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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Threshold Theory

Someone going by the initials GMP in a comment on Clarissa's blog mentioned the idea of a "threshold" of intelligence. GMP mentioned getting this concept somewhere else, so it's fourth hand by now.

Once you are over the threshold, have the basic equipment and intelligence to do research in your chosen field, then you can do it. You don't have to worry about exactly how smart you are. This is liberating because worrying about your exact iq, if such a thing is even meaningful, is pointless. As long as you are over the threshold, you will be ok. Your success will depend not on some abstract quality, intelligence, that you either have or don't, but on your management of your resources. For example, you might have a talent for writing prose that Dr. Theoretical Smartypants who intimidates you so much doesn't have. I am not as smart as Alberto Moreiras or Jo Labanyi, but it doesn't really matter all that much.

The first day of graduate school I realized that the other student accepted into the program the same year (there were only two of use) was much smarter than I was, and really, there will always be someone smarter than you wherever you go. I'm not being humble here, because I'm not a humble person, but it is pretty much a fact of life that there will be people smarter and dumber than you almost anywhere you go, in academia or elsewhere. When I was in high school there were about seven or eight kids smarter than me, and there are probably dozens smarter than me in my own university. Academics are used to being the smart guy in the room, but I can look around a room and see talents I could never dream of having, like Ken Irby's ear for verse. It is a waste of time to have doubts about yourself after a while.

(By the way, I am a much more eminent scholar than the other guy who was (is) smarter than me in grad school. Whatever happened to that guy?)

So how do you know you are over the threshold? What if you are actually not even above this imaginary line that lets you do scholarship at all? I'd say if you have a PhD from a respectable school, if you've published an article or two, if you've been engaging in the actual work in a way that's intrinsically satisfying to yourself, then you are over the threshold. In a way, blaming your lack of success after this point on intelligence is a cop-out, because it's like saying you can't get it done because of some inborn quality over which you have no control.


Clarissa said...

I'm not sure how I feel about the threshold theory. It seems to contradict your posts on maintaining a scholarly base.

I believe that more than stepping over a threshold, an academic career resembles rowing up stream. If you stop rowing for a while, the current will take you lower down the river. I was recently talking to a colleague who put aside her research career for a while in order to fulfill her administrative duties. Now, it is very difficult to catch up with everything that has happened in the field in the meantime.

New writers, new critical theories, significant scholarly advances happen all the time. Even if you were doing great at some point and managed to publish quite a bit, getting distracted for a while will carry you down stream so fast that you won't even notice how you got so behind.

I know many people who had great promise and did great work at some point and proved to be a flash in the pan. Now nobody even knows where they are. Consistent brilliance and consisted dedication are needed. And also periodic reassurance from knowledgeable people. :-)

Jonathan said...

How does the threshold theory contradict the scholarly base? The flashinthepan is not someone who lacks intelligence, but someone who doesn't have staying power. People lose interest or shift focus to administration. My dad was in administration, stopped publishing, then got very sick. Forced to retire because of his illness, he caught up with the field and wrote another book.

I'll have to think about that image of drifting downstream. It doesn't seem quite right to me but I cannot figure out why. Maybe Thomas can help me. This might be another post.

Andrew Shields said...

This reminds me of a point I like to make about jazz musicians: it's pointless to argue about whether Monk or Mingus was the better composer and bandleader. They are both too good for such arguments.

Like the Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide said, back in the day: the stars given for Miles Davis albums are only for reference about how good those albums are as Miles Davis albums. A 3-star MD record is still a 5-star recording by anyone else's standards.

(Funny, I have the feeling I talked about this with someone the other day, and that it might have been in a comment on a blog -- on this one? Am I repeating myself?)

brownstudy said...

The Threshold Theory reminds me for some reason of Carol Dweck's fixed mindset vs growth mindset research.

If I believe that I'm not intelligent enough, then I have a fixed mindset and I'm unlikely to push past that limiting belief. If I have a growth mindset, then I believe that I may not be smart enough now, but I will be able to learn and achieve anyway.

Wikipedia has a summary here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindset_%28book%29. An excellent article on her work is at http://www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/2007/marapr/features/dweck.html.

Clarissa said...

The question is: when does a promising scholar turn into somebody who failed to fulfill their promise? Is there a certain age when that happens? Or do we look at how many years they have been out of grad school? Or how many years it's been since they got tenure?

Andrew Shields said...

Clarissa, when my sister turned forty, she said, "What a relief! Now I don't have to be 'promising' anymore!"

Jonathan said...

It kind of depends also by what one's personal aspirations are. Many people are very happy with modest contributions. They can still be well-loved professors. It's not an all-or-nothing proposition. I could think of myself as a failure too, because at 50 I'm not at Yale or Harvard or a distinguished professor.

You get your PhD at 28-35, your tenure at 35-42, etc... but some people have less traditional career paths. if you are more or less at a normal age for your stage in your career, then 40 is when you should be hitting your stride with your mature scholarship. If you don't have a strong scholarly base by then, when are you going to have it? On the other hand, you know longer have that burden of being young and promising.

Anonymous said...

Well, I am past 40 and stunted and it is frustrating. Nonetheless I can usually just feel how relatively talented I am or not for things.

I'm really not sure about my prose fiction, though. I guess that prestigious publication or two would help sort this question out ;-).