I started thinking about the question of managing expectations during a recent trip to France. We stayed for some time in Aix-en-Provence. We’d chosen to be there because it seemed relatively central. But we were quite interested in the city’s connections with Cezanne and looked forward to following some of them up.
When we got the mandatory materials from the local tourist office there it all was – the mountain, the quarry, the windmill, the studio where he painted – as well as the promise of artworks in two of the local museums. We dutifully did most of the outdoor locations first of all, and they didn’t disappoint. Mont St Victoire was suitably rugged and the cottage in the Bibemus quarry was charming, surrounded as it was by eponymous lavender, pines and olive trees.
However things were not quite so straightforward when we got to the museums. When we arrived, we saw – or rather – heard – lots of visitors expressing disappointment with the Cezannes on display. When we got to them ourselves, we could see the reason. None of the tourist information we had procured came clean about the fact that the Cezannes in Aix are largely sketches for larger works, all of which are actually elsewhere. There were a couple of finished products – smaller, minor paintings not of the local area.
Now when we thought about this, it all made perfect sense. None of Cezanne’s work was locally purchased when he was alive. Now Aix understands the international plaudits accorded Cezanne and the accompanying potential for tourism, they have tried to remedy this. The work that is now in the Aix museums has been bought very recently, thanks to government grants and fundraising for whatever was affordable that came onto the open market.
What was at issue, we decided, wasn’t that there weren’t paintings of the quarry and the mountain – although that would have been appropriate and possibly some rich benefactor might think about remedying this situation sometime – it was really a matter of expectations. If we had understood right at the outset what was actually on offer then we wouldn’t have had to think about whether we were disappointed or not. There wasn’t really anything for Aix to lose, we thought, by making sure that all of the tourist information did make crystal clear that what could be ‘done’ by tourists to Aix – and nowhere else- was to engage with this very particular landscape in the way that Cezanne did, and to use this to understand his art practice. In this context, initial sketches of his engagements with the landscape make pretty good sense and it may very well have been what officials thought they were offering. But it just wasn’t what the representations of what was on offer suggested.
The question of meeting expectations – knowing what is actually on show, rather than what the publicity materials don’t say and leave to your imagination and desires – is also one that is pretty germane to research.
I’ve talked before about the problems of researchers claiming that there is nothing else remotely similar or relevant in the field to their project, and there is a big yawning chasm which their research is going to fill. This is rarely the case, since most of us never know what else is out there, and there is almost always something that’s been done as well as rather more somethings that are relevant.
However, what is also as important as the problem with claiming a gap that isn’t there – and what the Aix and Cezanne example illustrates – is that the claim to FILL gaps is also a problem. If you claim to fill a gap, rather than make a contribution to filling it, then the research reader – no matter whether they are an examiner or a research end user or another colleague – will inevitably be disappointed, because there is rarely a bit of research that FILLS the gap up. There is always more to do and that can be done.
There is more to managing expectations of course than the question of disappointment. One of the qualities that readers/users/reviewers/examiners look for in research is that the researcher understands the limitations of what they do. The researcher knows that their particular approach, location, scale, population and time means that their research can only do some things and not others. That’s fine. Nothing and noone does everything, as I’ve said. Good research is about knowing this and coming clean about it.
And this is very important. The researcher doesn’t need to write a huge mea culpa about what hasn’t been done. Rather, they need to show that they honestly and ethically state, on the basis of understanding the limitations of what has been done, their initial promises and concluding claims for their contribution to reducing our ignorance (as Jon Wagner puts it).
Managing expectations then is not just something that we do for others, but also for ourselves. As our own first readers, it is critically important that we always consider what expectations we have for our own work, and that we realistically evaluate what we can do. We have to come clean to ourselves about what we are able to, and will, do. Let us not be Aix and its Cezanne, at least in the question of managing expectations.