On Amateurism

A writer is, mostly, a professional amateur. – Ta-Nehisi Coates

Public amateurs can have exceptional social value, not least because they dare to question experts who want to remain unquestioned simply by virtue of accredited expertise; public amateurs don’t take “Trust me, I know what I’m doing” as an adequate self-justification. But perhaps the greatest contribution public amateurs make to society arises from their insistence — it’s a kind of compulsion for them — on putting together ideas and experiences that the atomizing, specializing forces of our culture try to keep in neatly demarcated compartments. – Alan Jacobs

The point is not to replace specialists, but to open the hermetic quarters of specialized knowledge to public forms of interrogation. So it is almost an anarchist position: people should be entitled to learn what they need to learn and to contribute to the decisions that affect them. It’s a question of cognitive sovereignty. These positions and methods: amateur research, self experimentation, collective experimentation, unregulated discourse, exposure of interest and transparency, collaboration with non-conforming scientists or experts, are meant to invade specialties with questions of value, questions that most specialization is designed to eliminate. Since art is a realm where values are debated, one of the points of the artist as public amateur is to perform learning publicly to bring the question of value to the production of knowledge. – Claire Pentecost

It doesn’t take long for a conversation between teachers to include something sarcastic about the fad du jour. By being sarcastic, we put up an umbrella to try protect our sanity from the ideas raining on us from administrators, academics, and yes, even colleagues. I will go further, and boldly say to the proponents of the current pedagogical panacea: I’m sorry, but whatever “evidence-based” product you’re selling today, I’m not buying. The research it is based on is flawed. The anecdotes that support it only apply to specific circumstances which are not easy to replicate. In short, as I have written before:nothing works. – Henri Picciotto

Looking for ways to expand your career while staying in the classroom is a real trick. What I’m wondering is if part of the mismatch has to do with a tension between amateurism and professionalism. A teacher is a professional amateur and every other role in education calls for expertise. Teacher-researcher, teacher-speaker, teacher-leader, all of these are amateur-expert pairings, and maybe for that reason they make a mismatch.

But if a writer is a professional amateur, and if that’s what teachers are too, well?

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11 thoughts on “On Amateurism

  1. How do writers advance their status? They don’t need to be come writer-leaders, or writer-administrators. They do amazing work, get recognized, and then they continue to do work amazingly. For a writer to advance in their career, they just have to keep doing excellent work. Stephen King didn’t need to get certified at grad school to be able to write the Shining. Ta-Nehisi Coates didn’t need to submit a portfolio of reflection essays and letters of recommendation to get all the awards he’s gotten in the last year. Writers do amazing work and that work is what distinguishes them.

    Teachers seem to need to translate the work they do because it can’t stand on it’s own. A large part of this may be the fact that teachers need to work with students who have a right to privacy. Since a teacher’s work happens in secret, how can they demonstrate that they are effective in their professional amateurism?

    To answer that, it seems like a number of mediums exist, and through those mediums the outside world can learn about a teacher’s effectiveness. Some mediums may be earning graduate degrees, or being able to give speeches, or having people nominate them for awards. None of these mediums truly communicate a teacher’s effectiveness as well as sitting through their class for a marking period. They can be gamed, and there is not equal access for all teachers. None of them can allow for an objective judgement of proficiency as a piece of writing can for a writer. But it’s kind of all there is for teachers given the nature of the job. Is there some other way to measure the effectiveness of a professioanl amateur in a field that requires such secrecy.

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    1. Since a teacher’s work happens in secret, how can they demonstrate that they are effective in their professional amateurism?

      While I’m fuzzy on all this, I don’t think that it’s possible for a teacher to demonstrate their effectiveness as teachers. What I’m playing with in this post is the possibility that teacher-writers might make more sense than teacher-researchers or teacher-leaders or teacher-consultants or teacher-activists.

