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June 4, 2012

In Pursuit of Mastery
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 04:33 PM * 138 comments

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.

  1. I worry, sometimes, about how highly we value new knowledge and how little we do that knowledge’s transformative effect on people. Is this another case of over-prioritizing growth?
  2. I am not a master of either bookbinding or moderation, but I have enough experience to see mastery from where I stand. But I am comfortable admitting to mastery of software testing.
  3. Humble in the sense of calmly knowing your place in the great order of things. Not groveling or undervaluing yourself, but not taking yourself too seriously either.
  4. I gather that VP is like sinking in a swimming pool full of fiction-writing mastery until only the tip of your nose shows above the surface…then being tugged under by the instructors. If that sounds like fun, note that applications close June 15.
Comments on In Pursuit of Mastery:
#1 ::: Rick York ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 04:59 PM:

Abi, I want to thank you for including humility as a major criterion for Mastery. I've been fortunate enough to have known a few "masters" in various areas of human endeavor. Not a single one of them ever really thought of themselves as "masters" in their respective fields. In fact, they all called themselves, in one way or another, students.

#2 ::: Peter Aronson ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 05:12 PM:

Well, given the amount of work that has been done in the last 45+ years on indexing for geographic information, to contribute something new to the field at the master's degree level is no small thing, either. And if he sticks with that particular subject for a while, dealing with the perversities of real world geographic data might well set him on the path to mastery.

#3 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 05:36 PM:

A Master's thesis is a misnomer in the sense that it does not at all mean mastery of anything. A PhD is closer but isn't that either. Both are more like mapmarkers indicative of one's progress.

If mastery is the criterion then I doubt if many people qualify, and I would be suspicious of those who claim mastery (see also: humble).

#4 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 05:52 PM:

I've been the victim subject of two M.A. committees, and a Ph.D. committee. I've served on, oh, five? Maybe six M.A. thesis committees.

In my experience the committee is interested in whether or not an M.A. candidate shows promise in terms of journeyman status and long-term contributions to the field; a Ph.D. is expected to demonstrate that the person is a peer, or very close to being a peer, at the top levels of mastery.

#5 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 05:57 PM:

One depressing thing about postgraduate study that I've experienced myself and that I've witnessed countless times in other people is how it can scrub away any liking whatsoever for the subject of study. The writing of the dissertation or thesis that proves mastery, the masterpiece, puts one off for life. It ought not to be like that, but very often is, and can be a sad end to a decade's worth of enthusiasm (it's grim to have the feeling: right, now that I've sickened myself off that subject, what do I do now? Start again from scratch doing something else, possibly with the same outcome?)

#6 ::: Phiala ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 06:08 PM:

That's interesting. My experience as participant on both sides of the table is that defenses, Master's especially, are more about the candidate demonstrating that they understand their work in the context of their field: the background, the implications, the reasons for choosing to do X instead of Y. In one case, I warned the candidate ahead of time that I disagreed with him on a piece of theory, and was going to expect him to justify his approach. He did, very neatly (even if he's still wrong *grin*).

Being a master at something just means that you have a comprehensive-enough grasp of the entire field that you know how much you don't know or can't do, even though you can do a whole lot of stuff.

#7 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 06:10 PM:

I’ve been thinking a lot about mastery these last seven or eight years (...) in my professional life as a software tester

...or does the Abiveld master you?

#8 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 06:12 PM:

I think that very few people can demonstrate true mastery after a Master's program. As abi implies, there just isn't time for the information and knowledge acquired to settle into mastery, in more than maybe an extremely small subset of the thesis.

In my Ph.D program, I find myself with the feeling that I understand less and less all the time -- because I am constantly working right at the edge of my own understanding, farther and farther away from the stuff I've been doing long enough to have actually mastered. I've probably mastered more than I realize. But I don't have the perspective to judge that right now. I hope my committee can do a good job of it.

And that I will understand and accept their judgment. I still have not integrated the cognitive dissonance from my prelim -- wherein I gave a presentation, was sternly grilled for two hours about all the ways I was Doing Science Wrong, sent out for about half an hour, then called back in and happily congratulated on passing. My husband took me out for a celebratory dinner and was utterly at a loss when I burst into tears in the middle of the salad course, declaring that I was a failure as a researcher. "But," he pointed out gently, "you passed."

"But I have no idea why!" I sobbed.

Clearly, I haven't yet reached a level of mastery where I can be comfortable with the things I don't know and the mistakes I make. I wonder if I ever will.

#9 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 06:34 PM:

The MA thesis has to demonstrate knowledge of the subject at a sophisticated level. Mastery and wisdom are something else.

Caroline's experience in her comps is not uncommon (I've seen one case of a student in tears after her dissertation proposal defence, and we approved that; not to mention her going on to be the first student to whom I said the words "wherefore I say, congratulations Doctor..."). That's, I'd say, an expression of impostor syndrome, which is something I feel myself.

Wisdom and mastery come not from one project or one experience but a whole series of them. They're the result of the accumulation of knowledges and the analysis of experiences.

#10 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 06:47 PM:

abi @0: It was a big revelation, when I was studying tae kwon do Back In The Day, that earning a black-belt didn't mean you had mastered the art. It meant that you were finished becoming a beginner. (Which, I wonder, might be the functional equivalent of the "Master's Degree." Not that you've become a master, but rather that you're ready to start becoming one.)

My main crush right now, Robert Carlyle, is clearly a master of his craft. The more I see of him, the more this becomes obvious. Interestingly verified by a comment in a recent video interview with one of his costars about filming their initial scene together:

"I flubbed a line, and went 'Oh...!' And he said, "Stay here! Stay here!" meaning, don't go off in your head and react to your "mistake." Stay in the moment.

One marker of true mastery is having internalized the knowledge base and skillset so thoroughly that one can display unconscious competence and at the same time respond dynamically to unexpected turns and events.

I think it bears saying that I find true mastery just sexy as hell. (Probably my top criterion for becoming Smitten.)

#11 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 06:54 PM:

One of the most interesting conversations I ever had with a Christian friend was the one in which we realized that my (Wiccan) definition of 'Pride' was almost identical to her (and your, above) definition of 'Humility'.

And what Christians call "Pride" is more or less what we call "Hubris."

(This demonstration of the Xopherian use of single and double quotes is humbly offered by this lowly hemiglossic.)

#12 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 07:29 PM:

Am I the only person who's been through the defense and secret-room process who knows/fears/believes/wants to know what they were saying? Because mine was a terrible master's thesis, and I'm pretty sure everyone involved knew it.

#13 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 07:33 PM:

With this ring, I could - dare I say it? - rule the world!
("Not *that* kind of mastery, Serge.")

#15 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 08:19 PM:

#8 ::: Caroline:

I'm looking at this very much from the outside, but I wonder if there's an element of hazing-- is there any reason not to tell candidates what they've shown themselves to be good at?

#16 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 08:19 PM:

Diatryma @ 12: I really do wish I knew what they had to say when I wasn't in the room, or that I had detailed peer-review-type notes from them on my written prelim document. It would have helped me understand how much of the grilling was actual criticism and how much was "we're going to challenge you even though we actually think you're right, because the way you respond will show how well you understand what you're proposing."

And it would definitely have helped resolve the cognitive dissonance. I'd prefer to know where I actually stand, even if that's "This project kind of sucks but we think there's potential for you to improve, so we're going to pass you." Because if I know where I'm falling short, then I can get better.

I asked my advisor a couple of days later whether she thought I did a good job. She said I had done about average. Fair enough. I still would've liked more detail.

#17 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 08:43 PM:

Avram @ 14... I think I am one of those lazy programmers.

#18 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 08:49 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz @ 15: "I'm looking at this very much from the outside, but I wonder if there's an element of hazing-- is there any reason not to tell candidates what they've shown themselves to be good at?"

I think that in order to have complete freedom to critique the work of someone with whom you've spent, at the least, years working with, who will very shortly be one of your peers, in all likelihood, there needs to be a space where the committee isn't thinking in the back of their mind "--and this is what I would want to have said if they ask me about it later." There has to be a clean separation there, to be free to say what matters.

That said, if they're saying anything in the closed session they haven't already discussed with you at length, then something's gone wrong.

#19 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 09:14 PM:

According to the OED, a Master's degree is the degree being originally of a status which conveyed authority to teach at a university. So more in the sense of a teacher than someone pre-eminent.

#20 ::: v ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 10:13 PM:

I think a kid who has just finished his or her masters should have added to human knowledge and demonstrated the basic cognitive and ethical potential to become a master. They aren't meant to be there yet. How much steeping can one achieve in one to two years?

#21 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2012, 10:41 PM:

ISTR hearing somewhere (quite possibly here) that the term "masterwork" originally meant the work that got you elevated from Journeyman to Master status in your guild, and was not intended to be the pinnacle of your achievement, but that the meaning has been clouded as we have lost the career path of Apprentice to Journeyman to Master in everyday knowledge. This would also fit with Soon Lee @19; a journeyman is still a student, but a Master is considered capable of teaching, and is expected to take on apprentices (and, eventually, journeymen) of his own.

#22 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 01:53 AM:
I worry, sometimes, about how highly we value new knowledge and how little we do that knowledge’s transformative effect on people. Is this another case of over-prioritizing growth?

I think it's in part that same old problem of valuing things that are easy to measure, and not valuing things that are hard to measure. And to some extent that's a failure of scale; when you grant 1 or 2 degrees a year you can spend time evaluating the candidates and their work in non-quantitative ways; when you grant 20 or 100 degrees you not only can't do the job the same way, you also face the pressure to somehow standardize the evaluations.

