Friday, February 20, 2009


Where does you mind go to when you hear someone, or yourself, called an amateur? Are you offended? Are you indifferent? Do you smile and say, "Yes I am, thank you!"?

A post tonight on the Perogative of Harlots blog got me thinking....For those of you who are members of the Vert Paleo Listserve you may have noticed the recent outburst of arguing (friendly debating?). For those of you who are not on the list, a bit of background: Post have been going back and forth recently about the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act [information at the SVP site can be found here]. Some members of the list are worried that this bill will take away the rights of "amateur" fossil collectors and/or think more trouble than good will come from it (rangers taking kids fossils away, rangers throwing people in jail/fining them for collecting fossils they will still be able to collect legally because the ranger is not properly trained on what can and can not be collected, peoples private property being seized if they are found to have illegally collected fossils in their possession, ect....).

I, personally, think some of these issues are making a mountain out of a molehill. They may spring from a misunderstanding of the bills wording, a misunderstanding or general lack of information/knowledge regarding current policies and practices, general suspicion of anyone who is a paid paleontologist, someone who may have had a bad (or many bad) experiences, others with (what appears to be) a very large chip on their shoulder.....this list could go on, and I just call it as I see it.

As much as you try to help them see the light or explain how things are now and what the bill will or will not change, it does not seem to mater. It is always something. And there are certain people you just cannot please, no mater what you say. They should, in my opinion, be sent the direct answers to their questions, without screwing with their head and creating a feeding their frenzy of back and forth emailing. Just answer them and let them go. If they keep pushing, hit delete. Let it go. Don't let it get to you. If people would stop pushing their 'buttons', they would stop pushing back. (Hopefully.)

My question is, WTF is the big deal with the whole "Amateur" vs. "Professional" crap anyway?

What defines a "Amateur?" What defines a "Professional?" Why do we even need to be classified? Why do people get so mad about being called one or the other!?

I am not going to refer to Wikipedia for my definitions. Why would you cite a source where you can go in and create the definition you want in the first place? Lets start with "Amateur," from Webster:

One entry found.
Main Entry: am·a·teur
Pronunciation: \ˈa-mə-(ˌ)tər, -ˌtu̇r, -ˌtyu̇r, -ˌchu̇r, -chər\
Function: noun
Etymology: French, from Latin amator lover, from amare to love
Date: 1784

1 : devotee , admirer
2 : one who engages in a pursuit, study, science, or sport as a pastime rather than as a profession
3 : one lacking in experience and competence in an art or science

Two of the three definitions here are positive! What is wrong with being a devotee of fossils?! An admirer of fossils?! One who engages in the pursuit, study, science, or sport of paleontology as a pastime rather than as a profession!? Sounds pretty sweet and stress free to me! No need to worry about what school you are going to/went to. No need to worry about getting that one to five jobs that come up in a year, competing against the 500 students who are currently members of SVP and will be looking for jobs in the very near future (not to mention all the un/underemployed PhD paleontologist out there looking for jobs). You could go on digs, collect fossils, research, anything you love that has to do with fossils at your leisure! Sounds pretty nice! And to quote an amateur "I consider myself to be a kind of dedicated amateur. I am here for the love of it." ~ Priscilla McKenna. I think that sums it up and is what it should all be about. What is so wrong with that!?

So why do people get all offended about being called an amateur? Why do they immediately have to zone in on the negative definition of the word?

and the next...

Main Entry: pro·fes·sion·al
Pronunciation: \prə-ˈfesh-nəl, -ˈfe-shə-nəl\
Function: noun
Date: 1811

one that is professional ; especially : one that engages in a pursuit or activity professionally

So basically a "professional" paleontologist is one that engages in the pursuit or activity of the studying fossils professionally. But what does the act of being professional include:

Function: adjective
Date: 1606

1 a: of, relating to, or characteristic of a profession b: engaged in one of the learned professions c (1): characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession (2): exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace

2 a: participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs b: having a particular profession as a permanent career c: engaged in by persons receiving financial return

3: following a line of conduct as though it were a profession

So a professional engages in their learned profession, that is characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession (such as member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology agreeing to uphold the ethics statement of the organization). Or paleontologist exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace. Or "professional" paleontologist who make money being paleontologist and doing research/teaching/field work/pursuit/study...of paleontology. To me this does not imply that to be a "professional paleontologist" you need to be a professor or curator of a museum. Professional paleontologist, in my book, include those people, but also include the technicians, collections managers, preparators, grad students, post docs, researchers (federal, state and private), consultants -anyone who studies fossils and gets paid to do so.

I think this last definition is really what heats up the debate. From my perspective, some people are not happy that they either a) do not make money doing paleontology (they are possibly doing something they had not planned on doing/do not like/or are "just getting by" in order to make a livelihood?) or b) feel as though a individual or group of "professional" paleontologist are trying to keep them from making money doing paleontology. I do not understand where all the mean spiritedness and down right hatred comes out though, and why people feel the need to fight and argue about this. It is simple - if you feel the need to be defined as a "professional" paleontologist then get the training (though school, experience, whatever) and get a paying job doing paleontology. If it really bothers you that much. Otherwise, be cool with what you do and quite worrying what defines you (and you probably already know this).

When I look in the mirror, I do not know how to define myself. I am not even sure I need to be defined when it comes to being a paleontologist. I know that I am one, and that is all that should mater to me. I am not sure what others see when they look at me. A amateur paleontologist? I feel as though I am devoted to paleontology and admire fossils. I can fit that description. A professional paleontologist? I make my livelihood at the moment working with fossil. I hope to do this for the rest of my life. Do I have a Ph.D. No. Did I go to college to become trained and better educated in geology and paleontology. Yes. Do I have a degree. Yes. Does it mater? To some yes, to others no. I know several people in paleontology who have contributed greatly to the science and do not have advanced degrees. I look at the armies of volunteers that keep many museums afloat and contribute highly to the field. Without them paleontology would be years behind where we are now. They do not get enough recognition.

