If I hadn't used it myself I might not believe it exists. It sounds too much like the sort of overly general and fancifully articulate computer program that AI researchers have been promising, but never actually making, since the dawn of their endeavor.
But I know it's real -- it hums along most of the time in a small, cluttered office on the third floor of Angell Hall at the University of Michigan -- and for those who take advantage it may deliver exactly what they came to college to find: an attentive sounding board whose feedback, backed by daunting erudition but anchored, always, to the student's own words, shows the way to crisper, richer, more reticulated thought.
* * *
At certain moments on certain lazy Sunday afternoons, I'll watch a professional tennis player do something to a tennis ball that I didn't believe a person could do to a thing, and I'll wonder whether maybe world-class athletes are better at athletics than the rest of us will ever be at anything else.
My thinking in those moments runs something like this. I've read that paper by K. Anders Ericsson, the paper that Malcolm Gladwell made famous in Outliers, that touts "the role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance." Ericsson argues that to become an expert at something you have to log about 10,000 hours of practice, but not just any practice -- a kind of practice that includes an "active search for methods to improve performance," immediate informative feedback, structure, supervision from an expert, and "close attention to every detail of performance 'each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit.'"
I wonder: if Ericsson is right, does that mean that activities especially vulnerable to deliberate practice -- activities like sports -- have especially "climbable" learning curves? That those who devote themselves to the deliberately practicable, as opposed to the not, will master their work faster and more completely?
The idea scares me. I worry that I've chosen vocations -- programming, writing -- that can't be conquered. What's the equivalent, for a writer, of playing tennis with a broom handle instead of a racquet (as a way of learning how to really "see" the ball and hit it solid)? Trying not to use the letter "a"? Is there some academy where young wannabe Gladwells are fed four hundred transitive verbs, then four hundred intransitives, and asked to return each one with a smooth, driving sentence?
* * *
I had hoped I might find something of that sort at college. But of course professors don't train writers the way coaches train athletes. Instead they do it obliquely, one paper, one small barrage of comments at a time.
The whole process is rather clumsy. In a typical semester-long university English class there might be three opportunities to showcase your writing, each one a standard one-to-three-thousand-word expository essay, each one born, for the most part, in a few miserable halfday blasts.