#23 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 06:36 AM:

Caroline @8, Fragano @9: Thank you both so much for sharing those experiences. I was so chuffed when I came back in, after my PhD viva, and was greeted with, "Well, Doctor..." Felt wonderful. Then the confirmatory letter came through with the examiners' comments and after the bit with the reasons why they thought I should get my PhD there was another paragraph starting: "However, we note that..." and the comments in that paragraph appeared so negative that I burst into tears. Left me feeling like a fraud for being granted the doctorate. It took me years (about 10 or 15) to be able to look at the comments again and realise that they were related to stuff I'd missed out on by not actually being in a research group, and/or were things I'd had no control over, NOT comments on my own work/abilities/learning.

#24 ::: Ian Osmond ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 10:39 AM:

Of course someone with a Master's degree isn't necessarily a master. Someone with a Bachelor's degree isn't necessarily a bachelor, nor does a PhD necessarily study philosophy. The ordinary meanings of those words have diverged from the academic meanings, and I don't think it's any odder to note that someone with an MA hasn't yet achieved mastery than it is to note that people may be married when they finish their undergraduate coursework.

#25 ::: LMM ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 11:23 AM:

@23: Then the confirmatory letter came through with the examiners' comments and after the bit with the reasons why they thought I should get my PhD there was another paragraph starting: "However, we note that..." and the comments in that paragraph appeared so negative that I burst into tears. Left me feeling like a fraud for being granted the doctorate.

My Ph.D. defense was, I think, conducted in the wrong order: first, my committee dealt with the subjects I had covered (of which they had nothing but glowing comments). Then they tore apart the way I wrote my thesis; I was nearly in tears by the end. In retrospect, I suppose, that's the way one deals with things (scientific writing is always secondary to the material it covers), but I didn't walk out of the room (for the private discussion) happily.

That being said, the moment at which the first professor walked out of the conference room, declared "Congratulations, Doctor" and shook my hand is almost certainly going to be the proudest moment of my life.

#26 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 11:26 AM:

Avram @14: See also: Heinlein's "The man who was too lazy to fail."

#27 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 12:05 PM:

abi @0
Thinking about this has generated a few follow-up questions and observations.

1. If I understand ccorrectly, you're defining mastery as including both a performance component and a sharing component; there can't be true mastery without both. How conscious do you think the teaching/sharing needs to be? Can it run on some deep instinct of leading by example, or does the master need to understand explicitly how the craft is learned?

2. I was going to ask if you thought it was possible to be a master without being at the pinnacle of the art, but I think it is. I was thinking of coaches; it's possible to be an exellent coach of a sport even if you were never more than a mediocre player. In fact, like tutoring in an academic subject, there's an advantage to having struggled yourself; you're more likely to be able to help someone else than are the people to whom it came effortlessly. Also, I have a fondness for stories about those masters who realize that their students will surpass them - and get out of the way.

3. Does mastery imply some level of serenity about your own skills? It's possible to be a tortured genius producing wonderful art without ever believing in your own talent - but is that person a master in the sense we're talking about? I'm thinking not - I'm thinking the humility you mentioned means a realistic assessment of your skill in light of the demands of the craft - recognizing what you don't know, but likewise recognizing what you DO know. But I could be persuaded otherwise.

4. I was thinking of an analogy with sainthood, that sainthood is in some sense mastery of the art of losing yourself in something larger than yourself. But I think that mastery in general is self-forgetful; the master thinks about the demands of the work and perhaps the needs of the students, but not explicitly about his/herself while working (though perhaps in reflection at other times).

5. Re masterwork, dissertations, etc.: I am definitely not an expert in medieval guilds, but I think of being promoted to journeyman as equivalent to passing a comprehensive exam in a PhD program; it certifies that you have a grasp of the knowledge of the field. The dissertation, like the masterwork, demonstrates that you are capable of independent work.

Interesting stuff; thanks for this.

#28 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 12:36 PM:

To riff on what Jacque said at #10: I teach a martial art, and when I grant a rank, I remind my students that being given third kyu, or first kyu, or shodan, or whatever, doesn't mean you have achieved that level of study, it means I as your teacher believe that you are at the point where you may now engage at that level of study. Rank doesn't mean you've finished, it means you get to start over again at a different place. And you do this over and over again. On his deathbed, the man who created the art I study, Morihei Ueshiba, reportedly said, "I am a beginner." We try, as we train, to keep shoshin. It means "beginner's mind." Each encounter must be fresh and whole, without anticipation or preconception.

It seems to me that shoshin is equally a valuable state of mind for someone doing science. A great danger, it seems to me (I am not a scientist) in any scientific endeavor is coming to one's evidence with expectation of what one will find. Also hammer, nail, etc.

Re Steve with a book's comment at #5: this is unfortunately so. By the time I received my M.A. from the University of Chicago, I had reached a point where I could no longer read with pleasure. It was quite awful. When I was offered $$ to go on, get my PhD, and presumably spend the rest of my life working in some English Lit department or other, I turned it down without having to agonize much about it.

It took over a year for me to be able to pick up a book again and read for the sheer joy of reading, and I still remember the moment, the place, and the book. (It was Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, by Richard Farina.)

#29 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 12:52 PM:

dcb #23: The committee's comments in the viva and after are the last opportunity to instruct and guide. The presumption is that the candidate is an adult who understands that criticism is meant for the purpose of guidance not debasement. When we award a doctorate, we are admitting the candidate to full equality among the ranks of scholars.

It is a scary process, and it is certain that there is a vast array of things that I, for one do not know and do not begin to understand. Yet I keep on learning and wanting to do so.

#30 ::: David Wald ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 01:17 PM:

abi@0: I worry, sometimes, about how highly we value new knowledge and how little we do that knowledge's transformative effect on people.

How directly does this map onto the common academic conflict—or at least tradeoff—between research and teaching?

#31 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 01:25 PM:

OtterB@27: your point 4 immediately reminded me of Neal Stephenson's Anathem, where the most dedicated and worthy scholar-monks are referred to as saints, or at least Saunts. In a concent you have all the time in the world to study, and a community of similarly-interested people, and no exams: it's what university ought to be like but isn't, and uneasily reminds the geeky reader of how study didn't quite pan out the way he or she hoped it would.

#32 ::: brotherguy ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 01:32 PM:

One of the hardest things to get used to, both as a student and as a teacher, is the truth that understanding -- mastery, if you will -- only seems to begin to kick in about six months after the final exam.

I barely squeaked through freshman physics, and eight years later I was teaching it. Somewhere along the way, when I wasn't noticing, it had become something that made sense to me.

Likewise, one of those skills I don't know I ever mastered (that word again) was recognizing in a student the level of competence that suggested they would, eventually, figure out the stuff that they flubbed on the exam (and thus we should pass them) versus those who were so clueless that we had no confidence the material would ever "catch" with them.

As others have mentioned here, of course, any student in the latter category should have been warned off their topic long before they got to the point of writing a thesis.

There is a prominent scientist in my field (planetary astronomy) who flunked his PhD general exams, but stayed employed at the observatory in lab-assistant sort of position, and wound up doing a lifetime of really good research. He told me that, twenty years later, one of his committee members said to him over a friendly dinner (with something of an ironic smile), "you know, I think we may have made a mistake in your case..."

#33 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 02:15 PM:

brotherguy @ 32:

Likewise, one of those skills I don't know I ever mastered (that word again) was recognizing in a student the level of competence ...

I think this points out that teaching is a separate discipline from the subject being taught, and that mastery in one does not automatically confer mastery in the other.

#34 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 02:16 PM:

Fragano Ledgister @ 29: I realise that it's their opportunity to instruct and guide. I also recognise that I have self esteem issues (which I'm working on). But at the time, it was overwhelming - and as you indicate @9, I'm not the only one left feeling that way. I don't think that instructing and guiding has to include reducing even successful candidates to tears, making them feel that the award was given grudgingly and not really earned. Even for people with better self-esteem, when you've put your life, your work, your energy into crafting this thesis, hearing that degree of criticism is a hefty blow and it wouldn't hurt to finish with some positive comment.

#35 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 02:24 PM:

OtterB @27:

1. I'm not sure that there must be a sharing component, though teaching is part of the culture of many areas of mastery. But I think that teaching and sharing are all but inevitable outcomes of mastery even when they are not part of the tradition in question, for three principal reasons:
* What possesses us that much, we talk about. Some of the people we talk about it to then become interested, and then we talk about it more. Voilà! Student!
* Unless one practices one's art in secret and in hiding, word gets out. People start turning up with questions. That frequently leads to answering them, and there you are.
* Once one realizes the degree to which teaching teaches the instructor as well as the student, it's hard not to do more of it. It's another avenue to learning, which is the pursuit and the joy of a master (as I see it).

2. I was going to ask if you thought it was possible to be a master without being at the pinnacle of the art, but I think it is.
I agree, absolutely, for all of the reasons you cite and more. Among other things, most arts have more than one pinnacle. In bookbinding, I can't say that Keith Smith is not a master because he doesn't sit on Sir Bernard Middleton's peak.

3. I think that mastery requires a realistic perspective on your skills; if you consistently over- or under-estimate your work, you're not going to be able to learn from your mistakes and choose the best path forward. And that kind of serenity can be hard to come by sometimes. But it's easier because mastery is like any other form of love: it both requires that you place something other than your own happiness first and makes that a natural thing to do.

