Obsession with Degrees

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Sep 23, 1996, 3:00:00 AM9/23/96

At the risk of beating this dead horse, I'm throwing in my two cents

As many of you know, I was a professional musician many moons ago. I
attended the Eastman School of Music during the final years that Emory
Remington, popularly and affectionately known as "the Chief", was
professor of trombone. He was the Teacher of Teachers, the undisputed
Number One instructor of trombone in the world. It would not be wrong
to say that his students were almost a cult; nobody worked under him
without being profoundly affected by his genius. His career was a
story that could easily have been made into a Hollywood film: he passed
away on a Friday afternoon after he had completed a full day of teaching.

If degrees were all that mattered, the music world would never have
given Emory Remington a chance to get in the front door. Of all the
professors at Eastman, the absence of credentials after his name was
most glaring. He did not boast any formal training to speak of, and
there were rumors that he did not even have a high school diploma;
legendary figures tend to spawn stories that build up the rags-to-
riches angle, so I can't vouch for the veracity of these tales, but
I do know that around the world today, there's more than just a bit
of living proof of his genius.

Perhaps the problem in technical writing is that the field has not yet
really come of its own as a profession. Technical documentation has
always been around, but giving a name and status to the person who
writes it is still relatively new. Because it is still in the infancy
stage, there is the problem of determining who knows the work and who
not. I know that where I live, the market is so desperate for writers
that even poor writers are succeeding, so a good writer can't prove
his/her worth by showing how many outstanding orders he/she has; I've
seen some writers who couldn't write a shopping list who can't lift
their heads from all the workload. Asking for samples doesn't mean
much; most technical writers are sworn to secrecy when working on a
project, so many excellent writers have nothing to show, and many
poor writers show documents that they are not allowed by law to show.

The prospective employer does not have an easy task. On the other
hand, I'm not so sympathetic towards employers. I was once sent to
an examination that lasted six hours. When I arrived, the testers
asked me if I wanted to be tested in English as opposed to Hebrew.
I requested English, both because I could work better and faster and
because I was being interviewed for a job for which expression in
English was the top priority. The testers practically foamed at the
mouth! I was subjected to six hours of open hostility, of having to
request that I be provided tests in English -- during which the
testers penalized me for the time they had to spend looking for the
test material -- and ultimately, I went ballistic; I let them have
a broadside that they never forgot. I told them that an English-
language technical writer should not be penalized for asking for
a test in English because that was, and is, the essence of the
job description; I then pointed out to them that the tests they
had given me were DEFINITELY not English! The testers snarled at
me, but I wasn't about to let it go at that; I called up the
prospective employer and complained about the abusive treatment.
It was the only time I ever complained BEFORE taking a job. It
didn't stop me from getting the job, amazingly enough; however,
as I later learned, it was a sign of what was to come. I stayed
with the job less than a year; the company just didn't have the
slightest notion of what technical writing really was.

As I also remember, having a degree doesn't mean much. What was
the joke: Ph.D. means Papa Has Dough? Whatever, there are plenty
of people who obtain degrees but aren't so great in their chosen
fields. Obsession with degrees just seems to be trying to take
a safe route, even though it isn't really safe.

If I were a prospective employer, I'd be more likely to test the
candidate for necessary skills than to look for degrees. However,
I recently stopped entertaining the notion of employing others,
so I'm not a good source of information on that score. Maybe one
day I'll have to do it; it will be my headache then.

- Moshe

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