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Quality Is When You Smile at the Little Details *

February 16, 2010

I’m a thrift shopper and I think about quality whenever I’m in one of my regular haunts. Thrift shopping is like a treasure hunt; I never know what I’ll find. I understand that some folks are put off by the idea of using something that someone else has discarded, but I grew up hunting for useful stuff at the dump, so I’m not at all squeamish. I have even been known to wear other people’s shoes. Especially bowling shoes. Besides, I like to imagine the others who have used or read or worn or loved my latest purchase.

As I hunt for bargains in thrift or antique stores, I am often surprised by the excellent condition of things that have obviously been used and yet are decades old: clothing, games, books, jewelry, furniture, even “cheap” odds and ends and bric-a-brac. Sometimes stuff was made to last. I seldom feel that way about anything any more unless it’s been handcrafted by someone who cares.

When I was a teenager, I read Vance Packard’s (1960) book, The Waste Makers, and was greatly influenced by his discussion of the “obsolescence of desirability” and the “obsolescence of function,” referring to deliberate attempts by auto and appliance manufacturers or fashion designers or whomever is determined to convince consumers that they need the latest model of whatever it is because what they currently own or are wearing is either passé or lacking some crucial element that will make their life infinitely more satisfying once they acquire it.

I think about planned obsolescence every time I see a new telephone with features I don’t need and would probably never use. I think about it whenever I see an advertisement for a television that will bring the world into my living room so that I will feel as though I’m right there, whether it’s a football game or the rain forest or Paris at night. I think about it when I hear discussions of fashion forwardness on my guilty pleasure, Project Runway. No one wants to hear Heidi or Michael or Nina tell them their work is “so eighties.”

The world of planned obsolescence is all about creating desire for what is up-to-the-minute. The latest. It’s just a bonus if you produce crap  (well, that’s what it is and my grandma who always said “hmmm” instead of  “hell” used this word to describe some of the worthless-in-her-estimation junk that grandpa and I scrounged at the dump) that doesn’t last because then folks like me who don’t care about the latest will be driven to purchase it when the item we’d planned to use for years lasts only a few months. I won’t even start to rant about the systemic obsolescence that drives computer usage. Keep hard copy, that’s my advice, because you can’t count on being able to open your files forever.

Booker T. Washington said that excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way. This is a pretty good definition of the kind of work I’d like to receive from students in this or any quarter. It’s not that what we are doing isn’t similar to something students have probably done before. Every quarter has its share of presentations or papers or all of the other expected academic activities, but even those things can transcend expectations and become extraordinary if a creative mind brings effort and intention to the task.

You may be wondering how this is related to thrift stores and planned obsolescence. It’s related because the work any student creates can be either something s/he looks back on with pride or it can be something s/he is ashamed of, obsolete before it’s even been graded because no effort or thought has gone into its manufacture.

Imagine your work being found by a student fifty years in the future. Would s/he be intrigued by what you’ve written? Would you provide an authentic glimpse into whatever topic you’re exploring that would allow this future reader to understand current thought? Or would s/he just think that it’s a pathetic piece of meaningless trash? Harsh words, I know, but they come from someone who’s read many a pathetic piece of meaningless trash and would delight in never reading another.

Will your academic work have staying power? Will you be proud to look at it in ten years and think back fondly on the genuine effort you put into it?

If what you do matters to you, your quality work makes it matter to others.
• Dr. Pauline Wayne

* Thanks to Sarah Lambie, an extremely creative former student whose work embodied quality.

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