4. In that, yes, it is like sainthood, which is another form of self-forgetting love. But in a way, sainthood is about letting the infinite become the expert in you, about you giving over every corner of your being to it. Remember what Saint Francis called God?*

* Yes, I know that there is another definition of master involved as well. But I think there's intellectual and (Christian) spiritual juice in the idea that one of God's masteries is the art of knowing and loving humanity. For, of course, those inclined in that direction; others' mileage may vary.

#36 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 02:25 PM:

I'm not sure that we are talking about there having to be a teaching component to mastery, but that without mastery, there is a very hard limit on what can be taught.

I see the following as self-evident after a few attempts:

Learn something and you think you can know it.
Do that thing and you think you do know it.
Teach that thing and find out how much of it you do not know.

Part of mastery, to me, is extensibility - use beyond itself. I try to help the more junior bridge players around me (NOT the novices; I can not decompose my knowledge far enough down to assist them. It is a fault, but also a part of mastery (in what I have mastered; it has become "obviously and indivisibly right" when, of course, it is not)). The first time they say "Of course, she couldn't have <that> because if she did, she would have done <other thing>" is a shining light to me, and the start of the path to mastery in that player; she's just taken the information she knows, and the information she's learning, and extended it to a situation she didn't yet understand.

I see this a lot with my clients, especially those who have farmed out their IT to India. Now, India has two huge issues: they have millions of people they need to find jobs for, and they have millions of people-jobs available to be filled if suitably trained people are there for them. So they have to punch through millions of people to "job-quality", fast.

What happens, it seems, is that they learn checklist-IT - Problem A takes Solution A, Problem B is solved with Solution B, and so on down the row. Technically brilliant, but not extensible - because they're not taught how to "think IT". When presented with a problem not on the checklist, they are as lost as any civilian. And unfortunately, with the product my company sells, almost all the things-that-go-wrong are not on the checklist.

I'm not denigrating the decision that has been made there, by the way - it's the right one for them. But the limitations are obvious - and a three-word precis for those limitations are "lack of mastery".

Feynman's issue with the way science was taught in Brazil (collected, inter alia in Surely You're Joking, Mister Feynman!) is the same issue, and yet another turn on the skill-vs-mastery wheel.

#37 ::: J Greely ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 02:29 PM:

Lizzy L #28: I was just going through one of Gozo Shioda's books and found this sentence: "I entered the Ueshiba Dojo in 1932 and have trained in aikido for over fifty years; it is only recently that I have come to understand the lessons that Ueshiba Sensei taught us."

On a related note, my mother used to have me come in to her graduate-level Education classes to teach the students to juggle, and then spent two hours making them analyze the experience of learning a new thing. She was delighted when one student insisted on learning the harder three-ball shower rather than the standard cascade, and got a good twenty minutes out of how I handled it and how it affected my time with the rest of the group. :-)


#38 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 03:27 PM:

dcb #34: I agree, it is overwhelming,and stressful. We've all gone through it. You shouldn't, however, make the mistake of giving responsibility for your feelings to the dissertation committee which was simply, by your account, doing its job.

#39 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 05:05 PM:

Lizzy L @28: "beginner's mind."i>

One of my more bizarre superpowers is absolutely cast-iron beginner's luck. If you play a game with me and it's my first time, I'll wipe the floor with you. I never take up the game as a practice, though, because it takes years to achieve that level of mastery in a reproducible way, and I just don't have the patience.

Bruce Cohen @33: teaching is a separate discipline from the subject being taught, and that mastery in one does not automatically confer mastery in the other.

See also: technical competence versus management competence; a dichotomy that the business world was just beginning to address when I went off on my sabatical in '02. Which neatly loops back to the discussion elsethread about the currently ill-reputed spherical Harvard MBA of uniform density.

Mycroft W @36: they learn checklist-IT - Problem A takes Solution A, Problem B is solved with Solution B, and so on down the row. Technically brilliant, but not extensible - because they're not taught how to "think IT". When presented with a problem not on the checklist, they are as lost as any civilian.

This is, it seems, how doctors have traditionally been taught. Symptoms A, Q, and Z mean Disease #1,379. This takes treatment #4,000,006 plus #7, Subset B. Granted, they're referring to hugely complex and comprehensive lists. But they're not taught how to go after it in, shall we say, the Persig way: think about the system, figure out how the configuration is producing the undesired effects, and adjust the system's configuration (and, of course, keep an eye out for new undesired effects).

This results in things like: my colitis won't clear up and I'm slowly burning to the ground, so the third med they try on me (a t-cell inhibitor) turns loose the HPV hiding in my system, and I get to go in for a hysterectomy to deal with the sudden onslaught of ovarian cancer. The second med they try on me is the only one that's even sort of working, but after two years on Prednisone, I go into major clinical depression with a side of accute anxiety disorder. When I complain about this to the guy who's treating me, he irritably shrugs and says, "Not my specialty." (I do, eventually, deal successfully with all the secondary and tertiary effects, as well as the primary presenting problem. But not as a result of anything the doctor in question has done or recommended.)

J Greely @37: She was delighted when one student insisted on learning the harder three-ball shower rather than the standard cascade, and got a good twenty minutes out of how I handled it and how it affected my time with the rest of the group. :-)

Yes...? Details, please? :)

Fragano Ledgister @38: You shouldn't, however, make the mistake of giving responsibility for your feelings to the dissertation committee which was simply, by your account, doing its job.

Well, except insofar as the committee is buying into the standard "how the job is done." Strikes me as being not-unrelated to the traditional practice in training doctors of putting them through [is it "residency"?] wherein it is assumed and predicted that they will frequently go for days without sleep. Seems the medical profession is finally clueing in to the notion that this practice is (a) not necessary for the production of competent doctors and (b) somewhat(!) dangerous for all parties concerned.

#40 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 05:43 PM:

Fragano: You and I agree that this is "overwhelming and stressful". Does it have to be, in order to teach the student successfully? Caroline, you and I all gave personal examples of the present system leaving the (successful) candidate feeling a failure. Is that what you really think should be a major result of a successful dissertation defence? I think that a dissertation committee has a duty to communicate, not only what the student did wrong, but also that they did, truly, do sufficient to earn their doctorate (or masters, or whatever). In my opinion, a level of negative criticism which leaves the candidate feeling that they have failed, even when they have succeeded, is neither necessary nor helpful. And "it made a man of me*" is, as Jacques indicates, not sufficient reason to continue that teaching style.

*To which my stepmother, as a mature medical student or houseman (I forget at which stage), replied, bravely, "well, it's never going to make a man of me!"

#41 ::: J Greely ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 06:24 PM:

Jacque #39: that was 25+ years ago, but as I recall, they liked that I didn't force him to conform and taught him what he wanted, without neglecting the rest of the group (in part by noticing who caught on quickly and encouraging them to help others). They had a lively discussion about how to juggle students with different desires and needs, and when it was appropriate to allow a student to do his own thing. There were a number of "I get it now" moments.

(he had a pretty ragged shower at the end, and couldn't hold it long, but he was happy, and felt confident that he know how to get better)


#42 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 06:52 PM:

My dissertation defense was entirely civilized, and fairly complimentary. A few technical questions were asked (including the rather unlikely--well, for art history, anyway--"Who did you prefer, Batchelard or Bourdieu?" to which I replied that they were both tools, that I used them in entirely different contexts, and that they were both necessary to my argument, an answer that seemed to satisfy the theorist on the committee. There were some matters of "fix this before you turn it in", but I (who had spent many years previous to grad school in the far more fraught process of getting software design documents through committees) got the distinct impression it was in the vein of editor's tweaks for publication rather than a tear-down of what I had done. (IOW, you're a pro now, if you submitted this to an appropriate journal, this is what you'd get back.)

Then the pigeon limed my arm directly I got outside, just to make sure I didn't get too swollen a head.

#43 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 07:10 PM:

and PhD stands for "piled higher and deeper"

#44 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 07:42 PM:

On defenses and feeling like a failure: did I mention how terrible my master's thesis was? Because it was terrible. Seriously, I think I left the program worse than it was when I came in. My thesis was not a success on any level including the presentation of the graphs. I know this, my committee knew this, I got a master's degree and some major issues from it.

Someone who added to the total of scholarship, who wrote a good dissertation and is welcomed to the community of scholars, who is not not not getting a pity degree, should not have feelings identical to mine when they leave their defense. "Congratulations, Doctor," isn't really praise-- it's the baseline. Even something as simple as teaching the committee sandwich critiques rather than all the good followed by all the bad might make a big difference.

#45 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 08:51 PM:

Friend of a friend got one question in his astrophysics Ph.D. oral: "why is the sky blue?" - followed by lots of "explain that", "how does that work?", "go deeper", etc. You can traverse a huge amount of knowledge from one question that way.

In interviewing programmers, I have tried to find the equivalent questions, ones that show me if someone really knows the topic, not just has memorized some facts. (i.e. my interviewing questions aim to be the antithesis of most computer certification systems.)

This isn't original with me, I learned it from a very good teacher in a course on TCP/IP, who "why is the sky blue"'d the whole class all the way from the command-line down to the on-the-wire physical layer signals. Which exercise was deeply revealing of the ensemble expertise and even mastery already present in the class. It made us focus on the subject, feel good about ourselves, and brought everyone up to the level of the most expert -- then we went further for three days. A very good teacher, and a true master.

#46 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 09:25 PM:

When editing, I make a point of stopping and saying, while writing a revisions letter, A was good and B worked well and I really liked what you did with C. Because even a writer who has written a zillion books wants to hear about the good stuff, not just the stuff that needs fixing.

