He was thinking hard. The crushing teaching load was bad enough, but what for him was far worse was that he understood in his precise analytic way that the subject he was teaching was undoubtedly the most unprecise, unanalytic, amorphous area in the entire Church of Reason. That's why he was thinking so hard. To a methodical, laboratory-trained mind, rhetoric is just completely hopeless. It's like a huge Sargasso Sea of stagnated logic.
What you're supposed to do in most freshman-rhetoric courses is to read a little essay or short story, discuss how the writer has done certain little things to achieve certain little effects, and then have the students write an imitative little essay or short story to see if they can do the same little things. He tried this over and over again but it never jelled. The students seldom achieved anything, as a result of this calculated mimicry, that was remotely close to the models he'd given them. More often their writing got worse. It seemed as though every rule he honestly tried to discover with them and learn with them was so full of exceptions and contradictions and qualifications and confusions that he wished he'd never come across the rule in the first place.
A student would always ask how the rule would apply in a certain special circumstance. Phædrus would then have the choice of trying to fake through a made-up explanation of how it worked, or follow the selfless route and say what he really thought. And what he really thought was that the rule was pasted on to the writing after the writing was all done. It was post hoc, after the fact, instead of prior to the fact. And he became convinced that all the writers the students were supposed to mimic wrote without rules, putting down whatever sounded right, then going back to see if it still sounded right and changing it if it didn't. There were some who apparently wrote with calculating premeditation because that's the way their product looked. But that seemed to him to be a very poor way to look. It had a certain syrup, as Gertrude Stein once said, but it didn't pour. But how're you to teach something that isn't premeditated? It was a seemingly impossible requirement. He just took the text and commented on it in an unpremeditated way and hoped the students would get something from that. It wasn't satisfactory.
Most people would have forgotten about Quality at this point, or just left it hanging suspended because they were getting nowhere and had other things to do. But he was so despondent about his own inability to teach what he believed, he really didn't give a damn about whatever else it was he was supposed to do, and when he woke up the next morning there was Quality staring him in the face. Three hours of sleep and he was so tired he knew he wouldn't be up to giving a lecture that day, and besides, his notes had never been completed, so he wrote on the blackboard: "Write a 350-word essay answering the question, What is quality in thought and statement?" Then he sat by the radiator while they wrote and thought about quality himself.
At the end of the hour no one seemed to have finished, so he allowed the students to take their papers home. This class didn't meet again for two days, and that gave him some time to think about the question some more too. During that interim he saw some of the students walking between classes, nodded to them and got looks of anger and fear in return. He guessed they were having the same trouble he was.
Quality -- you know what it is, yet you don't know what it is. But that's self- contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There's nothing to talk about. But if you can't say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn't exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others -- but what's the "betterness"? -- So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?
—Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, p. 179