The professional vs the amateur

CC image by Alan O’Rourke from Flickr

I get a lot of questions about productivity from my students and colleagues. I suppose by being relatively well read on the subject of productivity, and by being “perceived” as productive, I have brought this on myself. I could easily channel the advice of Cal Newport or David Allen, but I want to discuss a less regimented and more philosophical approach to doing work.

One of my favourite books is Steven Pressfield’s Do the Work which provides a template for how to battle “Resistance.” Pressfield argues that there is an internal force – a part of our ego which he describes as the dragon – that is holding us back from doing creative work. He is very clear that Resistance is an internal force, not an external one. The dragon represents our fear of failure and our sense of self-doubt. The more we give in to our anxieties, the stronger the dragon becomes. Each time a writer, a painter, a scholar, a scientist, or a musician sits down to work on their craft, their inner knight does battle with this dragon of Resistance. It’s a battle that’s fought every day.

Pressfield discussing how to overcome Resistance

The metaphor of Resistance has always stuck with me because it’s true. I love to write. I love to play the guitar. I love to lift weights. I love to do chores (believe it or not). But I procrastinate like nobody’s business because there’s a voice in my head constantly pushing feelings of fear, guilt, or excuses.

Pressfield’s book has had such an impact on me that I started reading through his other titles about writing. The War of Art, which is probably his most famous book on artistic productivity, covers much of the same ground. While Do the Work provides a battle plan for each creative session, The War of Art takes a step back and outlines not only the internal struggles that artists face but also how to conduct oneself professionally as an artist.

Pressfield makes a hard distinction between the professional and the amateur. But, the distinction is not based on financial success. He identifies several aspects of the professional. The following list includes many, but not all, of the “professional” qualities.

• The professional shows up to work every day no matter what (in sickness or health).

• The professional stays on the job all day. He helps the customer, answers the phone, and puts in the time required. It’s his duty.

• The professional is in it for the long-term. Professionals understand that there will be good days and bad days, but they keep on trucking regardless.

• The professional is patient. They understand that success takes time. This is similar to David Goggins’ theory that life requires “reps.”

• The professional seeks order. I love this one. Professionals make sure their house is in order (literally and metaphorically) so they have a proper work environment for the day. My Dad, who was a writer, used this strategy. The floor is swept and vacuumed. The bathrooms are clean. The dishes are done. Your workspace is organized. This habit makes a world of difference.

• The professional doesn’t make excuses. They own up to their mistakes and they strive to learn from each experience. The day of full of hills and valleys. When something goes wrong a professional sees it as his/her responsibility to correct the situation.

• The professional is prepared. Whether it’s getting up early to work out before you hit the books (like Pressfield does), cultivating a pre-work coffee-making ritual, or planning your weekly tasks every Sunday afternoon, professionals have a system that sets them up to succeed.

• The professional doesn’t show off. They are humble in their successes and resilient in their failures. Because professionals are in it for the long-term, they take only take a couple of minutes to be proud of their accomplishments and then start working on the next project.

• The professional reinvents himself. Pressfield worked in advertising and was a screenwriter before he was a novelist. Artistic endeavours, even within the same general field, can lead to different paths. Professionals are willing to take risks and reinvent themselves in the face of success or failure.

The amateur, not surprisingly, is characterized as having the opposite traits. Amateurs don’t treat their work with the same respect. They don’t show up to the “job” every day no matter what. Instead, they make excuses about why they didn’t get to it. Pressfield sums up the difference beautifully by describing how professionals and amateurs are connected to their work. A professional’s ego isn’t tied to the work. This is important because the professional realizes that any given work is just one expression, one example, of what they’re capable of. The amateur, in contrast, is too emotionally tied to each work. Failure leads to depression and success leads to euphoria.

Pressfield describes how Hollywood screenwriters insulate themselves from this amateurish nature by creating a corporation of one. By self incorporating, you can wear two hats. There’s you the individual and you the professional. Your professional self has separate credit cards for business expenses, separate stationery for notes, a separate workspace, etc. You hire your professional self out to “get the job done.” This professional persona keeps on plugging away regardless of a work’s success or failure. The professional self is bullet proof. In other words, the professional treats the art like a 9-5 job. There is no task or contract below the professional; this is the person you call when you need to sell your skills.

Furthermore, Pressfield also says that becoming a professional is a decision. It can just be made. As long as you act like a professional, as described by the points above, then you are a professional. Financial success might never come, but that doesn’t matter because you walk the walk.

The lessons that Pressfield outlines are incredibly practical and widely applicable. They are not that different from what I’ve told students for many years. Treat your studies like a 9-5 job. Learn from failures. Keep plugging away at the work. Much of the advice in The War of Art is geared toward writers, but I think it holds for anybody doing a challenging task – bodybuilders included.