The first person to teach me editing did not teach me that, but the second person did. I've tried to pass it on ever since.

#47 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 12:44 AM:

Xopher @11: Would you be willing to expand? Although I know Christian practice somewhat well, I don't think I know enough of Wiccan practice to follow, but I'm curious.

brotherguy @32: Likewise, one of those skills I don't know I ever mastered (that word again) was recognizing in a student the level of competence that suggested they would, eventually, figure out the stuff that they flubbed on the exam (and thus we should pass them) versus those who were so clueless that we had no confidence the material would ever "catch" with them.

There are some teachers whose charisma is so great and whose love for a subject so infectious that they can take people who, at the beginning of a class, fall in the second category, and inspire them to caring enough to fall in the first category. Sadly such people were under-represented in my freshman science and math courses -- intentionally so, is my understanding, so as to limit the number of higher level students to a manageable number. I came in with the best math background I could get but without enough for physics, and it wasn't until I had an electrical engineer teach differential equations to me that I really understood it intuitively.

To this day I'm irked at how badly bungled my intro science and math classes were. To be sure, I skived off like nobody's business -- I was a freshman, and busy finding the limits of my newfound freedoms -- and it's not clear that I would in any case have gone into physics or chemistry or been happier there. But I would like to understand, and to get the professors who really cared I needed at minimum that math background I didn't have. (I needed, to use our terms here, to be on the road to mastery, and I was the student who has memorized all the rules but doesn't understand the reason underneath.) And down in the shallow end of the pool, where it felt like the professors were themselves just going through the motions, why should I care more than they did? There's a catch-22 in secondary education -- the people for whom the existing system worked well are the ones they let run it, so there's little incentive to change, and little understanding when change is sought what the actual problems are. It is not good at teaching mastery, because most of the people who exit the school with it, also entered with it.

There is a skill to taking that student who knows all the rules but not their reason and opening in them the understanding that there exists a reason and they should seek it; or that student who is not humble and opening in them the understanding that there exists reason for humility (and maybe these are sometimes the same skill). I certainly don't possess it, and I've been hurt by teachers who didn't possess it (abi's words about outgrowing a teacher ring true here), but I should like to understand it some day.

#48 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 01:28 AM:

Jacque @ 39:

IMO the education of doctors is a 55 gallon drum of B horror movie size worms that desperately needs to be opened by someone with the authority to do something about it. I think I'd rather juggle chainsaws.

I'm curious about the relationship between mastery and craft. I agree with abi that they're definitely not synonymous, but I have the intuition that they are related in some ways. I"ve been thinking about craft a lot in the last few years, mostly because of reading "Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand" by  Malcolm McCullough, which proposes that craft is not limited to the manipulation of physical materials. I've been trying to understand what the craft of software development is, and what the nature of a software tool is compared to a physical tool. ISTM that some level of craft is necessary before mastery can be attained in many disciplines; you can't master painting without having some craft in using a brush or mixing colors, for instance. But how much craft is necessary, and if you have more, does that effect the level of mastery you can attain, or the time it takes to attain it?

#49 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 02:40 AM:

Craft in software development is learning to appreciate the unreasonable effectiveness of elegance in making programs work.

As for tools, all I can think of to say is this: a software tool is *always* a tool-making tool, and the tools it makes are themselves tool-making tools, and so on ad practical infinitum. Physical tools don't have that degress of regress. (Not as a general rule.) I don't know what difference this makes for the craft of programming, but it sure does make design important.

(Quite often the tool you are making is intended for the use of you-tomorrow; this does not change the equation, however.)

#50 ::: Brother Guy ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 04:42 AM:

Henry Troup @ 45:

I too have a friend who got that "why is the sky blue" question at his PhD defense. It may well be a common question to ask. Or, given this group, it may be that we share the same friend! (Someone famous for catching computer crackers who is now involved with Klein bottles...)

#51 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 05:57 AM:

Brother Guy @ 50... Would it be someone called Stohl?

#52 ::: Nancy C. Mittens ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 06:46 AM:

Serge, don't go over that Cliff.

#53 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 09:12 AM:

Jacque #39: Obviously, how the job gets done will vary from case to case, committee by committee, depending on the nature of the dissertation. I expect the level of rigour to stay the same in all cases.

Right now, as a matter of fact, I'm about to send a number of dissertations back to their writers for minor edits (in my capacity as a department chair). I expect to hear a number of groans on that subject.

#54 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 09:27 AM:

dcb #40: Every committee I've served on, whether as second or third reader, or as chair, has definitely communicated both praise and critique. My primary concern, from the first moment I ever was asked to serve on a dissertation committee, has been to ensure that the process is both rigorous and fair.

I can recall one case, a master's thesis, where I refused to pass the thesis until major changes were made. The candidate was aggrieved, but that was not my problem. The thesis was not, in my judgment, fir to be passed at that point. It took the candidate a whole semester to fix the problems, but they were fixed.

#55 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 09:37 AM:

Henry Troup # 45: There's a difference between the general (comprehensive) examination oral to which you're referring and the dissertation/thesis defence. The former, which is also a requirement of the PhD (and of many MA and MSc programmes) is a stepping stone to the latter. It is a comprehensive examination of knowledge in a number of sub-fields of the discipline (this varies according the the discipline and the institution). It can be as focused as asking "Why is the sky blue?" (a nice tough question in physics) to one I did get in comparative politics: "What kind of democratic régime would you recommend for Botswana, and why?" (I picked consociational, on the grounds that it would most adequately represent the various clans and sub-clans of the Tshwana, as well as the minority ethnic groups in Botswana; bear in mind that neither I nor the examiner, Peter Gourevitch, specialises in African politics).

The dissertation oral defence is the doctoral candidate's lecture (20-30 minutes) plus questioning and critique by the committee of the dissertation that they have written on a specialist subject that they have chosen in concert with their advisor (who is chairing the committee). This is work that they have carried out independently, with support and commentary from their advisor and other committee members, true, but which is their own and for which they are responsible. It is thus different from the knowledge of the field that is expected in the comprehensive examination, either written or viva voce.

#56 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 11:39 AM:

Fragano #54:

Defense includes lecture? New to me. The program I went through has the lecture coming in the colloquium, which is where the student presents the proposed topic to the departmental faculty (and any support group she can jam into the corners of the seminar room). It is also at this point that specific subjects are proposed for the comprehensive exams. (Result, you get two times where you have to leave the room, separated by as much as six years.)

My defense proceeded directly from "Hi, glad you could make it, how was your last conference/research trip/packing to move to Florence" to the questions.

#57 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 12:11 PM:

Brother Guy @50:

Bottle of Klein
Fill it with wine
But is it inside or outside my
Bottle of Klein?
Either is fine
It won't matter after you've tried my

Bottle of Klein
Lovely design
There isn't anywhere I can hide my
Bottle of Klein
Look and you'll find
The whole universe is inside my

Bottle of Klein….

#58 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 01:38 PM:

joann #56: I've described the norm in my field (political science) and the other social sciences; it is about the same in the humanities.* What's your field?

* The great Realm of Ignorance is divided into three domains: the Natural Stupidities, the Social Stupidities, and the Inanities. Practices in these domains have a family resemblance, but do differ.

#59 ::: Dan R. ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 01:45 PM:

DCB@40: This put's me in mind of Marge Simpson's road-rage management course experience. Paraphrasing Chief Wiggam: "First we'll break you down psychologically, then build you back up. Then we break for lunch. After lunch we break you down again, and then if there's time..."

As an extra datapoint, my defense could not have gone more smoothly, with continuous compliments from both external examiners (one a towering figure in the field, the other from another department in the university) during the questioning. At the end, when they congratulated me and called me doctor, I still burst into tears (something one of the other examiners still reminds me of whenever I see him). Even in the best of circumstances, the stakes felt like the highest in my life.

#60 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 01:53 PM:

Fragano #58:

Art history. The order may or may not be specific to my particular department, which AIR had reorganized its program not too long after getting an influx of faculty that caused recent Yale PhDs to be somewhat overrepresented, and which also suffers from being a bastard stepchild of the art department.

#61 ::: Dan R. ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 01:55 PM:

Google is my friend, memory is not:

Wiggum: Okay, I assume you all know why you're here. That's right, you're all angry, sick people. But, over these next eight hours, you will be broken down to the level of infants, then rebuilt as functional members of society, then broken down again, then lunch, then, if there's time, rebuilt once more.

#62 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 02:07 PM:

PhD defenses can take many forms. In my department, they were entirely optional at the choice of the committee. (Frequently, by the time the candidate had gotten to that point they had already been teaching in some other state for a year or so. This was generally solid grounds for waiving an in-person defense.)

I don't know how I feel about not having done a defense. (I was still in the area but had been off working in industry for half a year or more.) Quite frankly, I'm still unconvinced that two of the four members of my committee actually read the dissertation before signing off on it. That might have made quizzing me a bit awkward (for one of us). A defense would have been a nice rite of passage -- the only real rite I got was the symbolic trundling around with a hand-truck delivering the final hard-copies to the committee members. (I'd already walked the ceremony previous to that point, so the two events were unconnected emotionally.)

It's the story of my life: I always seem to do things jumbled up and out of order, and the events that other people seem to view as major signposts either don't happen or fall flat. I try to view it as one more lesson in defining my own win conditions.

But setting that aside and returning to the topic of mastery, the understanding/teaching intersection reminds me of my advice to students regarding term papers. If you can explain the topic and conclusions of your work to your non-specialist housemate and get them to understand what's interesting about it, then you're ready to write your paper.