      The one I’ve thought most about is research. To be a decent researcher is to acquire many kinds of expertise. You need to understand a literature, understand a methodology, understand another, understand another…there is a reason this takes years of graduate school to accomplish, and another reason why it takes years to be professionally accomplished as a researcher. This is a field of experts, and you need to develop expertise.

      To be a teacher-researcher is to resign yourself to amateurism in a world of experts. Which is fine, but the experts don’t typically care for your amateurism. (Some find it disrespectful to their expertise. Which is true.) And, truth be told, you really never can do great research work from just your classroom. So, professionally speaking, what good does it do for a teacher to be a teacher-researcher?

      What I’m thinking is that the situation is pretty different if we think about teacher-writing. Because writing already has room in its genres and conception for amateur knowledge. And yet writing is intellectually important and often influential work. There is no question that writing is a craft and you have to learn it, but to learn it is to engage in it.

      Right now there are no real venues for math teacher writing, unless it follows in the mold of teacher-research (NCTM journals) or professional development (perhaps wrongly, I see this as the dominant style of professional book publishing). Then you have blogs, which are basically “professional amateurism” without the “professional.”

      I think the experts in education often don’t understand what it is that would be empowering to classroom teachers. They often suggest that teachers engage in an impossible task: gain respectability by engaging in practices in which we lack expertise.

      Let me try to put it another way: teacher-research is always going to be second-rate. Teacher-writing could be first-rate.

      Like I said, this is all fuzzy to me. There’s a piece or two missing in all this, and I’m not sure where I’m going here. But that’s the thoughts I have at the moment.

      What do you think?

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  2. I completely agree with you. The problem is that the only venues for teacher writers are books and articles and only when they promote the viewpoint desired. which is why blogs are so good for teachers. I think you (and I, and others) have changed the world ever so slightly through our ideas and viewpoints, in ways that we never would have been able to do if we’d had to get published.

    “Teachers seem to need to translate the work they do because it can’t stand on it’s own. ”

    This is true, too. We *have* to write, or be filmed, because we otherwise can’t show what we’ve done. And of course, all we are really capturing is the performance, not the results.

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  3. Sidebar: It seems a shame that teachers can often gain prestige only insofar as they cease to be teachers, and start being something else (writers, researchers, “leaders”). Part of this, I think, is that teachers exert an intense influence on a small sphere, whereas in the other roles they exert a weaker influence on a bigger sphere. The former cultivates close personal relationships; the latter, recognition among strangers. It’s not clear to me which is actually a greater type of influence, but it’s clear which one our society honors more highly.

    (Sidebar to sidebar: Given the challenges of earning prestige as a teacher, it’s interesting that #mtbos provides an alternate system of doing so, by impressing a community of professional peers; it’s also interesting that many of its members seem wary on principle of creating such a hierarchy of prestige.)

    Anyway, I think there are some types of writing (I’m thinking of journalism, and to a lesser extent literary fiction) where the craft is so difficult to hone that you basically need to be an expert, or at least make an expert-level time commitment. But other types (particularly personal essays and memoir) are more accessible to amateurs, and are a good fit for teachers looking to expand into new roles.

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    1. Ben, I agree with much of your comment. I like your thoughts about genre. (But is the form/methodology of journalism what’s difficult? Or is it developing knowledge of a beat and building connections that takes time? Literary fiction is interesting to me because it seems quasi-academic in 2016, like jazz.)

      But other types (particularly personal essays and memoir) are more accessible to amateurs, and are a good fit for teachers looking to expand into new roles.

      I’m not talking about accessibility and skill, though. Instead, I’m thinking about genre, positioning, style and voice. I am not talking about ways that teachers can get away with not really knowing how to do something well. Here is the quote from Claire Pentecost that I should have included:

      One of the things I’m attached to is learning. And one of the models I’ve developed theoretically is that of the artist as the public amateur. Not the public intellectual, which is usually a position of mastery and critique, but the public amateur, a position of inquiry and experimentation. The amateur is the learner who is motivated by love or by personal attachment, and in this case, who consents to learn in public so that the very conditions of knowledge production can be interrogated. The public amateur takes the initiative to question something in the province of a discipline in which she is not conventionally qualified, acquires knowledge through unofficial means, and assumes the authority to offer interpretations of that knowledge, especially in regard to decisions that affect our lives.

