How Do We Recognise Mastery? What Is My Masterpiece?

An artwork entitled “Masterpiece”. Click through for the webpage.

A few posts ago, and my goodness that’s a lot of words, I posted on issues of identity and examined the PhD in the light of it being a journeyman qualification, one that indicates the end of an apprenticeship and a readiness to go out into the world. That, however, is only half of the overall story of the apprentice, because there is a level above journeyman and that is, in all of its gendered glory, “master”. In the world of the trade and craft guilds, the designation of Mastery was only given when a journeyman applied to the guild and provided a piece of work that demonstrated their mastery of the appropriate craft. These works, if accepted, paved the way for journeyman to become Master, to become capable of training more apprentices and retaining their own journeymen, and were referred to as “Masterpieces”.

We use the term a bit more loosely these days, especially when coupled with the word “theatre”, but the sense remains. A Masterpiece is a piece of work that demonstrates your mastery of the craft and any sensible group of experts within your discipline would recognise it as such and declare you worthy to join them.

On reflection, after my last post on identity, I realised that I had placed the PhD into a very specific place, based on the PhD culture of my own discipline and my own experience. There are people who work their way up through a discipline for years, advancing steadily through their craft via diploma, recognition of prior learning and finally degree. Finally, having functioned as practitioner, they move into the academy in order to make their definitive contribution and it is as practitioner-academics that they create their final thesis which, in some regard, has more than a hint of the mastery of the craft about it and is far more likely to be a masterpiece than, say, my three year musing on big systems and XML. I regard myself more as an academic-practitioner as while I have previous knowledge, my research work began afresh and my PhD formed the basis of my qualification for entry into the profession of academic (journeyman) rather than the condensation of my life’s contribution as a practitioner, placed within the academic sphere to change teaching, research and policy (masterpiece).

However, this really doesn’t clear the issue up at all, all it does is emphasise that it is the recognition of the masterpiece that determines one’s mastery, which in turn requires that we have strong “guilds” or their equivalent in order to be able to clearly state when something has been produced to a level that we have met this particular skill battier.

Now, in terms of supervising other PhD students, I can do that now but, until my first student completes successfully (fingers crossed for December), I cannot be a principal supervisor. I am apprenticed, again, in effect until I have demonstrated sufficient mastery. So my PhD qualification is, again, rendered at the journeyman level. If I still had my network certifications from my previous life, I could instruct people in networking within certain corporate frameworks, but I (again) only had journeyman qualifications here. I have a friend who has achieved mastery in the networking discipline and the difference in our skill levels is amazing but, rather sadly, he has no masterpiece to show for his efforts. He worked to solve some difficult problems, and sat some very hard exams, and provided that he repeats this performance every 2 years, he will make lots of money doing interesting things involving networks. There is not, however, a single artefact of his that he can point to, which asserts that from that point on, he had mastery of a certain set of skills.

And this is very much the way of modern mastery. Why does my friend have to resit his exams? Because things are changing very quickly these days and, because of the Internet, we can propagate those changes almost immediately. A master craftsman of the 17th Century would learn new techniques, certainly, but having achieved mastery, he would enjoy maybe 20-30 more years of relatively low change until he died of some unspeakable disease or a falling giraffe. These days, while master craftsman certainly exist and are recognised as such, in many scientific disciplines, we tend to award this towards the end of someone’s life, at a time when their practical life is relatively close to over and I wonder if that is to stop the embarrassment of a recognised master who knows nothing about what has happened in the field because it has all moved on.

How do we recognise mastery in science, literature or academia? Well, there are significant Fellowships (the Royal Society springs to mind), important prizes (the Nobel, the Pulitzer) and awards (the Turing and the like). Of course, there is one award that recognises early achievement, the Fields Medal in mathematics, which may only be awarded to someone who is not yet 40, specifically to try and encourage the recipients to go further and do more. A lot of these awards and prizes, however, allow the luxury of a Masterpiece, especially those awards which are given for a specific piece of work. But which of J. M. Coetzee’s works was the definitive masterpiece that granted him the Nobel in Literature, the one that tipped the balance? Where is the specific masterpiece that I can pass to other guild members (not that I am one) and admire, wish that I had created, and learn from? Even where we have the books, we still don’t have a clear notion of what we are looking at. (I realise that Coetzee’s skills were clearly identified in the award, as well as his focus, and I am certainly not disputing the validity – but which is the book I give to someone to explain why he is a master?)

It is much harder to see where we give our students the ability to produce master works of any kind, even within our capstone courses. The works produced under capstone are more likely to be fit-for-purpose, complete but unremarkable, and therefore fit to judge for the end of apprenticeship, but no further. If they then progress to Honours, Masters or PhD, they do not so much have an opportunity to produce a masterpiece, what they are doing is conducting an apprenticeship for a new trade. (This varies by profession and intent. I can quite happily see that a PhD in Creative Writing has a masterpiece component attached to it, whereas a PhD in other disciplines may not.)

But, given that the international recognition of mastery is in a highly refined atmosphere and can, at most, accommodate a very small number of people, how do we even recognise those few masterpieces that will occur outside of the defining masterworks of a generation? For me, as a personal reflection, I am coming to terms with the fact that any masterpiece that I do produce, a work of great import or even a student (in some respects) that goes on to change the world, may have a very short shelf-life compared to other crafts. I also have to accept that the guild that accepts it as master work may never even contact me to tell me what they think – I’ll just have to watch my citation index go up and use it to get myself promoted.

I don’t have a complete answer to this, and I know that there’s a lot more thinking to do, but are we looking at the end of masterpieces or do we just have to adopt a different lens for seeing them, as well as a different group for judging them?

One Comment on “How Do We Recognise Mastery? What Is My Masterpiece?”

  1. […] own contributions and asking what, if anything, would denote something that could be recognised as my mastery of my discipline. On thinking about this, I realised that, once again, I was asking someone else to value my work. […]


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