#63 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 02:18 PM:

So, if we define mastery as an experience, is it ever possible to certify that someone is a master? What sort of Turing-like or Voight-Kampff-like test could one set? Presumably it'd be nothing like a PhD viva...

(Humility about what one doesn't know or can't do isn't always an outcome of PhD education; the battle to convince yourself and your supervisor and your examiners that you know a lot about a very restricted area and enough about a much wider area often leads to defensive neurosis and the hope that they won't ask about The Stuff That Should Be General Knowledge For You By This Stage, whether it's Legendre polynomials or fullerenes or Auden's letters to newspaper editors.)

#64 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 02:48 PM:

Avram 14: I thought I'd replied to this, but it looks like I didn't. Sorry about that; I didn't mean to be rude.

Hadn't seen them in that form, no. Thank you! I have often said (and I'm sure I'm not the first or last to do so) that "enlightened laziness" - the desire to minimize total work rather than just skip out on whatever the right-now work is - is a great virtue in programmers.

Kevin 47: I'm assuming you mean the Pride/Humility/Hubris thing and not the single and double quotes!

I assume you know that on matters of theology any two Wiccans will have three opinions per topic. So speaking for myself (taken from books by Adler and Starhawk, gleaned from interactions with Wiccan Elders, and pondered alone in the dark): Pride is really a kind of honor. It's the desire to think well of yourself along with a commitment not to do so without justification. So while Pride makes me want credit for my work, it also makes me unwilling to accept credit for the work of others. It's Pride that motivates me when I say "oh, I'm glad that joke amused you; I got it from such-and-such a place." I don't always credit my sources for jokes (what joketeller does?) but I do when people seem to believe a joke is original with me.

I said above that Pride makes me want credit for my work. Sometimes, though, that's ego instead, and the Prouder thing would be NOT claiming credit. It really requires constant attention to distinguish. For me, certain ritual bits (wordings of things to make them less sexist or less heterosexist) that I came up with are better left "traditional," though I must say "oh, they've been doing it that way on the West Coast forever" was irritating the first time I heard it (and untrue, as it turned out). But some things work better if they don't have a known author, and therefore I'm making a greater contribution to the Craft (i.e. Wicca) if I don't claim them. Pride is what lets me NOT claim them.

Hubris, on the other hand, is thinking well of yourself beyond reasonable justification, and putting yourself ahead of others. Traditionally, it's "thinking you can be greater than the gods," but really it's a lack of proportion. At its worst it can be egomania or even megalomania. It's the kind of pride that goeth before a fall, because grossly unrealistic self-evaluations don't tend to lead to success in the real world (though slightly unrealistic ones apparently do).

Brother Guy 50: From Isaac Asimov's Treasury of Humor:

"Nuclear fusion makes stars to shine,
Tropisms make the ivy twine,
Raleigh scattering make skies so blue,
Testicular hormones are why I love you."

#65 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 03:43 PM:

John Scott, the future Lord Chancellor (and Lord Eldon), had a very short and civilised oral exam at University College Oxford in the 18th century:

"I was examined in Hebrew and in History. 'What is the Hebrew for the place of a skull?' I replied, 'Golgotha.' 'Who founded University College?' I stated (though, by the way, the point is sometimes doubted), 'that King Alfred founded it.' 'Very well, sir,' said the examiner, 'you are competent for your degree.'" Source.

One suspects that the examiners decided in advance who was master of his subject and who wasn't, and chose their questions appropriately.

#66 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 03:46 PM:

Xopher@64: Nitpick: "glandular", which scans better. (Also "Rayleigh".)

#67 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 03:51 PM:

True, David, but I was quoting.

#68 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 03:55 PM:

Fragano Ledgister @53: I expect the level of rigour to stay the same in all cases.

I don't dispute the need for rigour and consistency. What I do emphatically dispute is the equation of rigour with—well, in practical terms, "emotional abuse."

I totally get the need to challenge the candidate. I even get the need to challenge the candidate's confidence and self-concept. I'm just saying that I see no worth in dragging a candidate into a black chasm of self-doubt, and then leaving them there. I'm sorry, but I don't see what practical function that would serve, nor how that does anybody any good.

If a candidate is challenged and found wanting, that's one thing. That's a necessary and important evaluation, as you point out. If a candidate is challenged and found acceptable, but left feeling like they've been found wanting, and then not corrected on this impression—who does that help?

(I should point out that I have no direct experience of this process; I'm just responding to the impressions I got from reading acounts upthread.)

#69 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 04:03 PM:

In '63, and again in '64, I failed my organic chemistry prelim at Berkeley. This was an oral exam, primarily on the subject of one's research project, and passing was required for "advancement to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree".

I collected by booby prize, an MS in Chemistry, and applied to Princeton and started all over. I passed my courses, my cumulative exams, and my oral General exam in near-record time, and got my Ph.D. in four years.

To this date I have no understanding of how I failed what should have been a perfectly straightforward oral, but fail I did. Years of psychotherapy, both individual and group, have provided no illumination whatsoever.

I have long since stopped trying to figure it out and have settled for having a life.

#70 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 04:04 PM:

Heather Rose Jones #62:

PhD defenses can take many forms.

It's not just departments, but universities & countries that can also differ.

#71 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 04:17 PM:

Xopher HalfTongue @67: Did you actually look at the book, or did you quote from memory? I ask because I remember seeing that same verse in one of his F&SF science essays -- with "glandular", and "Rayleigh" with a y. (I would not expect Asimov to get that name wrong.) I admit that I am quoting from memory myself.

#72 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 04:20 PM:

Jacque #68:
I have no direct experience of a PhD defense either, but I do get why the candidate gets challenged.

It is at least in part a test of character; a candidate is not expected to know everything but they should at least be familiar with the thesis contents; after all they wrote it*.

And when they don't, I expect them to say as much, not prevaricate, or fake knowledge. Candour is what I would look for; signs of dishonesty would set off loud mental alarm bells.

*Friend was an examiner once where it was discovered during questioning in the interview that the student had not in fact written their thesis. Peer review only works if the peers are of good character.

#73 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 04:29 PM:

David, I wasn't sure of the first line, so I Googled and wound up copying from here.

#74 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 04:33 PM:

Soon Lee #72:

Yikes! How did that "defense" end? Perpetrator marched out in chains, or dismissed with the warning never to darken the department's paper towels again? (Personally, I would have fined the student a very hefty fee for wasting my time, and insisted on cash.)

#75 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 04:50 PM:

joann #74:

Well, they certainly did not graduate & was handed over to the disciplinary comittee. I was told there was a certain amount of head-shaking among the examiners. It showed me that at least that part of the system works.

In general, I think that by the time the candidate get to the defense, they are (or should be) ready. If not, that speaks as much of the supervisor(s) as it does the candidate. After all, it is the job of the supervisor(s) to mentor & guide the candidate to attain the required standard.

#76 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 05:05 PM:

Melissa Singer @ 46: As an Assistant Editor for a journal, I always find something good to say about a submitted paper, even if both the reviwers have a whole slew of negative comments.

Fragano @ 54: Having a combination of praise and critique is fine - and I wouldn't have expected praise and no criticism. But as Diatryma said @ 44, changing from "good then bad" to "good then bad then finish on something good" could make all the difference, psychologically, to the person on the receiving end. I expected to get editing comments - those were separate and were totally fair and really minor. And if major changes are needed, then the candidate needs to be told that (and preferably that should come from within the department, before it gets to final viva stage). But if only minor changes are required, a paragraph of purely negative comments criticising the person's work - in ways which they cannot change and have no opportunity, at that stage, to defend - is, in my opinion, unnecessary.

Fragano @54/Joanne @56: No lecture for me either. My viva was questions from the internal (to my university) and external (from elsewhere) examiner, about my thesis and surrounding topics, with my PhD supervisor also present. I did give an eight-minute paper (with 40 slides and two overheads - is that a record?), with my external examiner in the audience, at a conference shortly before my viva, which gave me the opportunity to expain some realities of working with wildlife, rather than, say, laboratory mice, or even sheep (e.g. it can take two months to get 40 blood samples).

Jacque @68: Exactly.

#77 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 05:16 PM:

Thesis defense ... I have participated in two, my own and one where I was the outside person on a committee, and I can't remember anything about either of them - not what the room looked like, or what anyone said, or what I said. I take that back - someone questioned my sample size (as well he might; it was smaller than it should have been) but let it pass; we put some kind of disclaimer in the final text. But I have better memories of discussing both documents in draft with appropriate people. I do remember "Congratulations, Dr. B" at the end of mine.

And I have the clearest memories of all of printing the final corrected copy of the dissertation. It had to be printed on watermark paper and turned in to the graduate school office the next day in order to graduate that semester. It was about 150 pages. I was printing it on a daisy wheel printer, a lovely technological advance that produced beautiful print, but took about 2 minutes per page, and the sheet feed didn't work properly. If you do the math, you'll realize that I sat up most of the night feeding it one page at a time while it chugged its way through the document.

Memory is a funny thing.

I agree that people should be able to handle to kind of questions they might get from colleagues at a conference presentation, but any serious objections to the dissertation should be dealt with before the final defense, and there is no justification for abusive treatment.

#78 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 05:19 PM:

I just looked up an essay-mill website. The price per page varied with academic level and speed of delivery: a PhD thesis, with delivery in 48 hours, is the most expensive product on offer and would cost about 40 quid per page. If I had four thousand quid to waste, it'd be quite amusing to throw it their way and ask for a thesis on black holes or verb morphology in early Cornish, just to see what I got for my money this Friday evening. (I imagine it would look very much like those expensive specialist 'books' on Amazon that are cobbled together from Wikipedia by perl scripts, though presumably some frazzled working-from-home student hand-polishes the abstract and conclusions section.)

