Talented Amateurs

I ventured to suggest something to an older lady during a social function a few weeks ago. She looked at me over the top of her glasses and said, “I taught at [out-of-state community college] for thirty years. I know where to find information.” Sensing that I’d lost the battle at least twenty years ago, I bowed my head, acknowledging my ignorance, and returned to eating my helping of corn casserole. I cannot know anything about Topic X because that is not my field and because I am at least 30 years too young. So be it.

I mentioned this some time later to Dad Red, who has crossed paths with the lady himself. He nodded. “We seem to have lost respect for the talented amateur. People like the men who went to India and found an entire civilization and language, even though they were not professional linguists.” I think he’s got a point.

I come across a lot of talented amateurs online, in various fora and web-site communities. These are people who are not academically trained in a field, but are curious enough that they’ve gone out and learned as much about the topic as they can, until they are subject-matter experts, usually in the more practical aspects of things. I learned a lot of industrial and engineering history (and about the gas laws) from people who collect and drive steam tractors, for example. Or folks like an area rancher who found something interesting on his ranch, had the time and resources to learn how to do digs, let field-schools work on his property, and probably knows more about the people of the Buried City Complex culture than any professional anthropologist. He has the time and resources, the university folks don’t.

That led to me thinking about specialization and why I don’t fit in my field. I read too much. In addition to the primary journals in my area of specialty, I read lots of European and Asian history, geology, history of religion, and other stuff that has no application to what I’m supposed to be focusing on. I have not read a US history book for several months. I cannot tell you what the latest publications in my field are. OK, Let us All Praise Famous Gullies is on my TBR list, as are a few more environmental histories, but I’m way behind. I need to read more US political history. I need to read more US industrial history. I’m so far behind on ethnic and gender history that my former advisor would probably throw his hands in the air and hand me a book list with orders not to return until I’ve caught up. As Dr. G said when I started graduate school, once you finish your PhD, you do not read outside you field. Keeping up with the literature, be it books or journals or papers at meetings, takes up all your time (and is part of the job that you don’t get paid for but are expected to do.)

I’d rather read everything. And pull pieces out of everything. It is the people with broad knowledge bases who can, oh, listen to a Hindu priest, learn to read Sanskrit, realize that it has similarities with Greek, Latin, and English, learn more languages, and come up with the theory of an Indo-European language family. Or a physicist who reads paleontology and geology and says, “What if” and comes up with the theory of the Death Star, the meteorite extinction idea. There are a large number of other talented amateurs if you look for them, and once upon a time they were respected in their fields. You didn’t have to have a degree in comparative linguistics to come up with ideas, or in geology to pioneer the field of vulcanology, as Sir William Hamilton did. I can look at a river in Europe and tell you a great deal about it and its history, because I’ve read hydrology and geology and engineering and like to look at rocks and try to read the terrain. And that encourages people who know more than I do to talk to me and to point me in places I had not known about so I can learn more. (Being interested and fluffy helps as well, sometimes. 🙂 )

Several people have referred to me as being a polymath, someone who is good in a number of fields. I’m not. I’m curious and I have enough training to know how to look for stuff once I get a sense of where to begin. And I have a mind that is wired in a way that makes it easier for me to see patterns and connections than for other people. that’s not quite the kiss of death in academia, but it does not help one’s career path and advancement.  One is to specialize and publish in one’s field for most of one’s career, teaching very focused courses as well as the occasional obligatory overview course (which is now getting turfed to adjuncts and TAs as much as possible.) Only after all that is done, if ever, do people write syntheses.

Instead I gobble up anything that crosses my path. This makes me a great overview teacher and a lousy academic. I’ve become a talented amateur historian of Europe and an out-of-touch historian of the US. I can present all sorts of fascinating things to my students and show them the connections. But I can’t write a journal article about it. And that costs me respect among those associated with colleges and universities, including the individual mentioned at the start of this muddle. The cult of the expert has grown so strong that it has become a reflex for many people to look at the credential and then listen to or tune out the speaker. But the talented amateurs who have interest and time can find a lot of things the professional might not get to see. Historians sometimes sniff at genealogists. But those folks tracking down family trees have discovered a wealth of things that this historian (and others) leap into and use with squeals of glee.

Heinlein famously said “Specialization is for insects.” I would not go that far, quite, but I would argue that over-specialization in professions is not always a good thing. The talented amateur and the generalist can both add a great deal to the world, and deserve a fair hearing as well as respect for their efforts and interests. I don’t always understand some people’s hobbies and fascinations, but I often admire their patience and determination.


3 thoughts on “Talented Amateurs

  1. This is similar to a sidebar discussion I had while in grad school. I forget the entire context, but it was along the lines that “the era of the renaissance man is over because the body of human knowledge is too vast now for anyone to be good at everything.” Of course, the highly-specialized professor failed to see the irony that through his specialization, he had closed himself to the opportunity to explore multiple branches of science, philosophy, and general knowledge. Specialization is also part of the reason I stopped at a masters degree, rather than going for a PhD. I couldn’t figure out whether I wanted to hyper-specialize in international political theory, political philosophy, or defense policy formulation. Still not sure, so my current career where I get to jump around every two-three years is perfect.

    • Yes. I like teaching what and where I do because 1) I cover all the good bits (1500-1994) and 2) I’m not teaching to a test (not on the AP curriculum), 3) the other class is even broader with more cultural stuff to work in.

      Environmental history may be the least specialized of the history fields but also the most. You end up taking courses in fire science, animal husbandry and range management, introduction to equines (OK, that was military history – guy was working on logistics and transport before WWII), hydro-engineering, ecosystems biology, statistics, geology, forestry, petroleum geology and industrial chemistry, and history stuff, all depending on your topic.

  2. ” And that costs me respect among those associated with colleges and universities,”

    And yet, in many of the circles I hang around, being associated with colleges and universities costs you respect. My experience in those fields where I have an in depth layman’s knowledge is almost invariably that those with a degree in said field don’t know what they are talking about. This tends to cause one to doubt that those with a degree in fields one doesn’t know anything about, also.

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