Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Looking back to understand the present

According to Naomi S. Baron, "in the medieval English scriptorium, punctuation was generally added not by scribes but by proofreaders, who were the most learned monks in the monastery. Sometimes the abbots themselves filled this role."

Does this historical fact provide a greater understanding of the cast of contemporary editors? Hmm.

From Banff in the rain,

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Talent or practice?

According to neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, "ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years."

Hmm. Here I am at the Congress of Learned Societies with some ten thousand other people, most of whom are exceptionally well educated and highly intelligent; and yet of these ten thousand, only a very small number are truly "world-class" in their field. So perhaps the ten-thousand hour thesis does not apply to intellectual pursuits?

It's interesting that ten years is roughly the duration of an undergraduate degree plus graduate studies that typically churns out a PhD — assuming the student studied full time (which would be at least twenty hours per week of reading, writing, researching, discussing, and thinking). Does the diversity of tasks involved in becoming an academic preclude true expertise except rarely? (How many academic writers spend at least twenty hours a week only reading or only writing, for instance?) Because simply getting the PhD, while a great accomplishment, is insufficient to put one on the world stage, as the many, many underemployed graduates here will attest.

But then again, many of you reading this blog are inveterate readers who likely do spend some twenty hours of an average week reading. (I do, on average.) Does that make us world-class readers? (Levitin would argue that it would not, because reading is not a socially valued activity.) How would one evaluate world-class achievement in reading anyway?

Such strange thoughts ... but such is my brain early on a Sunday morning.