#79 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 05:39 PM:

Xopher @64: The folk process has been at work on that song; it was first sung to me as

"Nuclear fusion makes the stars to shine
Cellular osmosis makes the ivy twine
Optical diffraction makes the sky so blue
Glandular hormones are why I love you."

I'd have to check with Beth Friedman to make sure, but that's what I remember.

#80 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 06:59 PM:

Steve w/book, #78: Does the site say "PhD thesis"? If it does, that should be a huge red warning sign even to potential customers. You write a thesis for your Master's, but a dissertation for your doctorate.

Which, by several free-associative leaps, leads me to wonder what would be the opinion of the committee about a candidate who had done the research, written the rough draft, and then hired a professional editor to make the final draft of the paper more readable?

#81 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 07:04 PM:

Lee: I'd be rather dubious, for two reasons. Typically, the advisor fancies that *they* are the editor, at least in some abstract sense. And the odds of them getting an editor with the exact domain-specific knowledge required is probably fairly low--and if they don't, the results could be, at best, unintentionally hilarious.

#82 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 07:14 PM:

Lee (80): For my MLS*, I had to write a master's paper**, not a thesis. The library school at UNC-Chapel Hill was very careful to make the distinction; the university required that a thesis be defended orally in front of a committee†, but a master's paper just had to be signed off on by a single adviser.

*technically an MSLS, in my case
**or project
†as we are discussing...

#83 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 07:58 PM:

As is often the case, Making Light has impeccable timing - I'm putting together my Qualifying Examination committee right now, and I've been paraphrasing portions of this discussion to my Amazing Girlfriend (who is doing the same thing).

From someone getting ready to go through the process (sometime in late Fall), thank you.

#84 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 08:08 PM:

As various people have noted, the use of terms varies. My undergrad transcript shows I had an "Undergraduate Thesis" in 4th year. (On the architecture of the Intel iAPX432 processor, where I had the foresight to be skeptical of its commercial potential.)

#85 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 08:49 PM:

Soon Lee #72: We have a "closed book" comprehensive exam process (it is extraordinarily rigorous,* four all-day written exams followed by a two-hour oral with a four-examiner committee). In one case, a few years ago, we had a clear case of plagiarism (a student smuggled in prepared answers on a thumb drive). This was most distressing.

*By comparison, I had to take two separate comprehenstive examinations (one of eight hours, followed by a two-hour viva; one consisting of an eight-hour and a four-hour written exam, with two-hour viva). Tough but not quite as gruelling.

#86 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 08:52 PM:

"I have a Master's Degree - in Science!" Ok, it's really in Operations Research, which is an engineeringish version of applied math, but the shingle says it's an MS, so I get to quote the "Doctor Science knows more than you do!" line. It was a non-thesis program - nine months of classes and the first day of PhD qual exams, and optionally we could take the second day, if we were planning to actually go on for the doctorate. Most of my class were heading on to jobs in industry, including me, and for most of us the computer business distracted us into application and away from deeper research. One part of the field got revolutionized a few years after I was out of school, going in directions I wasn't as good at, and my math gradually rusted away, but some of the insights have continued to be useful even though the world has changed. If I'd stayed in academia, it probably would have been another year or two before I got into sufficiently specialized work to do anything new enough to be worth calling a master's thesis, and literature search was enough harder back then that when I did start doing some original math, it took a long time to find out that somebody else had also done it first.

A few years back I was doing enough work related to Cisco routers that I got my CCNA certification. It was fairly annoying, because they not only care more about testing your memorization of syntax than understanding of the concepts (for equipment with a help system that's highly useful for syntax, though not for concepts), but switched to a testing provider with a computer-driven test system that insists on answering questions in order (so you can't do time management by answering the easy stuff first) and has a short strict time limit. The knowledge was useful, but it really rewarded regurgitation.

#87 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 09:06 PM:

dcb #76: A lot depends on how closely you work with your advisor. In my experience, and in my field, the candidate works closely with the advisor and gets some assistance from the other members of the committee (a lot depends on the particular expertise; I've done a lot as second reader to guide candidates on methodology and on editing).

I've just had the relatively unusual (for me) experience of shepherding two dissertations in my exact area of expertise to defence last month, and scheduling another for defence at the end of of the summer.

#88 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 09:29 PM:

At my school, it was called senior seminar.
I gave a talk (and don't ask me how I did it, since stage fright means I normally freeze in that situation) on how preferential ballots are counted. Visual aid: a spare 1972 rocket and some transparencies. (That was in 1984. I was way the heck too familiar with the process at the time.)

#89 ::: LMM ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 10:36 PM:

@44: It's the moment that matters. I *knew* I knew what I did. I didn't really need someone to give me elaborate praise for any of it (and, at any rate, they had already during the closed defense). But that, ultimately, was the moment I was awarded my Ph.D. -- and that's the moment that sticks in my mind.

It's also worth pointing out that this was his first interaction with me as a colleague. The relationship of a graduate student to a professor is an incredibly hierarchical one. The relationship between a Ph.D. and a professor -- particularly a Ph.D. who is not working at that academic institution and a professor -- is much more of a quantitative distinction than it is a qualitative one. [1] A defense is, at some level, a rite of passage. What matters are not the details or what people say about you as it happens -- what matters is the fact that it occurred.

That being said ... the job of a committee is not to console you. The job of your committee is not even to respect your feelings. And a dissertation is the cumulation of at least a half-decade of work -- it's very hard to criticize *any* aspect of it and not hurt someone emotionally. (Hell, I think half of what brought me to tears was someone pointing out the the titles of my figures were inconsistently formatted and that some of the plots were confusing. It was my *baby*.)

[1] Interacting with my advisor post-defense, one thing that *stunned* me was the ways in which he interacted with me as a colleague. He openly told me *incredible* gossip about professors that he never would have told me as a graduate student. He asked my opinion and *openly* showed he took it seriously -- in ways that he wouldn't have when I was working for him. This sort of thing comes across as a formality to anyone who isn't working in academia ... but it's a very clear distinction.

#90 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 10:55 PM:

All the talk about grad school is making me wish I'd found a department that worked better for me. Working closely with an adviser, sort of happened. I still wish I were getting the kind of he-helps-me-get-a-job I was told to expect, but eh. There were a lot of things wrong with my experience, and a lot of it boils down to 'it was me having it'.

#91 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 12:58 AM:

LMM, #89: Interacting with my advisor post-defense, one thing that *stunned* me was the ways in which he interacted with me as a colleague. He openly told me *incredible* gossip about professors that he never would have told me as a graduate student. He asked my opinion and *openly* showed he took it seriously -- in ways that he wouldn't have when I was working for him.

This reminds me of one of my own personal "I must be a grownup now" moments. When I was in high school, one of the science teachers was an old family friend who I'd known socially for most of my life, but that didn't carry over to class time (nor did I expect it to). Fast-forward 15 years; he and his wife were in Nashville for a visit, and my then-husband and I went out to dinner with them and my parents. Unsurprisingly, some of the conversation was high-school reminiscence... and he started relating teacher's-lounge gossip! I think I managed to keep my jaw from hitting the table, but it took an effort. Clearly he saw me, at that point, as an adult, whether my parents did or not. It was enlightening.

#92 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 01:51 AM:

Henry Troup @ 84:

On the architecture of the Intel iAPX432 processor, where I had the foresight to be skeptical of its commercial potential.

You are only the second person I've found outside of the people at Intel who worked on or with the 432 who've even heard about it. I'd be very curious to read that thesis; I worked with several of the 432 team, and for awhile even had some evaluation hardware. I finally dumped all the documentation I had about 10 years ago when cleaning out boxes for a move.

#93 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 01:59 AM:

Brother Guy @ 50:

So Cliff is selling Klein bottles now? I always knew he'd come to either a bad end or no end at all :-) Cliff was one of the better aspects of my years of being on the C++ standards committee.

#94 ::: Brother Guy ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 04:47 AM:

Bruce Cohen @ 93:

He's been selling Klein bottles for about fifteen years now; for a while it was his main source of income but as his kids are now approaching college age he's actually got a day job again, to prepare for the hit on the family fortune. (Needless to say, both kids are wonderful, and scary smart.)

Lee @ 91:

When I became a Jesuit, a Jesuit who was a teacher of mine at U of D High likewise shared such stories, and again it shocked me to be treated as an equal, even though I was already in my 50s. I notice that when I encounter any of my former grad school advisors (I went through three before getting my PhD) or post doc advisors, I tend to revert to the awful insecure kid I was at that age.

Having experienced it from both sides now, to me the relationship between grad student and advisor is one of the most awkward I can think of. From moment to moment it shifts from mentor/apprentice to parent/child to colleague/colleague to friend/friend and often one or the other in the relationship is confused about which relationship is in effect at the moment. We really need a concept like "melant'i" in the Lee and Miller Liaden books...

#95 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 10:41 AM:

There's actually an earlier point in the grad-school process where you receive some sort of acknowledgement of changing status: the point at which you are asked (or allowed) to tutoyer (1) your advising professor. It doesn't always happen, and it may come later rather than sooner, but it's a mark of a change in relationship.

(1) tutoyer: calling the professor by their first name, from the French term for calling someone by the familair "tu" rather than the formal "vous". If there's a one-word term for calling someone by their first name instead of <Honorific> <LastName>, I don't know it.