The War of Art isn’t new. This title was published in 2002. But, the advice is as true then as it is today. When I think back to the 5000-word papers I wrote for university political science and history classes, I can recall the ups and downs during each session. I remember working on a paper on the second floor of the university library during one particularly cold November. I had my Mac laptop in front of me with a mile-high stack of books on each side. Everything was crammed into the small brown wood veneer cubby I was inhabiting. I must have sat in that chair for six hours. And, during those six hours I lived several lifetimes. I experience joy, loss, resentment, exhaustion, and exhilaration. I remember experiencing that session over and over again throughout my university career. Each paper I had to write was an epic battle between my inner knight and the dragon of Resistance. Every day I showed up like a professional and got my work done.

It’s a cliche to point out that we live in an “age of distraction,” but it’s true. Focus and gratitude are in very short supply in today’s society. I get a question from all my students: “How do I get started?” This could apply to any project they’re working on – whether it’s a paper, presentation, or lab report. I always give them the same answer: “Start now.” Saying you’ll start later isn’t going to cut it. Sit down and get right into it. If you can suffer through the first two or three minutes, you’ll be on your way to battling Resistance that day and acting like a professional.

Alternate delivery series: What I did to put my library session online (quickly)

The term ‘alternate delivery’ has become common among Canadian (and American) universities that are shifting to online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. Educators in colleges and K-12 are scrambling and I feel for them. Online teaching isn’t an easy thing to do, and my colleagues out there are doing their best to learn the technology.

As a librarian, my world is a little bit different. Since I’m trying out new things myself, I decided to create a series on this website about what I’ve done to teach online (including creation of resources for asynchronous delivery), technology and edtech tools I use for instruction generally, my productivity strategy for working at home, etc. I don’t have his series all planned out, but I’ll post things as they come to me. And, what better way to start than with an example of how I spent a weekend transitioning a face-to-face library session to an online module.

For this example, I’m using a General Education session I teach every semester with a colleague. This is an English course, and students have to write a persuasive essay on how an aspect of society is changing or has changed the English language. Students are given a list of possible research questions to answer, but they do have the opportunity to develop their own as well. For my face-to-face session, the objectives would be to have students 1) create a mind mind for their research question and brainstorm search terms 2) find a handful of preliminary (or background) sources and 3) get started finding academic research. I give students a template for how to document their search, the goal being to develop good research organization skills early in their program.

Library Guide

Link to guide

I kept my library guide simple.I focused on designing content as if the course was asynchronous. Why not just do the whole session live over video conference? The advantage of online is the opportunity to re-watch content, and I wanted a guide students could return to. Students have enough on their plate right now.

The guide is divided into the following steps

  1. Developing your search strategy
  2. Finding sources
  3. Evaluating sources
  4. Citing sources

For steps one through three, I developed some screencasts illustrated what I wanted them to do. I’ve put links to the videos below.

These videos were done quickly, which is what instructors scrambling to switch to online delivery will be doing. I worked in education technology and instructional design prior to being a librarian, so I can tell you that the quality could be better. I remember spending many hours with instructors to develop slick PowerPoint, scripts, and animations for recorded lectures. We used to use green screens and special cameras. Not this time around…

That being said screen casting short videos is easy to do and can be effective. For most of these screencasts I used my Mac with Quicktime to record the audio and video. Quicktime is built into your Mac, and it records at high quality. There’s also a Windows alternative – the Xbox Game Bar app. There’s lots of way to do audio over PowerPoint, though in my experience the audio quality can be poor so I’d recommend against it.

For the second video, I wanted to recreate what I would have shown using a whiteboard. There are many digital whiteboard apps that allow you to draw out concepts easily. These apps work best with a device that has stylus support – such as the iPad, Samsung tablets, Microsoft’s Surface devices, etc. For this video I used an app called Explain Everything which has a huge toolset for teachers. You can record whatever you do on the screen. This allowed me to take a sample research question and create a mind map. Again, the goal is to get students brainstorming what they know about the topic. This app is pretty specialized. Microsoft Office (PowerPoint, Word, and OneNote) has really good pen support as well and it’s cross platform.

The search strategy videos covered how to find background resources using CREDO Reference, our library’s discovery system and Google Scholar. It’s pretty basic, but unlike an in-person session students can watch these again to reinforce the skills. I think the time spent by the instructor recording important skills or concepts is valuable, even for face-to-face courses. Videos should be five minutes or less ideally. I broke that rule here, but the goal was to get this done quickly.

Virtual library session

I held live library classes over video conference, but I didn’t use it to recreate the classroom experience exactly. With the help of my faculty colleague, we gave students pre-library session homework. Students were instructed to read the assignment, read through the library guide and watch the videos. The virtual library session provided an overview of how to use the guide and tackle the assignment, but the majority was allocated to discussion and answering questions.

