MAPH Week 8: You’re Not Who You Think You Are, But Neither Am I

It is a great honor for me to welcome my friend Bill Hutchison, a fellow philosopher, curator of The Anthologist’s Cabinet of Musical Marvels, and author behind The Philosophical Animal–a fascinating foray into the burgeoning philosophical specialty of animalism, to usurp my authority and take this week-ending post usually reserved for my judgments on the comings and goings of University of Chicago’s MAPH program. If you will recall one the purposes–if not the most important purpose–behind this blog is its attempt to provide honest commentary from inside the Masters of Arts Program in the Humanities for those considering entering it.  Up to this point the voice of Maphmatically Yours has been solely mine–but one voice isn’t much better than none.  In this post–and hopefully in more to follow–we’ll add a voice or three and try to provide other perspectives for future would-be MAPHers.

I’m fascinated by the concept lurking behind Bill’s title.  The distance between a one’s self perception and the actuality of the self is the fissure that fuels heroic self-sacrifice–the overcoming of our self imposed limits–and darkest tragedy–the unveiling of our own inadequacy to ourselves.  As the log lady might say “Sometimes nature plays tricks on us and we imagine we are something other than what we truly are. Is this a key to life in general? Or the case of the two-headed schizophrenic? Both heads thought the other was following itself. Finally, when one head wasn’t looking, the other shot the other right between the eyes, and, of course, killed himself.


I remember when Maphman first told me about Maphmatically Yours. It was an interesting night, and one of what would be many turning points for me in the first quarter of MAPH. We were walking down the dark Chicago sidewalk, two big guys with hands stuffed in coat pockets, talking about how hard it had been to find much of anything about the program. Between Grad Café’s smattering of marginally helpful posts and propagandized university viewbook-style promotion of the program, there simply isn’t much for the avid Googler. Maphman had taken it upon himself to provide to those future-Googlers what he and I had been unable to find—an analytic exposition, if you will, of MAPH.

And while I think Maphmatically Yours is in many ways an invaluable resource to those who want a taste of the rigors of the program, and a chance to figure out what the hell this strange beast even really is, it’s impossible to touch on how many facets there are to MAPH. It’s strange and wonderful and painful and has the ability to lift one up to one’s intellectual and emotional heights only to dash one down to the rocky crags of despair a moment later. So when Maphman asked me if I wanted to be a guest blogger, I was excited to offer up to future MAPHers and whomever else might be visiting the blog the view from another angle or two.

I have a couple of subjects in mind, and perhaps it will be up to you, Dear Reader, and the sage wisdom of Maphman to decide if I will be invited back to talk about them, but I’ll reserve this first foray for a discussion of the confounding intimacy fostered by the program.

We’re nearing the end of the first quarter, and with it will end precept group, the difficulties of which Maphman has written about before. Two months in, the group is much tighter. We’ve gotten to know one another better, and have been able to see past the bizarre hodge-podge of psychological defense mechanisms to the decent, smart humans underneath. The ones who grated me at the beginning, the ones who intimidated me, the ones who seemed so much cooler, so much smarter, so much weirder, so much louder—they all just turned out to be people. The dread that we all shared at the beginning of our weekly marathon of awkwardness has evolved into something that is, I dare say, precious. There’s still some eye-rolling and I’ll confess a certain resurgence of intolerance from time to time, but I have come to feel a profound sense of affection for the motley lot of misfit toys that make up my precept group, and I will miss—at least a little—our weekly meetings. As we leave the fall quarter behind and approach the winter—take note, future MAPH-ers—our little band of brothers (and sisters) will be split into smaller groups who will “workshop” our theses with one another.

Considering the diversity of the one- sentence thesis topics that have populated our online discussion group, it’s going to make for another quirky quarter, although in a whole new way. I suspect this quarter’s version of precept will contain the same kind of struggles—none of which ultimately are intellectual. They’re all about us trying to come to terms with one another as people, trying to make ourselves understood to one another, even when we can’t and especially when we don’t want to.

That’s why that first night talking with Maphman was so interesting. It was the first night we had come together outside of the classroom. The little apartment kitchen we gathered in started out as a terrarium full of turtles reluctant to poke their heads out from their shells, and ended up looking more like a field full of meerkats, chirping and chittering away at one another. It’s an unwitting lesson of MAPH, peopled as it is by Humanities folk, a group who are rarely known for their stunning social skills. By and large, we live in our brains more than our bodies, and it can get a little lonely in there. Discovering a way to find one another in this world was crucial to making precept bearable, to bringing some joy to the program, and to feeling a little bit less alone.

Lest you, Dear Reader, think I have veered too far off the rails of talking about MAPH, let me redeem myself. The nature of MAPH is such that one questions everything about one’s aspirations, both intellectually and beyond. Certainly the intellectual: most of us are in the program because we were declined admission to PhD departments. As I like to boast, I have been rejected by some of the finest schools in the country. And so we enter, over a hundred of us, into the hallowed halls of University of Chicago, nearly all certain on that first day that we will indeed be going on to pursue a PhD. But as days progress, certainty wanes. Heads held high with the pride of the mindlessly optimistic are confronted with the rigors not just of MAPH’s core course—no easy task on its own—but of the experience of being at a place like University of Chicago.

Many of us were big fish at our little schools, our state schools, and had professors who, through no fault of their own, assured us (and often believed it) that we were more than cut out for graduate education. But I sit each day with professors who quite often and quite literally “wrote the book” on their subject area, and often several others. The PhD students with whom many MAPHers share their classes are profoundly brilliant. Long ago I gave up the hope of being a genius and realized I would, instead, have to be one of those guys who worked really hard instead. University of Chicago is the kind of school where you first realize that for some—for me?—even giving it your best isn’t going to be good enough.

Many MAPHers, as a result, quickly abandon their hopes of PhD-hood. MAPH wisely offers “Career Core,” a chance to hone one’s skills at getting a job in the “real world” and network with area companies. I have seen many fellow MAPHers desperately glad for these opportunities. They, like most of us, have been forced to re-evaluate what they had held as their unquestionable life direction within a matter of days or weeks of crossing the stone threshold of University of Chicago. And more than questioning life-directions, we are each in the dark, three-o’clock night of our souls 24 hours a day.

We all got thrown in to the deep end of the pool, no water wings or life jackets, and were confronted with the sudden thrill that is right between the decision to dog-paddle or drown. That’s why our baking sessions, our beer-drinking sessions, our social hour-sessions have all been essential to this experience. Because we each believed we were singular beings. We each believed we were pretty amazing. We each thought we possessed some secret spark of brilliance that belonged to no one else. We were all right, and we were all wrong. MAPH, more than anything, has been about the sobering experience of self-confrontation. It has required each of us to, in some way, realize that we are always in the process of leaving Plato’s cave. We have shown one another, in ways both profound and banal, what is shadow and what is sunlight. We free one another and try not to be killed along the way. And someday, I have no doubt, we will miss this time desperately. We will look back on it with the kind of pangs reserved for those experiences that changed our lives in ways we can’t speak about, but only nod in mutual recognition.

So whatever our reasons for ending up here, whatever we do next, whoever we become in the long unfolding of our being, we will find that we were helped along by a few dozen strangers and a handful of friends. More than that, when convinced no one cared, we will look back and be reassured that we were wrong, that someone did, and that in this vast ocean full of islands-unto-ourselves, there’s always someone out there, just over the horizon, in their little boat, rowing furiously toward us, waving and calling out that all is not lost, that hope remains, and that they are on the way.

(If Maphman invites me back someday, I will tell you the story of “How I Lost Philosophy But Found Myself In H.G. Wells.”)


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