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To MFA or Not to MFA: What a Silly Question

Master-of-Fine-ArtsIf this is such a silly question, why do I keep asking it of myself?
I know the answer. I don’t like it, but I know it. Ready? I work as an author, editor, researcher, technical writer, and teacher. In that role I tackle complex subjects, including geology, hydrology, natural resources conservation, history, English language uses, literature, and more. I don’t have the ‘paper’ degree to go with any of those things. So when I opened my Poets and Writer’s Magazine and saw that it was the MFA issue, my heart sank. Like Titanic, without all the romance or the iceberg.

Most of the time I don’t give a hoot about degrees or letters, but people keep asking me where I did my graduate work. When I tell them I didn’t do any, and in fact I also didn’t finish my undergraduate degree, jaws drop. There is no BA, BS, or any other letters after my name. Just plain Troy Lambert, he of many previous professions, currently self-employed and a proclaimed autodidact and polymath. Those are two of my favorite intellectual words, recently brought to the front of my mind by a friend. What do they mean, and why do they qualify me to do anything at all?


A polymath: a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. Let me give you a life example, and please don’t take it as bragging. It illustrates my shotgun approach to both my education and my past careers: what has led me here. In my most recent ‘job’ as the Museum Operations Specialist at the Wallace Mining Museum (a made up title meaning I do it all) I designed a new exhibit area using CAD. I presented it to a funding partner using PowerPoint and an animation software. I then drew up plans which the director submitted to the building inspector. To obtain grants I did materials estimates for the granting agencies. When we got funding, I then built the exhibit area with my own hands, supervising the two individuals who helped me. I then assisted in populating the exhibit, writing much of the language used in the displays.

Let’s see: design, presentation, project management, material estimates, supervision, construction, and authorship all on a single project. Yes. Am I insane? Yes. But how did I have the knowledge to execute all those tasks and do them well? Because of the next term.

AHAYES-Autodidact-300x385Autodidacticism is self-directed learning that is related to but different from informal learning. In a sense, autodidacticism is “learning on your own” or “by yourself”, and an autodidact is a self-teacher. Autodidacticism is only one facet of learning, and is usually, but not necessarily, complemented by learning in formal and informal spaces. So where did I learn CAD? I’m self-taught, with a few formal courses. Same with GIS. Project management I learned through a series of management positions in various professions. I’ve always been mechanically inclined, and learned a great deal of carpentry from my grandfather. Writing and research? Well, those come as naturally to me as breathing.

So why didn’t I get a degree? I have no idea. I finished tech school (yes, I’m also a certified motorcycle mechanic) but not college. I guess I just never made it a priority. I’m not sure that any one person can gain enough knowledge in enough subjects today to be truly called a ‘Renaissance Man,’ but you can know where to find the answers, and how to learn.

schoocloudI think there are a plethora of people who could be self-taught in more areas than they are. There’s a whole bunch of educators that believe it too, so strongly that they are creating schools centered on the idea. So many friends who have degrees find them almost meaningless in what they really do every day. So why do I need a degree to do what I do now?

I don’t. The days when I think that way are the days when I focus on others and what they might think. I consider the credibility that letters might add to my name on a plaque on a desk somewhere. Then I wake up, realize I don’t even want that, and recognize that every time I can talk to someone about what I do and what they want me to do in a real situation they recognize ability, and welcome my enthusiasm.

So far, none of them have asked to see my papers. If you think you need to go back to school, go for it. But me? I think I’ll take history of world religion again. I hear the professor is an interesting guy. Right after I teach myself to write apps and read The Jesus Papers one more time.

Watch the video below to learn about the School in the Cloud, and the movement to teach kids to teach themselves.

Published inAdvice for AuthorsOpinion