Core Sample Part 1: Intent and Content

The MAPH Colloquium and Core (Foundations of Interpretive Theory) will offer a rigorous introduction to theoretical work that fosters a dialogue with a range of cultural objects. In lieu of an Introduction to Theory course (and the Greatest Hits approach that often characterizes it), we will seek thematic and analytic coherence around a set of unfolding questions concerning identification and desire and their relations to social form, politics, ideology, and aesthetics. Readings will include works in psychoanalysis, feminism, Marxism, and post-colonial studies. (…) While the majority of lectures will be presented by the program’s co-directors, the Core course will also feature a series of distinguished guest lecturers drawn from the University of Chicago faculty.

Or at least that’s what we were told in the course catalog.  Welcome my friends to a very special polyvocal episode of Maphmatically Yours in which Bill Hutchison–fellow philosopher, MAPH student, and all around smashing fellow–and your humble Maphman will do our best to provide an overview and critique of one of the MAPH programs signature features: Foundations of Interpretive Thought or, simply, the Core.  The Core class officially includes Colloquium–the two week before the Fall quarter begins during which all of us spend an average of four to six hours in Foundations related lectures–and the Core as a course for three credit hours during the Fall quarter.  However, Bill and I have also included comments related to the two day “Campus Days” visit in April as those activities are the unofficial first days of Core.

Now, I know that we are going to say things that aren’t popular–or perhaps just plain wrong–and I know that between forty and ninety people today will click on this post–many, if not most of them–current MAPH students.  You have a voice!  Bill and I may have a bully-pulpit, but the comments section is open to anyone–so long as they behave themselves.  The world wants to hear from more than just two folks.  Potential MAPH students deserve to make decisions based on more than the opinion of two thirty-something philosophers.  So… use the comments to add your thoughts!

Without further ado, Core Sample Part 1!

Grating Expectations versus Reality

MAPH still had last year’s Core syllabus online when we started, and from what I can (vaguely) recollect, between the title of the course and the content, it hinted at a clearly overarching theme with some exciting approaches about how to (gasp!) interpret theoretical writings. I can’t say that the Core course lived up to the hype, but that’s in large part because I created the hype in my head and imagined it to be precisely the kind of course I most like to engage with/in—one in which you encounter and work with texts through the tools of interpretation and theory. What we got was a course that was a practical boot camp on how to extract the marrow of an argument and, without synthesis, analyze and regurgitate in clear, diligently constructed language. I was also frustrated at what ultimately felt like an overall lack of thematic continuity in the course materials. What started out looking like an exploration of concepts of sexuality seemed to evaporate by the end of the quarter. Enthusiasm and coherence seemed to fizzle.

I understand that the title of the Core course—Foundations of Interpretive Theory—fits perfectly the pedagogical aim and content of the course—but only in retrospect. Initial impressions argued Core was to be a class in hermeneutics and literary theory at a theoretical level. So, I fully expected by rereading Gadamer, Heidegger, Nietsche, and Wilhelm Dilthey I’d be prepared. In reality, the Core is a profoundly practical—even pragmatic—class not dissimilar to many contemporary college’s institution of madatory introductory writing courses. If Core’s approach is unique, it is only because the texts chosen resist the class’s method. While Descartes’ Meditations was a familiar text and Freud and Foucault submitted easily enough to interrogation, Lacan, Gramsci, and Hegel were notoriously difficult to get a straight answer out of. The point of the readings is just to give you dense prose to engage with so the course doesn’t need a theme per se. However, for the sake of continuity MAPH chose the constitution of the subject and erotic love, but don’t confuse this class with another on gender studies or dualism.

Boot Camp Book Rack?

