Friday, March 28, 2014

Consultant, Philosopher

Talking to a group of students earlier this week, I introduced myself as both a consultant and a philosopher. That means I'm at once the guy who tells you how to get things done and the guy who makes you doubt whether you exist. When I'm through with you you're thinking both "Yes we can!" and "Who are we?"

I suppose these two roles of mine are in a kind of conflict with each other. So far, however, my clients and I have found it tolerable, and I suspect that it's an essential tension in what I do. Perhaps in other industries, the management consultant can focus exclusively on questions of efficiency and motivation, but in academia there are constitutively "existential" issues to deal with, without which the enterprise becomes meaningless. Scholars are not just producers of artifacts like books and journal articles, and they don't just deliver services like teaching and examination. Their students are not simply customers and their peers are a little more than colleagues. Their deans and department heads are not merely their bosses. While their activities are often ordinary on the ground, they do in fact pursue a higher aim. They must answer to a higher authority, namely, truth.

If I didn't feel that my own contribution served those higher aims, i.e., if I didn't feel that I helped scholars meet their distinctly academic obligations, the satisfaction I derive from my work would quickly disappear. While I certainly believe academia could be organized more efficiently, and that the "business" of scholarship could be more "profitable", I do not believe that efficiency is the most important thing, nor that scholarship really is a business (without quotation marks).

This tension is, I hope, summarized in my paragraph-oriented definition of knowledge. You know something if you (a) hold a justified, true belief about it, (b) can hold your own in a conversation with other knowledgeable people about it, and (c) are able to compose a coherent prose paragraph about it, consisting of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words that make a single, clearly defined claim and offers support for it, in 27 minutes. No one of those three components is enough. Scholars not only learn truths, they produce knowledge. If the journal article is often the "unit of work done", we must remember that the paragraph is the unit of composition. People who "know things" for a living should compose themselves in this spirit.

1 comment:

Andrew Gelman said...

This reminds me of what I tell my students in our class on statistical consulting: One must strike a balance between answering the question the client ask, and questioning the answer the client wants.