#96 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 12:04 PM:

#91 Lee: I have one of those. I went back to my High School one day a couple of years after graduation. Two things happened, both around "boys are called by their last name" at that school, in the English tradition:

"Oh you're <lastname>." from newer students, as lower grade students who knew me said hello (1-12 school, so there were a fair number of them). Some of the stories had survived two years...

Several of the teachers were acknowledging tutoyer (per #95, joann), or at least trying to treat me as no longer their student. But they were doing it by calling me by the (common) contraction of my first name that I can't stand. They'd known me for 6, 7 years sometimes, but never knew that - because they'd never called me anything but <lastname>, nor had they heard anybody else call me anything but <lastname> (or parody of <lastname>, but that's one for the Dysfunctional Schooling thread).

It was really weird, both getting the "equal" rather than "student", and having them get it so spectacularly wrong (until I clued into why).

#97 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 12:18 PM:

Brother Guy @94 to me the relationship between grad student and advisor is one of the most awkward I can think of. From moment to moment it shifts from mentor/apprentice to parent/child to colleague/colleague to friend/friend and often one or the other in the relationship is confused about which relationship is in effect at the moment. We really need a concept like "melant'i" in the Lee and Miller Liaden books...

That's an interesting way to think of it. It reminds me of the old "Games People Play" or "I'm OK - You're OK" transactional analysis. Either an adult-adult or a child-child transaction is fine, but a crossed transaction makes at least one of the participants unhappy. Melant'i is exactly right.

Several years ago I did some preliminary analysis of a dataset from student surveys that were part of a graduate school recruitment and retention research study. There were a lot of questions about how professors interacted with you, how competitive you felt the environment was, etc. One of the things I noticed was that there seemed to be departments in which the graduate students were treated like junior colleagues (students had a part in department governance, lots of cross-socializing with the faculty, students felt respected, etc.) and departments in which graduate students were treated in a more hierarchical/subordinate way. These were all departments in the same field, so the differences between the natural stupidities, the social stupidities, and the inanities didn't come into play (Fragano @58, thanks for those categories). If I were looking for a graduate program at this point, that would be one of the things I'd be looking for.

#98 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 12:38 PM:

Tutoyer: wonderful word, and completely meaningless to my grad school department. Everyone was a first name within the department from about the interview on.

I did work briefly with a man who switched languages when the conversation changed from social to science. That would be useful sometimes.

#99 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 02:09 PM:

joann, #95: Heh, another memory surfaces. This time it's encountering my college Chaucer professor at my 10-year reunion. He and some of the other faculty had a jazz quintet; I wandered over to say hello, and the following conversation (more or less, paraphrased from memory) ensued:

Dr. X: Hi, Lee! Let me introduce you to my colleagues.

Colleague: One of your students?

Dr. X: Former student. She calls me [firstname] now.

Me (thinking): I do? Okay, I guess I do.

After that, I'd occasionally call him up for a lunch date. I had to think about the name thing consciously for a surprisingly long time. Old habits die hard.

#100 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 02:33 PM:

Lee@80: I don't know whether the legalistically-written PhD/DPhil regulations of individual UK universities prefer 'dissertation' or 'thesis', but certainly 'PhD thesis' is very common indeed; see here for a random example from an official university website. In my mind 'dissertation' indicates something one would complete as a final-year undergrad project or as part of a Master's, whereas 'thesis' indicates PhD work—but YMMV and perhaps usage has shifted a bit since I've been outside academia!

#101 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 02:49 PM:

Lee #99:

Which brings me to my incredibly socially fraught original undergrad career, in which there was a year or so where I was going out with a grad student in my department; the professor from whom I had already taken a couple of seminars was his advisor--and in fact had introduced us; and another friend (met in a language class but also in the same department) lived next door to the professor. We all socialized, lunch in the Union, beer and potlucks and such, and bought used house stuff from each other, but I can't remember ever calling the professor anything at all, I was so inhibited from using his first name.

#102 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 03:49 PM:

joann #95: A lot depends on the institutional culture. At the place where I got my MA and that where I got my PhD, the norm was everyone on first name terms.

However, I work at an HBCU and here the norm is one of great formality. Even older students (and I've just done a defence on one chap whose life experience includes having gone to LSE for his Master's with the first person for whom I ta'd) refer to instructors as "Dr ...".

Then I switch cultures and attend the annual meeting of one of my professional associations (the leading one in my particular area of interest), and everyone is on first name terms.

#103 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 04:08 PM:

Lee @ 80: like Steve with a book says @ 100, PhD thesis rather than dissertation for me as well.

Fragano @ 87: Sounds like a busy time!

Brother Guy @ 94: Oh yes! "melant'i" would be useful in some circumstances. Of course, it's also pointed out that Liaden modes of address enable someone to be very cutting - if someone talks e.g. adult-to-child to another adult, or even refers to someone (in that person's presence as "it" rather than he/her, i.e. denying their status as a sentient being.

joann @101: I've done the same thing, just ensuring I don't have to say the name.

#104 ::: little pink beast ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 05:06 PM:

joann@95: the formal equivalent, of course, is "vousvuzeler", meaning that if they play annoying pseudo-instruments in your presence you are obliged to put up with it.

#105 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 06:37 PM:

My junior high school was in our office last week. I heard the name "Hendrix," looked up and saw the haircut, and instantly knew it was he, lo these forty years later. (Turns out that, the year after I was in his class, he retired from teaching and went into real estate. Made himself quite a bundle, evidently.)

When he came in a couple of days later, he said to somebody else, pointing at me: "Yeah, she was in my class. And she's still interested in science!"

I didn't have the heart to tell him that the interest was retro-fitted well after I'd graduated high school.

#106 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 06:49 PM:

Steve w/book, #100: That's really interesting, because my impression goes exactly the other way. For example, my partner's daughter had to write a senior thesis for her BA degree a couple of years ago.

joann, #101: Ah yes, I also have that defense mechanism. When I'm not sure how to address someone and don't have the nerve to ask (usually because I think they'll think I should already know), I tend to default to avoiding calling them by name at all.

#107 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 07:02 PM:

Can't speak to UK practice, but at CMU "dissertation" and "thesis" both were strongly biased toward Ph.D. instead of masters, and "dissertation" was a formal reference to the final document submitted at the end of the process while "thesis" was an informal reference to the entire life cycle of that document. As such, one (hopefully) defended one's thesis and then made final corrections to one's dissertation.

I have no idea if this matched the local formal terms. Or, for that matter, if it was different outside of CIT and SCS.

#108 ::: LMM ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 09:14 PM:

As such, one (hopefully) defended one's thesis and then made final corrections to one's dissertation.

That's similar to the *formal* distinction my department (in the US) used -- a thesis is the research itself; the dissertation is the text.

That being said, most common verbs that would usually take "thesis" or "dissertation" as an object were simply made intransitive: "She's writing now. She'll defend in August."

This distinction falls apart, however, in most casual conversation. "Do you have the copy of Sarah's thesis?" is a perfectly valid question, as is the statement "He sent me a copy of the first chapter of his thesis to look over," even when both of them refer to a text submitted in order to obtain a Ph.D.

#109 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 10:17 PM:

Bruce Cohen @ 92 - I'm flattered. And surprisingly, I have here in front of me not one but two hard-copies of it. One is a poorly formatted but readable 1983 print from a Xerox 9700 in two-column format from a transformation into IBM Script/DCF; the other is the daisy wheel "original" from the long-vanished Commodore WordPro word processor. I don't have a softcopy(*), but I could send you the 1983 print. I've added you on Google+ or you can reach me at htroup (at) acm (dot) org

It's moderately interesting skimming - I see ideas I had found in my research that showed up again in 1993 Microsoft COM.

I rather like this part

The popular C language may need some modification... is weakly typed... [discussion about C's bad habits, like permitting char to be small int] The simplest solution would be to define a new language (D ?), with the flavour of C, but strong typing.

If only I'd said "C++", I'd pretty much have hit the nail on the head. And this is quite similar to some of the C/C++ standardization debates years later.

(Also, it says "Thesis for the degree of Bachelor of Applied Science", but I got a B. Sc. in Engineering with it.)

(*)I might on 9-track tape, but that's not going to be trivially read.

#110 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 10:30 PM:

I remember hearing about the iAPX432, but never heard what had happened to it.

#111 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 11:06 PM:

P.J Evans @ 110
Dvorak saith it was "a woofing dog"

#112 ::: Henry Troup got gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 11:08 PM:

I may have been excessively laconic, and insufficiently poetic. Perhaps even acerbic.

#113 ::: grackle ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2012, 01:25 PM:

I disagree that mastery is a teachable skill but maybe we have different concepts of mastery. The skill set(s) that can lead to mastery can be taught, certainly, but actual mastery implies a dedication that has been assiduously applied to whatever process while deep reservoirs of unteachable experience have been built up. Even then few obtain mastery. See, for example, Japanese Living National Treasures

#114 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2012, 05:33 PM:

grackle @113:
actual mastery implies a dedication that has been assiduously applied to whatever process while deep reservoirs of unteachable experience have been built up.

The attentiveness and attitude needed to build up that experience are a skill in themselves. So are the skills of community and mentoring that, in my opinion, denote a true master.

I agree that you can't be a master in the abstract, but must have a skillset upon which you base your mastery—it's not like a generic MBA that can (in theory) be applied to any kind of business without learning what that business is. But you can know an awful lot about a subject matter without the kind of mastery I'm thinking of. There's an extra ingredient.