This is also not the first time, and sure to not be the last time, the "Amateur" vs. "Professional" debate will happen on the Vert Paleo List. Funny how these people will duke it out online, but get them together in a room and they do not talk about it. At the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meetings I have attended, while all have been great, I have noticed a voluntary separation that seems to occur. Mammal people hang out with Mammal people. Triassic people hang out with other Triassic people. The Chicago people hang out with other people who went to school in Chicago. The paleo art people group up. The Ornithischian people form herds. The groupies flock after their lords......(generalizations of course).
You get the picture. Some of this is understandable. They may be colleagues you only see once or twice a year, people who have similar interest, school mates.... It is not that it is really a big deal. But if you want people to consider you "part of the group" and not some outlier (or "evil amateur") who no one wants to talk to, you have to jump in there. I wish people would talk about this "Amateur" vs. "Professional" bullshit at the meetings. Maybe meeting face to face and working this crap out would help people. Or lead to some interesting fights. But hopefully it would help, talking face to face. Maybe SVP should have a round table on that!

Why did I not post this on the Vert Paleo list? Because I do not want to bother everyone with my rambling rants like some others there do. If you made it this far, thanks for reading. Let me know what you think!!

(Sorry for the long rant. Thanks to Ville at Dots in Deep Time for the link to the video - a proud amateur himself!
Sorry to the light post as of recently (and in the near future). I have my hands full with my sick cat who I am still feeding through a tube. Hopefully when she is better I will have more time to post. )

© ReBecca K. Hunt-Foster


Chuck said...

Any way this bill can be expanded to protect coal beds from being dug up and destroyed?

Alton Dooley said...

I've also been reading but avoiding commenting on the argument ("debate" is too dignified) on the listserv.

The act itself has little effect on us here in the east, as most VP deposits are on private land anyway (although it will have a bearing on the site I'm working in WY). But considering the number of specimens I have seen vandalized, I'm happy to see any strengthening of protections for fossils on public lands (and specifically not private lands).

However, there are large numbers of "amateur" paleontologists in Virginia and Maryland, and they're very diverse in their habits and motivations (as are we all). Most collect legally (ie with the landowner's permission), and many are "collectors", in that they have only a limited interest in the science and are looking for "cool-looking" specimens.

However, there are many that are interested in the science. I've had some interesting conversations with these folks about the status of privately-owned specimens. My personal standard is that I will not publish or even refer to any specimens that are not in a museum. I tell these folks that I don't have a problem with legally-obtained private collections, so if they want a bone on their mantlepiece that's fine. But you can't have it both ways; if you want the credit for the discovery among the scientific community, you have to give up the specimen so that anyone can study it.

The result has been a group of dedicated amateurs that explore for fossils, negotiate with landowners for permission to excavate, help in collection, and make sure that the important specimens they find get to museums. They're making a major contribution to VP in this area as a result.

Jazinator said...

I personally consider myself a "Professional" because even though I do not make a living as a paleontologist at the moment (although I do have it in my job profile email signature thingy) I do have the training and do volunteer work whenever I can. The connotation of the word "amateur" makes people feel like they don't know what they are doing (i.e. amateurish). Although I think that the word should denote one who loves paleontology but just does not have the training/ education. I see nothing wrong with that. And I personally did not participate in the debate because I noticed it can very quickly degrade into name calling and I sometimes feel like my opinions are generally ignored. But that’s just me, and I am a rather paranoid person to being with.

ReBecca Foster said...

Hi Chuck,
I do not think in the bills current form it can be changed to add that. If it does not get though the House its next incarnation could potentially include something like that. But with the current lobbying and push of "clean coal" I doubt we will ever see it happen.

Hi Alton,
I agree with you regarding the list. I forget that may of the lands out east are private. I live out here in BLM land, so we are use to dealing with them. I, like you, will only work with specimens in museum collections. I think it is the safest way to roll. We have some great people out here who donate specimens to the museum and/or notify us when they find something. Even our vet called us when he and his son found some dino bones. It is nice to have people who want to help and not do things for their monetary gain only.

Hi Jim,

I think the whole label things is silly anyway. I do not think the definition of the word amateur will change unless we all start using it in a positive tone. Maybe I will try that ;)
I know how you feel about the list. I often wonder why I bother to say anything at all.

MDR said...

I work in the paleo exhibits at a Midwest museum, and often share my knowledge of the science and hand out fossils I've collected (invertebrate) with visitors. Many times I've been asked if I'm a paleontologist and I have no problem answering that I'm an amateur paleontologist. I have been all my life. Of course, I don't have the credentials but what difference does it make? I contribute in disseminating the science to the general public which rarely knows as much as I do (except for some 7 year-old kids). I have plenty information and enthusiasm for the science to offer and I know my limits. One of my heroes in early paleontology is William Reed who discovered Como Bluffs and became a well-respected (and knowledgeable) self-taught paleontologist. Maybe he saw the bone game as more lucrative (and less boring) than working for the Union Pacific railroad but he added much to the science (and probably to Marsh's reputation).

ReBecca Foster said...

Good for you MDR!

Johanne said...

Colloquial language evolves beyond dictionary definitions. For the most part, amateur is associated to "being not that good" in the current colloquial language. That's why amateur has a negative connotation.

ReBecca Foster said...

Maybe if we stop making it a negative thing it could become a positive.