Just like a guided reading, students were given direction on what to do before the virtual class. This is key. Both sections were excellent – with students using either their device microphones or chat to ask questions. My faculty colleague was also on the session, so it was very much a team effort. We all met over Google Meet (our campus solution) and it worked well with little lag.

What I learned

Though I have some experience with instructional design and developing online content for other instructors, it’s not what I do on a daily basis (apart from my library guides). Creating good multimedia content is an art. This experience was a good refresher and I (re)learned a few things.

  • Videos don’t have to be perfect. As you get better with the production value things will improve. Structuring the content clearly and keeping the videos relatively brief is key.
  • Don’t try and recreate the classroom. Online is different so I’d recommend leaning into this. The advantage is that students can rewatch, so use ‘class time’ for discussion.
  • Before a virtual library session, give some homework. Even if the task is ‘watch the videos’ that’s enough to get people’s minds working. The process is similar to giving students guiding questions for readings.

I hope this is somewhat useful for folks. If anyone wants more details on how I used apps the aforementioned apps, or if you want recommendations for other tools, give me a shout.

Experimenting with class objectives

Creating class objectives is arguably the most important part of my teaching process. If done correctly, I don’t really need to develop long, in-depth lesson plans (though I often do that anyways). Concrete class objectives allow for structure while also allowing for flexibility and the ability to respond to students on the fly. It really informs everything. I’ve typically stuck to a few ‘rules’ when creating class objectives. These include, having one action per objective, writing measurable (or observable) objectives, not having a laundry list of objectives (5 max), and using jargon-free language.

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with a new approach. Instead of the typical bulleted list, I’ve given students one overarching objective for my class and underneath I have broken down that objective into potential tasks students can undertake to achieve the overarching objective. Why make a big deal about such a subtle difference? Because a regular piece of feedback I’ve received from students is their lack of understanding of how my list of ‘measurable’ objectives fit together. How do they related to each other? And, it’s hard to argue with them.

Traditionally I’d have broken out class objectives into smaller, more manageable, bullet points. Let’s take the following as a hypothetical example.

“By the end of this class you will have

  • Located the class research guide
  • Searched two of the recommended databases
  • Found one peer-reviewed academic source
  • Cited one academic source using APA 7th edition”

Well, I can see how these objectives all lend themselves to conducting academic research and being successful in a research paper, but students might not. If I were to take my new approach, I might right something like the following

“By the end of this class, you will have made meaningful progress on your literature review assignment. This includes

  • Locating the class research guide
  • Searching two of the recommended academic databases
  • Finding at least one peer-reviewed academic article
  • Citing an academic article using APA 7th edition”

This isn’t a perfect example, since this is hypothetical. That being said, you can see the the bulleted list of objectives hasn’t changed much – except for the tense. The bullets are still measurable/observable from my perspective, but now they’re put in context by being placed under a larger goal or ‘theme.’ At this point you might be thinking “how much of a different could this possibly make in the classroom.” Well, originally I had a similar question for myself. Surprisingly, the difference in classroom engagement is quiet significant. Below I’ve provided a real world example from a recent class.

(Taken from one of my library sessions)

In this class, students did something different. I didn’t get one question like “what is the assignment again?” or “how do these help me with the assignment?” It was clear why they were in the library session, to get a start on their original research project. Framing the objectives this way also takes some of the pressure off students. Not everyone is at the same experience level, which is why checklist type class objectives are somewhat flawed in my opinion. The goal is to get a start on your research, and that ‘start’ may depend on how much experience one has with an academic database. One could do everything in the bulleted list, but not doing so doesn’t mean the overarching objective wasn’t achieved.

I’m certain others instructors have experimented with objectives or framed them in a similar fashion. There are several good texts on promoting class discussion and aligning what’s done in class with clear objectives. However, this approach to objectives is one piece of a larger teaching strategy. Ultimately, I want to be more explicit in my teaching and be more clear about why I’m asking students to do the tasks I’ve assignment to them. If teaching them strategies for completing an annotated bibliography is my task, then I will preface the lesson with a discussion about how annotated bibliographies are useful tools and how they can serve as a stepping stone to conducting literature reviews. If I can place the assignment in the context of a marketable skill (this is great for students going on practicum) then all the better.

I remember not ‘getting it’ as a student. I remember not understanding the value of some of my assignments. So, from now on I’m going to tell them the value and the application. So far, I see better engagement, more time spent on task, and good questions.

Some useful resources

Barkley, E., & Major, C. (2016). Learning assessment techniques : a handbook for college faculty . San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Howard, J. (2015). Discussion in the college classroom : getting your students engaged and participating in person and online . San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

Roberts, K. (2002). Ironies of effective teaching: Deep structure learning and lonstructions of the classroom. Teaching Sociology, 30(1), 1-25. Retrieved January 22, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3211517

Zhou, H. (2017). Why does writing good learning objectives matter? Duke. https://learninginnovation.duke.edu/blog/2017/03/learning-objectives/