      This is not a call for ignoring craft, skill or anything like that. I certainly don’t think that you can write like Ta-Nehisi Coates with anything but an expert-level time commitment. But he calls himself and his work “professional amateurism.” What do you think he means by that? Likewise do we think Pentecost meant that artists can sort of wing it without putting in the hours? No, I don’t. I think they’re talking about how they position themselves to their audience through their writing, and the social role they aim to fill.

      Teaching is a craft that largely takes place over time and in the mind, and therefore the craft can’t be shared by witnessing the craft. This requires us to represent it somehow, and we get to choose how. We can give talks, take videos, write or whistle about teaching. (Whether this is a shame or not, I can’t say particularly interests me.)

      So what I’m thinking is, what could teacher writing look like that resonates with other teachers? This is where I think of amateurism (in contrast with the social role of the expert) is helpful. I like Pentecost’s description of the work. Teacher writing, I think could be more eclectic, more interested in research while simultaneously being less respectful of that research, questioning in public, learning in full view of the reader.

      (If I continue thinking along these lines, I should probably share examples of what teacher writing in the register of an expert looks like, in contrast from the position of a “professional amateur.” Then again, the mention of “amateur” seems to upset people, so maybe it’s best to cast all this in different terms.)

      But, like I said, this is all rough draft thinking, and I’m trying to sort out what exactly I mean in all this. I appreciate your comments a ton!

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  4. Mmm, that’s a good quote – I’m getting more of an image of the kind of writing you’re talking about. Reminds me a little of the NY Times essay about how essays are exercises in doubt (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/16/the-essay-an-exercise-in-doubt/?_r=0). I think I was misreading your phrase “expand your career” as something like “pursue a wider variety of activities, for the sake of variety/personal exploration/broadcasting ideas/achieving a higher profile” rather than “enrich your thinking about the work you do, while sharing that thinking with a professional community.”

    In general, I really like this genre. I’m picturing essays where people raise decision points in teaching, then explore different things they’ve tried, trying to synthesize theory and research and experience into some sort of personal understanding or resolution.

    (When I said essays like that are “more accessible to amateurs,” by the way, I didn’t mean “lesser” or “devoid of craft.” I meant more than it’s a genre where reflecting critically on thoughts and experiences you’ve already had can yield potent, meaningful writing. Nothing you’d mistake for Coates, obviously, but stuff worth reading. So I think we’re in agreement there?)

    I’m really curious to see you develop what this writing looks like for teachers. One question I have: How much teacher-specific knowledge do you assume in the reader? It seems you could aim for an audience ranging from a narrow extreme of “classroom teachers working in the same subject and age group as me” to a broad extreme of “all educators plus any laypeople interested in education.” I imagine an early issue to settle in any piece of writing would be how to navigate the trade-off between reaching a wide audience and getting to assume they already know basic stuff?

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    1. A lovely comment, Ben, and we are mostly in agreement. (Can you agree with questions? Your’s are very good.)

      I hear you about memoirs. I don’t have a deep understanding of journalism, but I’ve been trying to read reported essays with more care. In particular, I’ve now read this piece two or three times. (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/07/magazine/when-your-baby-wont-eat.html?_r=0) The particular blend of personal storytelling, interviews, observations and research synthesis feels like a crafted version of something that reminds me of the work so many of us teachers do. I’m wondering: could a piece of writing about teaching from a teacher look like this?

