline,
including theoretical and critical discourse; and components of practice devoted
exclusively to research and the development of new knowledge. Graphic design
arose from the “trades” of printing and typesetting, and, until recently, its
practitioners were educated in working apprenticeships or vocational programs
focused almost entirely on the technical and formal issues necessary to bringing
image and text to print. Encouraged by the information age and the growth of the
knowledge economy, however, the field has developed new aspects and behaviors
that more fully express its more recent status as a profession.
The role of colleges and universities now engaged in professional education
is to instruct students in both the discipline and the profession of graphic design.
The underlying premise of professional programs is that a deep understanding of the
discipline is an essential prerequisite to its application in a professional context. The
contract between the institution and the undergraduate student is that the
disciplinary knowledge imparted will be relevant in some respect, not only
immediately upon graduation, but for the career lifetime of the individual. The
contract between the institution and the profession is that this knowledge base
results from an informed guess about what will serve the profession well into the
future. This is not to say that the discipline or profession won’t change in
unpredictable ways, or that some theories or concepts won’t lose their status in
relation to others over time, but that the requisite knowledge and skill set will allow
the individual to evolve with the field and its place in society. For this reason, a
curriculum is not a job description.design
Healthy professions transform themselves over time; they respond to changes
in the social, technological, and economic context as well as to the infusion of new
knowledge, modes of inquiry, and critical perspectives. History also shows that new
disciplines and professions emerge to meet new conditions, often exhibiting
simultaneously the demand for interdisciplinary degrees and specialization. In the
evolution of a traditional field, we often see new practices arise. Initially, there are
no titles for or consensus about the scope of work. But, it is clear that they deploy
distinctly different knowledge and professional behaviors than the parent field. In
graphic design, for example, the emergence of strategic design and interaction
design demanded different skills and knowledge than the print-based, form-making
activity of the past. For this reason, all professions benefit from their members being
well educated in areas not currently defined as exclusive to the profession. Study in
college subjects that are more frequently defined as part of a “general education”
are not merely in support of the well-rounded individual, therefore, but essential to
the future evolution of the individual’s chosen field.design