Monday, July 30, 2007

On Becoming An Expert, or How I Lenskafied Myself

NOTE: This post originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, July 13, 2007. It will appear in the Daily Australian in September, 2007.

I am an expert. Everyone tells me so. They tell me that I am an expert on diploma mills and degree fraud because I have been working professionally in that field for many years. I have become either glorious or notorious, depending on whether the person evaluating me got a degree from a genuine college. I am invited to write book chapters and introductions and give speeches and testimony, owing to my general splendor in that arena. However, I don't have any degrees in higher-education administration or policy.

They tell me that I am an expert on birds because I have published three books about them, including co-editing Birds of Oregon (Oregon State University Press, 2003), a five-pounder whose bibliography contains 4,000 citations. I proved that volume's worth and my expertise when asked, by a person who hadn't seen it, if she could carry it in her pocket in the field. I said, "Sure, if you're a large kangaroo or a small aircraft." I don't have any degrees in ornithology, either.

I may be a nascent expert in a few other subjects - time will tell. Or will it? Who makes those decisions, anyway?

To pick an example that may be unfairly obvious, who decided that Noam Chomsky was an expert in everything? Did he simply declare that one day, following which the assembled masses bowed down in unison? How does a renowned professor of linguistics transmute into an expert on world affairs and the human condition? Surely this is a mega-meme of great cultural import: Word has gone forth that Chomsky is an expert.

I can understand that a chemist would be treated as an expert in chemistry, and an architect an expert in design. That approach doesn't quite work, however, when novelists are classified as experts in literature for academic purposes - given that the creative force and the explicative force are profoundly different - and linguists become experts in political sociology.

The relevant difference may be between fields in which clear questions lead to definitive answers, and those in which opinions - that is, individual aesthetic or value judgments - render all truths flexible. The line may be between the sciences and everything else, or it may lie somewhere in the murk.

Chomsky seems to be an expert because he says he is, and enough people agree. It doesn't seem to matter which people, as long as there are enough of them. Writers such as Wendell Berry and Camille Paglia (both favorites of mine) are in a similar category.

Perhaps that is all that is necessary: We can all be the Rula Lenskas of our own domain. Do you recall the late 1970s TV ads featuring a woman who sailed forth - draped in couth, untrammeled by care, her nose in the air – and imperiously announced, "I'm Rula Lenska"? Nobody in the United States had ever heard of her, but her brazen self-declaration of splendor levitated her briefly to the status of cultural icon. In fact, she was and still is a successful if rather offbeat actress in her native Britain, and the cultural joke may be on us: She is technically a Polish countess, though not, as it were, practicing just now.

Can I, if you will, lenskafy myself? To a certain extent, I can; that is how some people develop reputations.

There are limits, of course. I could stroll into Fermilab and declare myself an expert on particle physics, and my friends George Gollin and Heidi Schellman, who really are such, would just look at me oddly, say "whatever," and go about their business. That is because I cannot really navigate the quark jungle. At some point, the waiter brings the check, and the lenskafier has to be able to pay up with appropriate coin.

However, if I declare myself an expert on, say, the poetry of Loren Eiseley, the music of Colin Brumby, or the essays of John Jay Chapman, I cannot be dismissed out of hand. I should at least have an opportunity to demonstrate my expertise. In the fine arts and many of the social sciences, there are no mazes of facts to negotiate, as there would be were I to attempt to feel my way through the glutinous slurry of quarks, leptons, and forces with which physicists work.

In theory, I can be just as much of an expert in more-subjective fields as anyone else. If I say that Brumby's Symphony No. 1 is better music than anything by Virgil Thomson and merits standing alongside the works of Edward Elgar and Samuel Barber, or that Edwin Muir is a better literary critic than Edmund Wilson, I can be challenged but not corrected. Those are judgments of value and quality.

Of course, I might end up like Wilson's fictional Galapagos iguana, which, when questioned by a fictional zoologist, declared that it knew all it needed to of its world, and that it was an über-being. Experts greater than I may pick me up by the tail and carry me off for further study, which is what happened to the iguana in Wilson's tale.

To what extent is being an expert the result of our education and the degrees we hold? My degrees from the University of Oregon are in political science and law. Neither has any special relationship to the arcana of evaluating degree programs, or anything whatsoever to do with the distribution and movements of the spotted towhee.

Alex Walker, one of the more important ornithologists in Oregon history, had a day job at a cheese factory. As far as I know, he had no college degrees at all. Was he not an expert? I met him in 1969, and he certainly seemed like one to me. His data were collected in an appropriate manner, and his articles appeared in the field's major journals.

On the other hand, we now have scores of M.F.A. factories in the United States, pumping out certified experts in poetry, fiction, drama, and that useful catch-all, literary nonfiction. Yet when we look at our best living poets - let me herewith declare that they are W.S. Merwin and Adrienne Rich- we see no such "professional" degrees. Nor do we see those degrees in most foreign countries. Even worse, some American universities now offer creative-writing Ph.D. programs, which will not give us better writers but merely add an invisible layer of academic dignity to the emperor's current unnecessary garments.

American universities also produce in great numbers that peculiar cultural artifact, the Ed.D., which seems to denote a certified education bureaucrat. Surely we need education bureaucrats in moderation - I am one, and I argue for both need and moderation from personal experience - but we don't need a unique credential for them.

Why do Americans insist on believing that degrees confer worth and qualification? The citizens of other nations are following our example here, as shown in Ronald Dore's excellent The Diploma Disease, but we are clearly the masters.

I have always appreciated Paul Valéry's view: "Let us confess: The real object of education is the diploma. I never hesitate to declare that the diploma is the deadly enemy of culture. As diplomas have become more important in our lives (and their importance has done nothing but grow as a result of economic conditions), the less has education had any real effect. ... The aim of education being no longer the development of the mind but the acquisition of the diploma, the required minimum becomes the goal of study."

Not long ago, I had a submission rejected (by a newspaper editor who has accepted other work of mine) on the ground that I was not enough of an expert on the subject. His concern, at least officially, was not that the piece was wrong or poorly written; it was that if he accepted my commentary as a nonexpert, he'd have to accept lots of other commentaries by
nonexperts, and then where would we be?

He had rejected my attempt to lenskafy myself. Of course, he doesn't have to accept anything he doesn't want to, and it may be that he was sparing us both by not saying that he thought my piece really stank.

I hear the carping already. You object that "lenskafy" is not a real word, and that I have therefore constructed my argument on at least one faulty tower. I disagree. If Richard Dawkins, a nonlinguist, can establish the word "meme" no great number of years back, and I get to use it in this essay, then I, with equivalent professional authority, can create the word "lenskafy" and establish its meaning. I declare myself competent to so expand the English language.

I will even ask an expert linguist to weigh in on my right to do so. Noam Chomsky, where are you when I need you?

1 comment:

Debby de Carlo said...

You might enjoy Ghostwriting, an essay by EB White in his collection, Second Tree From The Corner, and Apartheid, a short story from Red Wolf, Red Wolf by WP Kinsella.
Debby de Carlo