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  5. The professional amateur has a few things going for them, as I think about it. One, they have the fact that they are a professional at something. Coates is a professional writer and has a collections of skills in that domain, as must Pentecost with her artwork. Also, the audience is a key piece of this. I think when Coates writes, he speaks to a particular audience. When the artist, Pentecost, does art, she does so knowing that her audience already understands and supports her medium and will support it.

    When they go to approach whatever situations with their professional amateur mindset, they do so with their skills and their audience firmly in mind. This seems different for teacher-writers. Teacher-writers have their skills in the classroom, or working with groups of teachers, or writing curriculum or any number of roles. Their practice is their main professional skill, writing is the secondary medium to portray that skill. Since those skills happen in secrecy, the closed-door problem again arises. Like a tree falling in the forest, if an educator approaches a new situation as a professional amateur, will it make a sound beyond their closed classroom door? If a teacher explores some new situation, perhaps incorporating social issues into a math class, who other than the students in that class will be able to experience it? Similarly for a non-teacher who analyzes a situation using their outside-the-classroom experience as a lens for making sense of a new situation. The teacher who is out posing questions, pursuing clarity,and learning has to apply their knowledge they have about their craft to it, and then also make that knowledge AND convey what they learned to the outside world.

    As the teacher writes about how they applied their professional skills, they then need to decide what the audience is. Is the people who are all in the same world and share the same values, like MTBoS? Is it to draw in the world at large, and is to be accessible to everyone? Are you storytelling to your friends, or random people you don’t know? (This seems like a key tension in the twitter exchange we had last week)

    Well, it seems like the professional amateurs seem to face this challenge by focusing on their audience. Because they are skilled, that ends ups being a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean their goal is mass appeal. As they face a new situation, and experience things they want to convey, they probably want to get their thoughts out as clearly as possible, and get feedback from people they respect. It seems a lot easier to convey things to your friends than to people you don’t know. Being an expert and an authority is a good way to approach explaining things to strangers. Using the professional amateur approach seems to make sense when the audience is people who really understand the teacher-writer’s viewpoint and respect their craft.

    I was debating about making this into a post on my blog, but I’ll say it here.

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    1. Their practice is their main professional skill, writing is the secondary medium to portray that skill.

      I certainly agree that there are aspects of Coates’ practice that are expert-like, in that his writing craft is his focus, and this happens in public.

      At the same time, he isn’t aiming to convince people on the basis of his style and ability to structure a long piece. He’s making claims on the basis of (say) historical analyses, and here he is an amateur. His learning happens in situations not unlike that of the teacher — behind closed doors. How does he get this knowledge? That is his true craft. I don’t know how he does this. He reads a lot, he talks to people, he goes places and he thinks, I don’t know in what proportions but this is a lot what we teachers can do. We gain knowledge in private.

      In short, I’m not entirely seeing the contrast between the writer and the teacher in terms of acquisition of knowledge. I take it that you’re pointing out that there is a difference when we think about professional performance. If you do fantastic work in the classroom, nobody will know about it. That’s true. Though if you learn something, you can can share that. I think that’s just how it goes. Analogously, if Coates asks some fantastic questions in an interview, nobody will know. Unless that leads to learning, as it must, and then he can share that knowledge with us.

      Another way to interpret your comment is pointing out the difference in time-commitment needed by the writer or the teacher. Teachers are writers in their free time. Coates is a writer as his job. This is undeniably true, and there is absolutely nothing that you can do about this if you’re a teacher.

      Oliver Sacks is another writer-professional amateur hero of mine. Reading his stuff I hit a point where I wondered, how does he do this in his free time? While reading his memoir I got a taste of the answer. First, he compulsively wrote. Second, mid-career he got fired from his main practice and then spent most of the rest of his career as a consulting physician and a writer.

      So, yeah, this takes time that most teachers don’t have. This is a shame, but I hardly see anything that we can do about it.

      I agree very strongly with your last paragraph. I think you nailed it, with regards to audience.

      Thanks for your continued thoughts! We should get back to writing.

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