MAPH Week 3: Preceptors and Precept Groups

I’m just saying that I think you can understand Hegel’s program epistemologically,

rather than necessarily having to buy into his metaphysics.

Preceptor: (n.) 1. An expert or specialist who gives practical experience and training to a student, 2. The head of a precept group, usually a PhD student within a year or two of doctoral defense tasked with encouraging, educating, and evaluating a cohort of students.

Week three of the 2011-2012 U of C MAPH program is in the can and it is my job to write a blurb for the back of the box.  Four posts this past week have delved into the MAPH program’s signature reflection and evaluation tool–the analytic-exposition.  Last week’s status report also–tangentially–addressed that topic, so it is time to address the other “signature” feature of the program–the preceptors and precept groups. This post will say both some nice things and some not so nice things about the preceptors and precept groups, but I want to start by addressing what U of C considers them to be.  The following is from one of the official MAPH blogs hosted by the U of C and written by one of the current MAPH mentors–paid positions filled by former MAPH graduates who serve to facilitate the program.

1. Your Preceptor is your absolute first line of defense against everything. Preceptors are your biggest allies, your biggest fans, and your biggest supporters. In short, they’re heroes.

2. Precept will be your intellectual home base. It’s a place to express your uncertainties and ask questions. It’s a place for vigorous academic discussion where ideas (and not personalities) are the subject of constant critique. Everyone brings something to the table.

3. It’s not a contest. It’s a collaboration, a workshop, an opportunity to offer alternative readings, perspectives and insights (no matter how embarrassing you THINK they are, they usually aren’t).

4. Keep in mind that, although Core is only one-quarter long, Precept is a year-long event. Your cohort will be your  source for the best editors, closest readers, and most engaged collaborators. I wrote an English thesis, but the best advice I got came from a Fine Arts student and an Art History student. The weird alchemy of interdisciplinary conversations, when done in the MAPH context, produces good things.

There is a strong antimony among these first three job-descriptions that is not obvious until you’ve been in the program for a bit–something that my particular preceptor was good enough and wise-enough to point out in one of the precept group’s earliest meetings.  The claim that a preceptor is the first line of defense against a) other students, b) your professors, and c) the administration of the program–(1) is quite accurate.  The description of a precept group as a “home room” that quickly serves to introduce you to other MAPHers who share your interests and facilitates bonds between you and your fellow preceptees–(2) correctly identifies both the content and tone that characterizes these relationships.  Finally, ideally, precept group should allow the opportunity for collaboration through , speculation on, and reintegration of the differing perspectives brought to the group–(3) tries hard to be the case.  However, while your preceptor might be your biggest cheerleader (1) and even try to be your friendly mentor (2), they are ultimately your evaluator, your boss, and your teacher (3?)–so it is on you to appear erudite, defeat competing claims, and score points against your fellow group members.

Now, precept groups don’t have to function as ideological colosseums where students compete for the thumbs up or thumbs down of the preceptor/emperor, but because of their circumstances precept groups often do.  How can one be free to “offer alternate readings” when one will be graded on the basis of agreement with the preceptor’s reading?  Where preceptors are the evaluators of their group’s assignments and participation, they cannot be advocates for those students against themselves.  Only if  professors or mentors graded the written analytic expositions and the electronic Chalk posts while preceptors merely guided the precept group discussions, could such advocacy be possible.

Furthermore, the first posit’s characterization of the need for advocates and “first lines of defense” seem to be rationally inconsistent with the precept system in place.  In an ideal world, there would be no need for students to have a “first line of defense” against other students, professors, or administration, but in a world where we acknowledge that such defense is all too often necessary, where is the student’s defense against his or her preceptor?

This past Thursday, roughly half of my precept group packed into one apartment in order to fulfill an obligation to provide a dessert for one of the MAPH week-ending socials.  After the cakes were in the oven and the apologies for spilled ingredients proffered, we all surprised ourselves by individually offering parallel accounts of anger and frustration with the way our precept group was getting along while meeting for that dreaded two-hour class together.   Yet, outside of class we readily met in twos and threes to discuss the same material to far better result.  After a couple of hours of carefully considering all the potential answers to this thorny question we arrived at the consensus that the problem was either systemic to the program–the position I have argued throughout this post–or was somehow the result of the particular preceptor and precept group we were a part of–the minority position.

