Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Let the RA do it!

Learning has a visceral aspect—a touch and feel and hear and smell component. I’ve always known this at some level, but conscious knowledge of it dawned when I was already a man. I joined Midwest Research Institute as an analyst. The Econ Division employed analysts, the midlevel, and research assistants, the next level down. The idea here was division of labor: RAs did the repetitious, boring tasks, analysts the more demanding. But something in my innards resisted this division. I was always getting down, into details, doing my own literature searches, crunching my own numbers, plotting my own graphs. Something odd always happened in this process, and I became aware of that. I absorbed more information; my sense of mastery over the material grew; my confidence increased. I never trembled meeting with clients—as other analysts frequently did. I knew where all the bones were buried and the reason why.

For this reason, at staff meetings, under pressure of deadlines, I often heard myself admonished: “Don’t do that stuff yourself. Let the RA do it.” I found it easier to take a job and simply let the RA do it all herself, start to finish—not least customer contact. In those days RAs were typically women with liberal arts backgrounds. One of these ladies rapidly developed as a consequence of such assignments and soon became an analyst. Yes. A little help with the final report—but then I was still helping with those years later when I’d become at division director at MRI. In my group we assisted other such rapid promotions, and the RA position more or less faded away.

Hands on, direct contact. Drudgery educates. It produces a real democracy of work. In a way it’s costly, but the societal benefits are great. Vice presidents of sales and marketing appointed solely on the basis of a Harvard MBA?—who’d never made a single sales call ever on a real customer? I encountered such and analogous cases. Such things breed phony aristocracies and support phony class structures. A good rule is to do it yourself; don’t let the RA do it. At least until you really know something.

These memories arise as I engage in the mathematical drudgery of comprehending how and why logarithms first arose. I was never made to experience directly what the founders of these arts experienced—and think it is a symptom of poor math education. Many more would be math-literate if we went about the education of the young in a slower, more costly, but a more genuine way.

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