Forward to next post: Editorial and Critique Services: Debra Doyle, Ph.D.
I recently served on the evaluation committee for our intern’s defense of his master’s thesis. Three professors and I listened to his presentation, asked him awkward questions, and then retired to another room to discuss his grade. Although I’ve done a bit of postgraduate study here and there, this is a process I’ve never participated in before, from either side. I found it interesting, but disappointing.
The problem is that I was expecting something else. The professors wanted to focus on one question: “does this thesis add to the sum of human knowledge?” And that’s a fine and important question. The answer certainly was “yes”, albeit in the extremely narrow field of indexing methodologies for geographical information. But the question we never asked, and which I could not have answered in the affirmative, is “does this student demonstrate mastery?” Don’t get me wrong—the guy in question is smart, and has acquired a lot of information during his studies. But that information hasn’t had time to steep into knowledge, much less wisdom1.
I’ve been thinking a lot about mastery these last seven or eight years, both in my personal life as a bookbinder and moderator and in my professional life as a software tester2. I’ve come to realize that it’s a separate skill from binding books, moderating conversations, or testing computer software.
Mastery is the experience of possessing—or being possessed by—a deep understanding of a subject, one that reaches through the individual techniques to the heart of the matter. It’s the dead reckoning that guides one through the unmapped territory between known processes. It comes from practiced familiarity with the raw materials of the craft and the range of techniques available to work with them, but it’s more than that. It’s knowing which errors to prevent, which to correct, and which to pursue as the way to a more interesting final perfection. It’s the moment when one realizes how many questions are properly answered it depends, and realizes as well that one knows what so many of the answers depend on.
One can be a master without a full grasp of every element of the field, because mastery includes the humble3 acknowledgement of the limitations of one’s knowledge, and the delightful realization that there is always more learning to do. One of the hallmarks of mastery is deep joy: sometimes it bubbles over into silliness, and sometimes it’s somber. But it’s not frivolous, careless, or overly pedantic.
Note as well that one can also be a superb craftsman and not a master. One of the most disastrous relationships I have had in the bookbinding world was with such a one. I should have realized it when I noticed that his students never outgrew him, but it took two or three exchanges where he started to put me into a box for me to see the problem. But he was a wolfling like me, self-taught, and he never did figure out this side of things. He thought that binding books, and showing others how to bind books, was the end of the journey rather than its beginning.
Mastery is a teachable skill, both within fields and across them. I suspect it was the true secret of every guild, back in the day. And once you know it, you recognize it wherever you meet it: I’ve listened to Patrick and Teresa discuss the curriculum for Viable Paradise4 and tasted it in the air like lightning. I visited a chef last week, and his conversation rang with it like a bell. Our bathrooms were tiled by a man with no detectable common sense at all, but true mastery of adhesive, ceramic and grout.
We have an abundance of it in this community; it shines in many of our threads. That’s a joyful thing.