Experts, non-experts and enthusiasts

I had planned a longer entry today – about adventure games and the terminology of the Internet – but I’ve shelved it for this weekend since it still needs some tweaking. I’m also planning to write at least a few entries about D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance,” which I recently watched on Netflix.

So far this year, keeping this blog more up to date and with a mix of long and short form pieces has been revitalizing. Before this January, I had come to regard all writing as work rather than leisure for me, which led to long gaps in my output here (there are still some big gaps on my Tumblr, which I plan to fill with some of the creative projects I’ve tested here). Sometimes it was because of the feedback I receive on my professional work, which can really run the gamut from all-out praise to criticism that seems out of place given the stakes and circumstances.

Experts and non-experts
Writing, like education, is a field that everyone feels entitled to comment on since everyone deems herself an expert, if only subsconsciously. Let me explain.

To look at the last 20+ years of education history in the U.S. – which I had a front-row seat to, as the child of two educators – is to see a long string of opportunists from fields such as management consulting, software, and venture capital, not to mention state, local, and federal politicians with no history in education, prescribing what’s “right” for students and teachers. I can’t think of any field as large in which so much power is held by non-experts.

Not just non-experts, either, but people actively hostile to the profession, who want to destroy teachers more with obligations around standardized testing (useless), “metrics-based” reviews (based on the aforementioned useless standard testing), treating students as “customers” (in another sign of the creeping financialization/corporatization of everyday life), and sexist emphasis on being “makers” rather than, well, educators. I suspect so much of this bullshit is due to education being a relatively weakly credentialed field.

While certain positions are off-limits to individual without the appropriate degrees, it’s still relatively easy – if anything in the U.S. job market can be described as such – for fresh college graduates, regardless of background, to get a foothold in education via Teach for America or a similar program. Moreover, some of the most influential figures in education in recent memory – such as Michelle Rhee, who ran D.C.’s school district for years – have been objectively bad educators.

Politicians feel entitled to comment on education at a high level since there’s this notion that educating is easy, anyone can be an educator, and performance doesn’t even matter. Education has become a launching pad for all sorts of nonsensical political speech, from “we’re losing the race against [Japan/China/insert country here]” and “we have a skills gaps [nope].”

Now, imagine all of this happening with general practice medicine, law, or dentistry. It’s unthinkable since this fields have hard credentials, not because they’re superior to other fields but as as a result of the immense power of the upper middle class to resist the type of Uber-style disruption that has put cab drivers, musicians, and educators (who face massive open online courses, among other threats) up against the wall in recent years. Educators don’t have the cachet or prestige to hold the non-experts at bay.

Writing is in even worse shape. Virtually everyone has to write in some capacity, which isn’t the case with educating (or performing a dental operation). So everyone fancies herself a writer, even if she doesn’t identify as such. It has become so lowly regarded as a profession that it is an incidental trait – like wearing a blue coat or having size 11 feet – that one would never make synonymous with identity, making it sort of an anti-Maker label.

Accordingly, the criticism that can be directed at writers or people like historians whose work is writing-intensive – the backlash against Jill Lepore’s destruction of disruption last year is instructive here – is often intense. It’s sort of like “this is obvious, we’re all writers anyway, what are you not getting?”

An argument or phrasing that one doesn’t like is sometimes met with the intensity that one might expect for driving the wrong way in traffic or walking through Tiffany’s without pants on. The cost of failure is deemed so high, perhaps because everyone shares, at least in small part, in the underlying skill set (being able to write), just as they do with certain social norms. I feel that the insanity of Internet comments is partially rooted in the mentality of everyone being basically a part-time writer (comments have to be written, not dictated, after all).

For someone who writes all the time, though, the type of criticism that might normally be confined to a message board or paper critique can be both uninteresting and strangely bothersome. On the one hand, you get used to it and there’s a quiet confidence from knowing that your critiquers are often less qualified than you are. But there’s also the feeling that the sort of basicness of writing, the idea that anyone can and should do it and so you can be free and natural while doing it, gets lost in the torrent of feedback that channels writing toward some political end.

The long term effect from the latter can be waning enthusiasm on the part of the writer, which must be combated with, well, side projects, like blogging. Part of the appeal of blogging, for me at least, is the absence of feedback. I long ago disabled comments and I just write whatever I want to. The dailyness of blogging requires a certain enthusiasm and ability to shirk self-consciousness, but it also reinforces these traits over time, strengthening the same enthusiasm that it requires. Maybe it ends at some point. I haven’t reached it yet and I’ll always have John Gruber’s observation below in mind as I try to keep my streak up:

“Blogging isn’t hard work in the way that coal mining is, but above all else it demands enthusiasm. There’s no other way to keep going – blogs cease when their authors run out of enthusiasm. For many people, the enthusiasm seems to run out after just a few months, maybe a few years.”

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