Sometimes the culture of craftsmanship (for instance, in many traditional Japanese crafts) conflates the two. But that loses the fact that in some traditions, there are people don't get to that place of true immersion. And they won't get there by binding more books or building more tables; they have to learn something else.

Also, it loses the ability to see mastery as something that you can learn from someone in a different craft. I've learned a lot about mastery by watching my father at his letterpress, though I am not a printer. My mother asserts that her years as a lawyer have made her a better seamstress.

#115 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2012, 07:55 PM:

P J Evans @ 110:

It was somewhat of a political football at Intel; the x86 architecture team was, well, maybe "scornful" would be the best word, some of the later decisions made to make it more palatable to marketing (like calling it an "ADA machine"), were really questionable. Finally, Intel talked Siemens into setting up a joint subsidiary (called "BIIN" IIRC) and moved most of the technical people into that. It lasted about 2 years and was then quietly killed off.

Oddly enough the man who was the 432's chief software architect, and continued for some years to push Intel towards parallel and distributed architectures, is now the company's Chief Technical Officer. As far as I can tell from outside, he's the one who pushed them into the multi-core strategy to bypass the problems they were having with extending and speeding up the x86 architecture.

#116 ::: Ian C. Racey ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2012, 08:53 PM:

joann @101

Ah, yes. My wife and I have been married eight years, and neither of us has ever addressed our respective in-laws by name. Both sets of parents are perfectly open and friendly toward us; it's just our own social anxiety.

Heck, we've both sometimes wished we could address our in-laws as "Ian's mom", "Lisa's dad", etc., the way our son's friends address us.

#117 ::: Ian C. Racey has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2012, 08:57 PM:

No links, no spelling errors I can see.

I only post here every once in a while. I feel like I'm fulfilling a rite of passage.

#118 ::: Cassy B ::: (view all by) ::: June 09, 2012, 08:17 AM:

Ian @116,

Don't feel bad; I've been married to my husband for 20 years and dated him for 9 years before that. Until about five years ago, I never, ever addressed my inlaws by anything other than a pronoun in their presence. "How are you?" "Shall I bring him something, too?" I couldn't, absolutely could not, nerve myself up to ask the proper form of address. "Mom" felt wrong; using her first name felt wrong... I'd address cards to "Ma <lastname>" but that's not a verbal form of address, at least not for me.

(This was exacerbated by the fact they live 1000 miles away, so there was only a few days of face-to-face interaction a year.)

Only about five years ago, after I'd known her for about 25 years, did she finally mention to my husband to tell me that I should just call her by her first name.

#119 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: June 09, 2012, 01:13 PM:

@94 and following -

This discussion of role switching in academic relationships is resonating for me right now - I'm not in academia, but I'm in a situation where someone I've worked closely with as a colleague is moving out of that position, and now we get to be personal friends (where previously we needed to keep some professional distance), but it's so /weird/ to imagine having a conversation with X that isn't talking shop... (since I'm part of the team that's working on the transition, and it is necessary according to protocol that the departing staffer be absolutely separated from the search process.... File under "It's Complicated.")

This whole thing is like trying to learn how to use chopsticks with my non-dominant hand, at the head table of a banquet, while wearing a white shirt.

#120 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2012, 02:37 PM:

S'funny, I've been thinking about mastery too. I'm heading back to the Dojo in July.

I'd start this week, but we're heading to Canada for a couple of weddings, so it's sort of silly to start spending money for time I won't be using.

#121 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2012, 02:45 PM:

Mastery is a tricky thing. There are some things which I can say I seem to have mastery (sharpening knives, asking intentional questions). Some where I have a level of mastery (photography, cooking).

Some where I aspire to mastery (e.g. aikido). I have the sense that I can attain it, because, as abi says I can taste it [ again aikido] like lighting in the air, when I apply my mind to looking at it.

I was watching an interesting youtube where a master of wing-chun was comparing it to akido, with a master of aikido.

It was all in russian, which meant I could follow the general gist, but to see what was really happening I had to project myself into to the movements, and I could feel how the fall was coming.

Which is is what reminded me I like aikido, and I should go back.

#122 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2012, 03:56 PM:

P J @88: At my school, it was called senior seminar. I gave a talk (and don't ask me how I did it, since stage fright means I normally freeze in that situation) on how preferential ballots are counted. Visual aid: a spare 1972 rocket and some transparencies. (That was in 1984. I was way the heck too familiar with the process at the time.)

Ah... the year of the rat, and the plasticine, and the buckshot.

#123 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2012, 03:56 PM:

LMM: Interacting with my advisor post-defense, one thing that *stunned* me was the ways in which he interacted with me as a colleague. He openly told me *incredible* gossip about professors that he never would have told me as a graduate student. He asked my opinion and *openly* showed he took it seriously -- in ways that he wouldn't have when I was working for him. This sort of thing comes across as a formality to anyone who isn't working in academia ... but it's a very clear distinction.

It's like getting one's stripes in the Army. There are things one doesn't do to/with non-NCOs.

There's a different break between officers and NCOs, and as one rises in the latter, the relationships to the former are more intimate.

And there is a gulf, in both directions (NCO up to officer, and down to private soldier) which never goes away.

#124 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2012, 03:57 PM:

joann: (1) tutoyer: calling the professor by their first name, from the French term for calling someone by the familair "tu" rather than the formal "vous". If there's a one-word term for calling someone by their first name instead of , I don't know it.

Russian, qu'elle surprise has a verb† for that. I recall the first time someone used it with me; I had never heard the verb before, and the concept existed, but was abstract.

I don't expect it to catch on outside russia.

† тиковатъ

#125 ::: Terry Karney has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2012, 03:58 PM:

I suspect for cyrillic letters

#126 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2012, 05:38 PM:

Well, clay, actually. Two 10-pound blocks. And two 25-pound bags of the smallest shot we could find. Plasticine might have been better, but it's not as easy to find.

#127 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2012, 05:47 PM:

P J: I recall filling them. I also recall the look on Brin's face when he came up to me on the lanai...

David: "Terry"‡ I WON A Hugo!... Look!.... "Did you know they have clay in the bottom?"

Me: "And buckshot."

David: "Really?" (pokes until he finds a piece of shot). Wow! Cool. [wanders off, with a sense of glazed wonder, and shock].

‡ he was actually using a nickname only he and S. P. Somtow ever used for me

#128 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2012, 05:55 PM:

Terry @121: It was all in russian, which meant I could follow the general gist, but to see what was really happening I had to project myself into to the movements, and I could feel how the fall was coming.

I love that you could get partway there with the words, but could get all the way to understanding by feeling the movements.

I'm working on a post elsewhere about teaching, and so much of it is about the not-words stuff. It varies from discipline to discipline, of course, but some things aren't a matter of asking questions and getting answers; they take a different path.

#129 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2012, 06:14 PM:

In German, the familiar "you" is du and the formal is Sie (derived from the third person plural). The verb for "call someone du is duzen.

#130 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2012, 07:19 PM:

If anyone is interested in the video: Wing Chun and Aikido

#131 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2012, 12:00 AM:

Xopher @67: Hmm, thanks. I've been chewing on this for a couple days. I think the definition I aspire to is closer to yours and abi's. I have known people whose definition of 'humility' didn't include the "not groveling or undervaluing yourself" clause, and whose definition of 'pride' didn't include the "not taking yourself too seriously" clause, and always it's ended badly.

#132 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2012, 12:21 AM:

Terry Karney and P. J. Evans -- I was one of the fillers as well, on those bases. I wonder if anyone has a list. I expect Bruce might have, but who knows?

#133 ::: Phiala ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2012, 02:27 PM:

I've been thinking on this as I get ready for a fiber arts class I'm teaching at the end of the month. If I'm a master of anything, it's that particular subset of obscure fiber arts that rely on skill of hands rather than fancy equipment (tablet weaving, sprang, naalbinding and such).

I've come to the conclusion that mastery means having internalized the field. Not knowing everything, but being able to take a new thing and relate it to existing things and run with it, as well as to break it down and teach it.

It's a lot like what Abi said originally about "deep understanding of a subject," mixed together with mindful practice and thinking hard. I don't know everything and never will (sadly), but I know the universe of forms possible, and how any new thing would hook itself into that universe.

This was specifically prompted by learning something quite complicated this weekend, figuring out how to teach it, and resolving to teach it to my students at the end of the month. Even a few years ago I wouldn't have been comfortable with such a fast turn-around time, but now everything fits. More time would just be more time, not greater understanding. Neat.

#134 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2012, 03:45 PM:

That sounds like a really interesting class, Phiala. Wish I were close enough to wherever you are to take it.

#135 ::: Phiala ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2012, 06:03 PM:

I'm teaching tablet weaving and sprang in New Jersey, at the lovely Peters Valley Craft Center. I wish you could come too! It's going to be great fun. I hope.

#136 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2012, 06:18 PM:

Phiala: When? And what is sprang? Do you say "I sprang yesterday" or "I spranged yesterday," or "Tomorrow I shall spring"?

#137 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2012, 06:36 PM:

TexAnne: Fiber art producing elastic fabric, similar to netting but entirely composed of warp threads. According to.

#138 ::: Phiala ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2012, 12:09 PM:

That exactly, thanks Xopher. The wiki article is surprisingly good.

I'm teaching in New Jersey at the end of June/beginning of July (29-3), at the Peters Valley Craft Center. Which, if you ever have the inclination to go for an in-depth arts & crafts class out in the woods, is a lovely place with an interesting history.

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