At least in my experience what Core does well–really well–is codify and inculcate a profoundly analytic writing style and demand and model close readings of notoriously opaque texts.  I actually spent a whole semester working with one of my undergrad professors dissecting his conference papers and reading Derrida’s Of Grammatology in order to build this one skill only to be repeatedly kicked to the curb by the Core.  However, I can honestly say that I am a better writer and a better reader.  The other lessen I learned is that extraordinarily dense texts allow for exponentially more satisfaction when they finely succumb than do more transparent ones.  I can honestly say that while I’ve read Hegel before, I’ve never enjoyed him more than I do after having beaten my forehead bloody on The Spirit of Phenomenology.  It was a pleasure to give Freud and Lacan a generous hearing, but I felt that Dante’s Vita Nouva was uncharitably shoe-horned into the reading list and into an interpretation that didn’t become it. (172)

The readings: loved some, hated some, ambivalent toward some. As a self-identifying “continental” thinker (as is my counterpart, though his mind works much more analytically than mine), I dug the Nietzsche, Freud, Lacan, Weil, and Irigaray in a big way. The Descartes was crucial, but not particularly enjoyable. I’m still unclear as to why we read the Dante. The Hegel was dreadful (my own prejudice—thematically it was among the more questionable selections, though perfect for the analytical exposition exercises) and all the Marxist/post-Marxist work felt a bit over-agenda-fied. That being said, I cannot escape the boot camp metaphor for Core. I’d like to say that I “sharpened my existing analytical skills,” but the reality is that I am an intuitive thinker and an expressive writer, but a 90-pound weakling in analytical thinking. Core was a juggernaut drill instructor constantly shouting at me to drop-and-give-it-twenty, and I am without a doubt a better analytical thinker than when I began, which is the (hidden?) agenda of the course. A bit weird, though, to have only two women in the syllabus and to cram them in so unceremoniously at the end.

Core versus the Classes You Actually Get to Choose

From my limited experience and the sage words from my preceptor and others I will be glad to see the back of Core, at least with regard to its workload.  My other two courses this semester included one with only fellow Masters students (Contemporary Problems in Analytic Philosophy) and another with a mixture of undergrads, Masters, and Ph.D. students (Aesthetics of Hume and Kant).  Both these other courses were considerably less frenetic and were subject to less hand-holding/ busy-work assignments.  However, they also did not provide the sort of massive academic life changing skill set that was free with the price of the Core’s admission.  My sense is that Core is designed to be frightening, to challenge Masters students to work at an almost absurdly high level, and prepare them to hold their own against the Ph.D. candidates in 50xxx classes.  The testament to Core’s success is that in talking with grad school professors about invitation only or restricted admission classes my MAPH street cred was considered sufficient to secure admittance–and even gain assurances of my future success.

My two grad courses outside of Core—“Modernism and Animality” and “Advanced Theories of Gender and Sexuality” (both English courses, or cross-listed there, anyway)—were, respectively, MIND-BOGGLINGLY AWESOME and pretty okay. The animality course (my sweetheart subject) was theoretically rich, the fiction choices were brilliant, was taught by an absolute rock star/totally accessible prof, and was a perfect mix of MA and PhD students. All classes were seminar-style with virtually no lecture component. Same goes for the other class. As I love talking theory, I had no hesitation contributing to both classes. Both required tons of reading, a presentation, and about 15 pages of writing (two animal papers, one final gender paper). Those classes ranged from OMG SO MUCH FUN to decent as compared to Core, which was pretty consistently “just alright.” (David Wray lectures will always be highlights of pedagogical excellence, however.) Nevertheless, Core bulked me up for the work I engaged with in the other classes, and no classes will dare kick sand in my face in coming quarters! (But I am so relieved to be done with Core.)

Rotten Tomatoes? Core at the Movies (and the symphony)

During the “visit week” in April, Antonioni’s The Passenger was screened with a panel from the Cinema and Media Studies faculty discussing it afterwards. I loved it so much I though about abandoning literature and philosophy altogether for the cinema track. When MAPH screened The Interrupters, a documentary about stopping gang violence in Chicago, late in the quarter, followed by a wee panel with some the “interrupters” themselves, I was moved by the introduction of the notion of social responsibility as a crucial part of being a well-rounded humanist/academic. It’s hard to properly integrate other media into any course, and I’ll admit I skipped out on the quartet—such choices are made when one triages one’s workload. (I asked my preceptor if it was a sin against Core to skip it. “No,” he said, “but it’s a sin against culture.”) Overall, I think the Core course has a tremendous amount to offer, but cohesion, finding a way to demonstrate the way that its various elements are woven together rather than a theoretical and cultural pastiche, seems a bit lacking.

