Friday, March 30, 2012

Continuous Disappointment (part 2)

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was taking undergraduate pre-commerce courses (before deciding to become philosopher) there was a management movement afoot called Total Quality Management/Continuous Improvement. It was related to the Business Process Reengineering and Kaizen movements that (loosely) inspire my approach to the writing process. As the name suggests, it was actually two movements (and part of a more general trend), but most people talked about them as one thing. The idea was to implant an interest in the quality of the product at all points in the production process, not just at "quality control" checkpoints. I remember reading the introduction to a second edition of one of the books about the subject, in which the author lamented the tendency of companies to establish a TQM group in the organization, which was then given responsibility for implementing the idea. The idea, after all, was to implement it everywhere in the organization.

That's a long intro to the idea of "continuous disappointment" that I want to talk about this morning. Researchers are, by nature, not satisfied with the state of knowledge. They are constantly looking for ways of improving what we know about the world and how we are talk about it. They are disappointed by the way policy-makers, business-people, and ordinary citizens understand the world in which they live. They are disappointed in their students, in how much they know and how quickly they learn. They are disappointed, more generally, by the lack of curiosity other people seem to feel about the subject matter they are interested in.

Just as a scholar must avoid intellectual "crises" by adopting a continuously critical attitude, by seeing research as a series of "ordinary crises", so too must a scholar get used being disappointed with the state of knowledge, not just among members of the public but among the scholar's peers. Disappointment must be developed into an art. Scholars must learn to disappoint their peers' expectations of the objects they study in a natural, ongoing way. Being disappointed is just part of the job. It must be absorbed into the scholar's general demeanor. The writer is artful about disappointing the reader, and the reader is artful in being disappointed. It's everyone's responsibility.

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I'm going to think about this some more over the Easter break next week. I won't be posting until Tuesday, April 10.

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