I think the threshold theory of intelligence is interesting for two reasons. First, we can honestly ask how you know whether or not you are over the threshold. Secondly, once you are over the threshold, you don’t have to worry about how smart you are: you just need to work hard and hope that your timing is right.
Are you smart enough?A few weeks ago, Jonathan mentioned the threshold theory on his blog. He argues
if you have a PhD from a respectable school, if you've published an article or two, if you've been engaging in the actual work in a way that's intrinsically satisfying to yourself, then you are over the threshold.I agree with Jonathan, but I suspect he places the bar a bit too high. I think that anyone who is accepted into a graduate program at a school that consistently places students in tenure track positions and who is able to complete an M.A. thesis is likely over the threshold. I am tempted to put the bar lower, but will leave it there.
If that describes you, then we can presume you are intelligent enough to become a successful academic. You see, you don’t have to be concerned about whether or not you are the brightest in your cohort or the current star on the academic job market. You just have to be over the threshold and then work hard enough towards your success. If that does not describe you, then you might still be over the threshold, and just need to develop the skills to complete an M.A. thesis.
A Meritocracy?It is funny to listen to myself say that if you work hard you will be successful, because I know we do not have a meritocracy in the academy, or anywhere else for that matter. However, I also know that many academics are plagued with doubt about their abilities and that these doubts keep them from being successful.
One aspect of being a successful academic is that it requires a certain set of skills. And, these skills can be learned and honed. As Malcolm Gladwell and Jonathan Mayhew argue, you need to have a certain level of ability to become a successful academic. But, as they both would likely agree, there are many more people with this ability than those who actually become successful academics.
Learning the Skills for SuccessFocusing on learning and teaching skills for success is a more democratic project than attempting to identify the most intelligent people in the world. A focus on skills also will lead to more knowledge production. I am in favor of the production of knowledge and believe that our knowledge base will be substantially enhanced if we are able to draw from as wide a pool of knowledge-producers as possible. Malcolm Gladwell points out that Canada could have twice as many hockey stars as it currently does if it allowed for two leagues: one league for players born between January 1st and June 30th and another for players born on or after July 1st. Academia could probably have many more brilliant scholars if we could convince more people early on that academic success is not based on superior intelligence (a fixed trait), but on learning and mastering a set of skills (a learned trait).
In addition to describing these skills in this blog, I teach a writing and publishing class each Fall at the University of Kansas. In that class, I do my best to teach second year M.A. students the skills they need to become successful academics: time management, daily writing, planning, editing, critical thinking, and analytical skills. One semester is certainly not enough to teach all of the skills, but my intention is to create a situation where students to understand that the completion of an M.A. thesis is dependent upon learning a certain set of skills, not on being the smartest person in the room.
If you are working towards becoming a successful or more productive academic, I suggest that you think of those areas where you can improve your skill set. What are the skills you need to be successful? How can you learn them? Focusing on improving your skills as opposed to raising your IQ is much more likely to help you to become more successful.