Now, allow me to be the first to say something inflammatory: but as much as I enjoyed The Passenger, Hiroshima Mon Amor, The Interrupters, and even the free ticket to see the Borodin Quartet–and I did enjoy every moment–they felt to me like pieces of the program from one of its earlier incarnations.  One can easily imagine a curriculum in which they fit and functioned beautifully–the MAPH is a humanities program after all.  However, the Core as it currently exists is a class in rigorous, academic reading and writing.  Watching films and listening to music without critical engagement, expert panels, and a page limit felt like an exercise in placating those who argued that the Humanities aren’t just words, words, mere words!  As a result, I often felt that being forced to show up on the Sunday afternoon before classes officially started and coming back to campus late in the evening was not some special extension activity, but a waste of my–already limited–time.

Core Checklist: Undergrad to Grad Transition? Social/Intellectual Networking? Starting the Thesis?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I worked like dog in undergraduate.  (Okay, Bill how’s that for a Derridian slip into animality?)  That being the case Core was not a case of buckling down, but actually had a certain–limited–sense of freedom.  In the–limited–sense of work load and evaluative method, Core was something of a transition between the homework heavy classes of undergrad with many, many opportunities to catch a falling grade point and the one course, one paper, one grade approach of many–if not most–grad level philosophy courses.  My experience in undergrad prepared me well for one-shot-no-edits approach to evaluation so Core’s incessant need to grasp my digits and squeeze for dear life got old quickly–NO! I don’t need to meet with my preceptor again to discuss class selections. As I’ve complained before, I am horrible at meeting people and creating meaningful relationships–thus the need for CARP (Collegiate Academic Role-playing Game).  Perhaps because I’m not alone in this, Core swung into action like a widowed mother hoping for grand kids: creating necessities to meet and mingle with reckless abandon.  It worked.  I have friends and colleagues.

Like Maphman, the transition from grad to undergrad was not a tough one. I’m in my early-late-30s, and recently finished my undergrad after a 12-year absence. Going back to school full-time while working full-time made me no stranger to a freakishly intense work ethic. But as far as networking and thesis writing—yeah, man. That’s the exciting part. I, too, am not at great social ease most of the time. The first week or so I would come home dripping with angst, freaking out to my girlfriend about not making any friends. Ten weeks later, I’ve made a few friends that I think I’ll have for many years to come, and lots of really lovely acquaintances. More than that, I have a thesis advisor who I am desperately in (intellectual) love with, and am working as the research assistant for another. Since both of them are UChicago faculty, this will, I hope, give me some killer recommendation letters down the road when I apply to PhD programs (again). And as for the thesis-writing process—well, I’m nerding out hardcore over it. I found a topic I never would have imagined I’d be into, and the research resources available at UChicago are fantastic. From massive electronic collections to multiple libraries that make this bibliophile weep with joy, “thesising” has been great so far. (Especially as compared to writing my undergraduate honors thesis for my philosophy department, which nearly killed me.) Setting out the expectations and page-count check-ins for the thesis will, I think, keep my inventive-but-cluttered-minded self in check. I’m actually looking forward to the amount of research I am going to have to do over winter break!

To be continued…

Tomorrow: Core Sample Part 2


One comment on “Core Sample Part 1: Intent and Content

  1. Tiffany says:

    I found that none of you really went into great detail about U of C’s campus day. Do you believe it is important to attend? Could I go visit the university on my own (aside from the obvious fact that the experience will be different)? It was stated that the “activities are the unofficial first days of Core.” Sounds like campus day *is* a big deal.

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