“qualifications” and “skills”

I’ve been thinking about sex a lot lately. And sandwich meat, but let’s start with the sex.

It’s not what you might think. Or, maybe it is: I’ve been reading Mary Roach’s book, Bonk. It’s entertaining to read about all we don’t know about the taboo topic, but especially interesting to have a look inside the “how to” study sex. So far in my read, it includes pieces of history, a variety of tools, sordid stories of past researchers, and MRIs of acrobats entangled in the sex act. Most interesting of all, though, are the acts of the author in the name of research. Clearly, few of us are qualified for such research, Ms. Roach included. “Qualification,” to my mind, are the things we list on a resumé, the past accomplishments and degrees that can validate a claim of aptitude. And yet, qualified or not, if we simply have the audacity, courage, or simple gumption to do, we can end up creating a line of the CV to back up our claim of expertise. In the case of Mary Roach, she can say that, quite literally, she’s written the book. In the process, she somehow convinced her husband to lie beside her in a laboratory setting, engaged in coital bonds in the presence of a researcher and ultrasound sensor to document it all. I can’t argue with those qualifications as a writer, researcher, and, perhaps, manipulator of her husband’s better judgement.

The other book I’m reading, at least aurally, is Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. I carry the audiobook in my earbuds while I’m running — a good example of a task I myself have no qualification and little skill for. At five chapters in, it’s clear that Mr. Bryson began this trek along the Appalachian Trail with neither skill nor qualification. The enjoyment is in the foible of it all, figuring out how to pack, reading the dangers of bear attack, humping the incomprehensible weight, feeling the despair only felt when two steps seem to bring the peak ahead only one step closer. It all sounds so absurd, but Bryson’s wry descriptions are all completely accurate. It simply took the person with zero skills and qualification to recognize it. But, then, he did do it, and has a book to show for it. Now, he has both the skill and qualification, but that had to be preceded by the ambition, the gumption, the ridiculousness of an idea.

This all is relevant to me, and not just because I am interested in both sex and hiking. In the last week I’ve been thinking about my own qualifications for the work I do, and I’ve realized that I have nearly none. This isn’t some feigning of humility, either. Consider Saturday, when I happily agreed to be the person to roam campus during a statewide science event with well over a thousand visiting students infecting campus. I wandered, helped with a few things from a flooded bathroom to a missing calculator to distribution of lunches. I moderated and problem solved a couple of interactions. At the end of the day, I hosted about a hundred kids and teachers with a physics demonstration show. Even though I felt like I could handle and even enjoy all these tasks, nothing about any of my degrees or rank has anything to do with any of these tasks. I might have somehow imagined I had the right skills, but I certainly wasn’t qualified.

And that’s pretty much the nature of most things I do. In fact, I’d argue that the very nature of the academy is that we are supposed to be doing things we are uniquely unqualified to do. We’re supposed to be doing novel and innovative scholarship, service, and teaching. If we did only what we were qualified to do (e.g., write another dissertation), we’d be sacked. In fact, those who simply sit on a PhD thesis do, in fact, find themselves looking for other work at other institutions.

The distinction between qualifications and skills became glaringly clear to me on Wednesday when I was participating as a judge at our state’s science fair. A big deal, many entities and individuals are involved. While most volunteers are simply out on the floor interviewing kids, some have other roles. I, for example, organized the judging for the Physics/Math category and make sure it was all done methodically and fairly. Others have even more important roles, such as the “colleague” (i.e., a second-cousin kind of colleague from another department and, as best as I can tell, a different planet) who serves us all lunch. I didn’t know about his skills, but his qualifications, I believe, include lines like “chemist” and “food handler’s permit.” He’s also willing, and part of me suspects that it’s better to have some individuals serving slices of roast beef rather than interacting with children. (I won’t judge individuals, at least not publicly, but in some cases I know this is true.) As I came in after the main lunch rush and towards the close of the buffet line, he was himself eating, chomping on an apple. And, as he moved over to grab the tongs to pick out my slab of deli turkey, a piece of his apple dropped from his mouth and onto the meat tray. Insert here one of those moments that is so surreal you can’t believe it’s actually happening, everything blurring in slow motion as it’s processed. Not missing a beat, he swiftly picked the offending saliva-soaked apple bit out with his fingers, and then went ahead and tonged me a slab of meat for my sandwich. Yes, he was wearing plastic gloves and handled the food with a 10 inch sterile instrument, but he couldn’t keep from spitting on my sandwich meat. And now, repeatedly, I think back on that instant and start to laugh spontaneously. “Food hander’s permit,” I suppose, qualifies you for many specialized tasks, at least in the eyes of government agencies and science fair organizers. It does not, however, really show that you have the skills. Watching this all take place, I was actually amused rather than disgusted. The whole time, all 450 milliseconds of it, I was thinking, “I’m going to write about this.”

I’m not qualified to write, but I think I have at least a few skills. At least as many as the guy with the food handler’s permit, and I’ll keep working, slowly, to have as much as a Mary Roach or Bill Bryson. The moral, to me, is to not underestimate nor overrate anyone’s skills based on qualification. And, you shouldn’t spit on others’ food.

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