On amateurs doing the best work

Here, computer scientist Donald Knuth explains his experience digging through biblical commentaries for the first time in the library. Having grown up in church, he was at least familiar with scripture, but hadn’t ever dug into much theology before. His account here rings true to me and is especially of value I think because of his status as a bit of an outsider to the subject but familiar with research writing.

Some of the commentaries I ran across were big disappointments to me. in some cases the authors did a superficial job, nt looking closely into the material as a good scholar would. They ignored the challenging questions that other commentators wrestled with. In other words, they were writing for another audience, not for me.

In several other cases the comments seemed to me very lifeless and dry They reeked of academic gamesmanship. Being a college professor myself, I think it is fairly easy to smell such pretensions from a long way off. Of course, I can’t help but sympathize with people who work in academic departments of theology, because they have to deal with much harder questions than I ever need to face. it must be enormously more difficult to do innovative work in a field that has been in existence for thousands of years than it is to do computer science research today. I supposed the best way to get tenure, as a theologian, is to say the wildest new things while not disagreeing too strongly with the people at your institution who received tenure just before you did. In any academic field, people’s egos are bound to intrude on the work they do, especially when their livelihood is at stake.

Fortunately, enough people are left who really love what they do and who aren’t just acting out some supposed strategy for success. I did run across a number of commentaries that I thought were not only excellent but also truly great. They combined superb scholarship with a genuine love for the subject that came through in the writing.

-from Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About

You see that part at the end: “People that combine great scholarship with genuine love for the subject”. People that are untainted by money and the stress of deadlines and the politics of the academy. Who does that sound like who is writing this “truly great” stuff? I’ll tell you who. AMATEURS. That’s right. Hobby bloggers and even some self-published enthusiasts are writing some of the best dang stuff out there – concerning all subjects. Oh, but we need professionals to do the best stuff. Nonsense. They have a bunch of other problems they have to deal with that often prevent them from working through really good (or new) ideas. Amateurs might have the true love and creativity, but without the hurdles that come with an attached career. This difference is now it’s easier to discover or become(!) one of these people than ever before.