On the following Friday, our precept group meeting went far better than it ever had before, but still not nearly as well as our group of amateur bakers had hoped.  To be sure, there is much to be said in favor the preceptor/precept group ideology within the MAPH program, however, there is also much to be said against its implementation at the U of C.  I will return to this topic again in the coming days to offer some suggestions as to how one might make the best of precept group and perhaps even allow it to reach its potential.

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3 comments on “MAPH Week 3: Preceptors and Precept Groups

  1. I went to an all-seminar classes for everyone all-the-time undergrad and in my experience there is only one thing which can _drastically_ improve a group discussion of dense texts (like Hegel): providence, or if you prefer, serendipity.

    Now there are many other things which can noticeably improve a seminar style class:
    (1) for all the participants to have experience in such classes (preferably years)
    (2) for all the participants to be familiar with each others general character
    (3) for preceptors or in my case, tutors, to be worthy of the students most rapt attention and to speak as rarely as possible except to move the conversation away from dead-ends and rabbit holes or to ask an especially good question
    (4) for all the participants to read first (prepare), then listen (respect), then speak (conversation not point-scoring)

    Of these the most valuable is (1), but even with all of them a lot of times the class won’t “click”, it will be good but never great. You will always wonder if you wouldn’t have learned more from carefully attending to the text and reputable secondary sources. But when it is great,…that is possible the most exciting and worthwhile intellectual exercise I have ever experienced.

    I hope you have the privilege,… even if it is not during the MAPH program.

  2. maphman says:

    Thanks once again Jon, for your valuable insights! I was fortunate enough in my undergraduate career to enjoy some fantastic seminar classes at my alma mater in NW Iowa and later under a fantastic don at Oxford. I would agree with all your comments regarding the proper care and feeding of a seminar student–which closely parallel my own notes for tomorrow’s blog post. But the interesting thing about this MAPH course is that I get the sense that most–though certainly not all–of the other students probably exhibit the virtues of 1,2,and 4. The challenge really seems to be our preceptor’s difficulty with number three.

    Any thoughts on how to best address a tutor/preceptor that struggles to fulfill this dead-end/ rabbit-trail avoidance task? More specifically, is it possible for the group to self-regulate–cutting out the need for that service–by student A interrupting student B’s journey into incoherence by way of a favorite hobby horse?

    It is possible that our preceptor might become more adept as time goes on, but do you think there might be a way that the group can model the behavior without coming across as mutinous?

  3. You’ve mentioned several options in this comment and the following article, I will only make a few remarks as seems appropriate:

    1) Ultimately if the class as a whole can learn to self-moderate by verbally pointing out “rabbit holes” or repeated arguments this is even more effective for making a seminar constructive than a very good preceptor. If people are genuinely reading and listening well, it is a good start. Next civility and courage. “I believe that we have already discussed that question,… doesn’t that take us back to ground we have already covered,…can you distinguish that from the view of X to which we had Y rebuttal” Phrasing these kinds of comments as questions leaves open the possibility that you have missed where someone is trying to make a subtle distinction.

    2) The best way to get students to be more aware of their participation as something which should edify the group not score points is to shame them: a public comment of “I’m sorry Mr. X, but I found that comment completely incomprehensible, do you think you could just restrict yourself to making just the very first of those points so we can consider the conclusions as a group?” ….”I am not sure Philosopher Y is needed to make sense of our text, could you make that point using the text at hand?” in private to these students you might encourage them that investing their energy in extremely clear short communications will inevitably give better returns than expecting real gains from people “Ooohing and Ahhing” over the originality of the complex connection )and its implications) that they have verbally uncovered.

    3) My experience with bad preceptors is that it can arise from several causes a) inexperience b) a determination to teach and c) impatience and pride similar to that of the students for whom (2) was relevant…(b) is unfortunately untreatable unless it arises from (a)
    (c) almost always arises from (a) but may or may not be self aware for (a) a series of conversations may be a corrective, these conversations often start with things like…I have been talking to other students and several of us feel frustrated by precept. It doesn’t feel like we are doing what we are supposed to be doing in our time together,… “what do you think the goal of the precept is?” ……could we try X, Y, Z,…. and see if it encourages these common goals we have identified?

    Finally, I find hand-raising in adults to be an obnoxious practice. Make 1 comment, make sure you think it is truly important, allow others to comment (following this same rule),…if they ask a question of meaning or experience feel free to offer 1 comment on this….before making additional comments make sure that enough of a silence gap has passed that others who have not yet commented have had an opportunity,…. a seminar/precept where hand-raising is a practical necessity is a precept of puerile children who either cannot hold their tongues or believe that they can learn nothing from their fellow students.

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