– photographs and messages from inside the Sausurrean Bar –

In which I share a revelation

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

In which I share a revelation

And one that I can time quite precisely, at that! It happened on Easter Monday, somewhere on the German motorway between Hamburg and Flensburg, as I was driving home from visiting friends for the weekend. I was listening to the radio pondering to maybe switch over to a podcast, but all the podcasts I had on my phone I’d either listened to or they weren’t what I wanted, and I was rueing the fact that I hadn’t put enough Itunes U materials (Itunes U distributes free lecture recordings made at major Universities around the world) on there to last me the drive, because I have some unheard lectures on Byzantine Art and I never finished that lecture series on the laws of thermodynamics that I started listening to for the Postmodernism class last term and … . And suddenly I sat there and thought, “Oh dear, education is like levelling up in roleplaying games, and I’m the eternal multi-class character!” Which might seem extremely obvious and extremely far-fetched at the same time, but bear with me while I explain.

But first, a brief side-trip into the mystery of levelling up – feel free to skip if you know your XP from your RPG and your DEX from your INT etc:

I haven’t been role playing recently, but during my student exchange year in London I was a bit of a regular table top role player (D&D3rd Ed. mostly), and from that year of getting my MA in United States Studies some of my fondest memories definitely involve Game Society evenings, sitting around a big table with fellow students, a map, character sheets and lots of dice, and navigating the convoluted politics of Ezra’s realm.

What happens in a role playing game is that all the players set out with a character that knows very little and that is very inexperienced, and he or she or it progresses during the game into a more experienced and more knowledgeful character, by solving riddles, completing quests, … . There are many different systems for regulating this progression, but the ones I played used a level structure, where you start on a low level (usually 1) and progress to higher and higher levels of knowledge and competence. Depending on what kind of character you play there are certain skill-sets that the system says you can develop more easily, some that are harder to expand – and some are available only to certain classes of characters and forbidden to all others (a wizard can learn spells, say, but a fighter cannot, because the fighter does not know how to cast magic).

To get around this narrow focus, some players prefer to play what are called multi-class characters, characters that have, for example, a level or two of ranger and then switch classes and progress as bards instead. More variety – but consequently when everyone else reaches level six with their single-class character, you’re only at level four with your bard yourself (because you also have 2 levels of ranger [thus the total is still six]), so while everyone else is zapping around with the awesome new spells (sorcerers) or fighting skills (warriors) or musical enchantment skills (bards) that they gained, you’ve only reached a level right now that is ‘old hat’ to the single-class bard in your group, because he or she reached it two level changes ago.

Still with me?

But, wait … how does all that levelling up connect to academia?

My theory is this – most people have one (or maybe two or even three) classes (skill sets / knowledge areas / specializations) that they spend a lot of time levelling up, where they increase their knowledge continually and try to become experts in their field. They also, from time to time, might become intrigued by something and then spend some time and effort increasing their knowledge in that field, but will also at some later point become satisfied with their level of knowledge and move on, either back to their field of expertise or to some new field that intrigues them.

So, to take a real life example and to tie the picture on the right hand side into this post, if those fictitious people were to encounter a podcast on Byzantine history and to listen to it and to absorb some of the facts in it, they might gain what we’re going to call “Level 1 in Byzantine History” by doing so. Faced with the decision of whether or not to invest more time and effort into the subject area to reach “Level 2 in Byzantine History” (more complex, thus far harder to reach than level 1), statistics might say that 90% of the listeners of said podcast choose not to do so – they might research one or two facts or people they found interesting, or look at Byzantine icons with better informed eyes when they encounter them, but they’re unlikely to acquire a book on Byzantine history, and certainly not more than one.


And here’s where the revelation part from the car on Easter Monday comes in:

If one were to translate the levelling system from a role playing game into ‘real life’ in order to rank experience and diversity of interest (or levels of being side-tracked), then I am your typical multi-class character. I have a hard time tearing myself away from subject areas, and am always tempted to keep levelling them up. All of them. Only give me spare time and books, and … there you go. Level two Latin? Accomplished. Level three ancient history? Well, if there’s time … why not! I don’t wander away from knowledge areas, I just keep adding new ones to my existing ones. (Oh, there are the ones central to my job and vocation that always take priority, and some lapse because there are only so many hours in the day and there is so much other stuff to be done, and some other I avoid because they don’t interest me – but  once something does interest me then I find it really hard to stop at “knowledge level one” with it).

And of course all if this leads to precisely the frustration that the level-2-Ranger/level-4-Bard encounters in our fictive role playing game – the single-class characters always get to skill levels before the multi-class character does.

Would my life be more streamlined if I hadn’t studied four subjects at university (English/American Studies, Media Studies, Business Studies and Public Law), or spent time completing two masters degrees, instead of one (one in three of the aforementioned four subjects, the other one in United States Studies)? Yes, undoubtedly. But it also wouldn’t be my life anymore, the one that is not terribly streamlined but rather filled with fascinating 6-month spare-time detours into Byzantine History or Ruin Theory or Convergence Culture Research or the Iconic Turn or drivers licenses for yachts or Richard III or … .

Still, adding  all these spare-time side-interests on top of work and the  work I do for work and the reading I do for work (I love, love, love having a job that does, in part, pay you for reading books and discovering things) sometimes makes me feel like I’m destined to be an amateur of many things, and a master of none (or, well, possibly a very few). But if the trade is being a master of more things but an amateur of nothing, well, then I’ll happily keep to my meandering and whimsical path instead. I might not get to level 18 as fast as everyone else, but I also won’t get lost in the woods on the way (like the bard without ranger skills just might. … I’ll be wandering the garden path that leads past the fascinating fields of varieties of knowledge to get there instead).

Still, I remember quite well that being two levels behind everyone else used to be … frustrating, sometimes. (And it still really, really is.)


This entry brought to you courtesy of people far younger than me who manage to finish their PhD in 3 years while working at the same time. [How does that work?]

One Response to “In which I share a revelation”

  1. john Says:

    i have fond memories of D&D. me and my friends on a saturday night huddled around a table eating snacky food and drinking way to much, rolling 20 sided dice, killing rage filled orcs, and every so often getting all are gear stolen by the DM and ending up in some dark prison cells with only a spoon to escape with…great days:)

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