Friday, June 19, 2015

On Expertise

Yesterday I was speaking at a symposium on "Big Data" as part of my work. Amongst the other presentations were ones on cosmology, mapping the human genome, and silicon chip design. It struck me, and not for the first time, how the vast majority of academics within STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering, maths - are almost always micro-specialists in their discipline, even if the knowledge they accumulate along the way is probably broader than that which those of us from arts, humanities and social sciences tend to have. The nature of contemporary science is that it particularly specialised, and that jobs and careers in these disciplines will tend to narrow individuals even further. This is not to decry their brilliance and experience, but the scarce resources that we have in terms of highly-qualified, highly-skilled researchers, have to be pushed into particular places. The cosmologist was not talking about astrophysics - the kind of thing that Brian Cox extolls about on his popular TV appearances - or computing, yet she clearly knew vast amounts about both; rather, her specialism was remarkably focussed - she was involved in projects looking at "mapping" what is invisible in the universe, through the lenses that are so much more advanced than even our famous Hubble telescope - a major collaborative project that is going to see an international telescope built in Santiago in Chile, a piece of kit with the beautiful droll name of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-Elt).

Collaboration is central to these major scientific efforts - not just been people in the same discipline (who may, at times, be competing for resources and jobs) but also between disciplines. Here she was talking at a conference with computer scientists, for it will be their algorithms and programming languages which will make sense of the images being beamed back of distant galaxies; whilst the technological challenges of building the telescope itself will - like the Large Hadron Collider - be the result of an immense amount of engineering know-how. Science works this way, an accumulation of knowledge, building on the shoulders of giants, so that every Nobel winner is really a figurehead for a particular sub-discipline or for many other names who have contributed to that breakthrough.

It made me wonder, as I gave my own non-specialist (albeit relatively practical) presentation about data in the urban environment, how we as poets, novelists, painters, musicians and songwriters fit and compare. For the dedication we can put in - not just that fabled 10,000 hours, but our obsessiveness around our work - is surely different but similar. Where is the collaboration and multi-disciplinary necessity of the artist? For those trying to make the case for an A in STEM (STEAM ) for arts, one of the problems is that our individual artistic worth may well be "standing on the shoulder of giants" but are still likely to be one offs. Whereas Picasso might be able to say it was easier for others to do what he did, after he'd shown them how, such breakthroughs in art aren't obviously incremental. However great an artist, writer or musician is, when they die or stop doing their work, the work remains, but who can possibly continue it except as a pale shadow? I asked a computer scientist once whether there were any "abandoned routes" in the history of computer science - languages, or ideas that were abandoned because computing went a particular way. He looked at me like I was insane. The past has always been superceded it seems (though when Tim Berners-Lee was looking for a language with which to put into practice his ideas for an internet based information system, his HTML was a subset of SGML, which had been developed as a technical language by airplane designers in the sixties.)

Yet as writers there are always non-linear routes we can follow, same for musicians and painters. One of the most damning things about contemporary art forms (certainly as I get older) is how sometimes they seem so ignorant of what has gone before, making it less about advancement, and more an inferior photocopy.

I know that there are creatives - academics and otherwise - who are specialists, like my cosmologist co-presenter above. Translators, linguistics experts, classical musicians, editors and subeditors, music producers, art technicians, restoration experts.... yet being these doesn't necessarily lead to a great work of art; the technical skill is separate in some ways from the creative one. It means that hearing that Simon Armitage has been elected to take over from Geoffrey Hill as Oxford Professor of Poetry, you can approach it in two ways: at last a populist; or how can he replace the venerable Hill? Of course, many writers have to earn their living from their expertise and inevitably for some that will be in translation, or teaching or research into poetry or biographer of a novelist; but such "expertise" seems a little irrelevant when set against one's creative work; you may as well be a cosmologist who writes (or as in my case, someone with a digital background.)

I wonder if we sometimes glory too much in our playfulness to the extent which we can call ourselves "amateur" rather than "professional" writers? The distinction between the two seems to be like it was in the early days of the Olympics, that professionals get paid, amateurs don't. (But remember, the amateur was sometimes held in higher regard as "sport" was not then the multi-million pound business it is today.) The sense of being an "expert" poet or novelist would be an absurdity, even, I guess to an Amis or McEwan, yet we shouldn't shy away from the word. Perhaps the "novel" is indeed, still "new", that we were better off when all humanities were dumped under the category of "philosophy", "love of wisdom". And in some ways I like that, for what is novelist or a poet other than a lover of wisdom? We may not know the answers but we revel in asking the question. Yet as we know from history, its not necessarily the wisest who are the most successful, at least in their own times. How do we measure the expertise of Emily Dickinson or Franz Kafka? What is it about Shakespeare that makes him the "expert" from which all else flows? Our culture hasn't produced another Shakespeare anymore that the proverbial monkeys with typewriters tapping away infinitely have - though our cosmologist might have something to say about that (the big question in cosmology is that: we know the universe is expanding, but why is it accelerating?)

In other words our past writers may well be greater than any to come - how does that square with out "expertise"? Do we need another crack at this liberal education lark? Where do we start? What do we need to learn. Had I at any time in my life been able to take time off from the day job for three years would I have done the hard concentration necessary to do a PhD? And what then? Is being an expert in the words of writer A, better than having just read a mix of writers? I suspect there are different, non-specialised intelligences which some of us are better cultivating. So that after my talk yesterday, quite a few students and postgraduates came up to me, as my subject was broad enough and empirical enough to interest them. For all the wonder of science specialisation, and the sense that its great that people are out there figuring how to get more "juice" out of a small piece of silicon, I can't help think that such expert brains, funnelled into a particular direction, are different than mine in so many ways. One of the horrors of being a computer programmer for a decade was how ephemeral the end result could be - where the thing you then wrote, taking months over it, would soon be obsolete, and more likely replaced by something that could now be written in just days.

The "expertise" that feeds into my poetry or fiction is of a very non-specialised nature; I sometimes wonder if it exists at all. Yet there are times when it seems I'm just as good as the top scientist in their particular field. That my "field" is just me, is no reason to stop; not yet anyway.

2 comments:

Hayley N. Jones said...

I suppose I think of other writers as being experts, but I can't imagine applying the term to myself. The people who taught my Creative Writing MA, for example, I definitely regard in the same way as lecturers in other subjects. But no matter how much I learn about writing and how much I write, I don't think I will ever reach the stage where I regard myself as an expert. Perhaps it's because I don't have a lot of confidence in myself, or perhaps it's because I am emotionally entwined with my writing. Or maybe I've fallen prey of the same "artist as born genius" myth which people cite when deriding Creative Writing courses and insisting that talent can't be taught.

Adrian Slatcher said...

My tutors were respectively an expert on 20th century poetry and early American history, I guess what I was wondering was whether writers are "experts" in their craft in the same way? I don't necessarily think that good writing comes from expertise, not in the same way that good science probably does; which - I think - means we need to rephrase the question - the things that will make our writing get "better" aren't an accumulation of knowledge, sadly, but something else. The great riposte to the "born genius" thing is that few fiction writers write anything good when very young, they simply haven't the life experience. (There are exceptions of course!) Good luck with it