Core Sample Part 2: Pedagogy and Agony

Well, the maphmatically-minded are now three days into exam week and hopefully have seen the back of the worst of their worries.  Friday promises the return of our fourth and final analytic expositions with grades and notes and cumulative course grades with comments on our performance in Core.  Bill Hutchison and I are attempted to return the favor and beat them to the bullet before they shoot us in the hearts with this two-part evaluation of Foundations of Interpretive Theory (Core).

There is a pretty healthy dose of tough love for potential MAPH students in these comments and so I feel the need to clarify a couple of things before getting out of the way and letting Bill have his full head of steam.  First, while I’ve done a fair amount of self-depreciation on this blog and Bill will gladly tell you that he has been rejected by the finest Ph.D. program in the country, both of us applied to the U of C with 4.0 GPAs, GRE scores above 720, and honors coming out our ears.

However, as deserved as those accolades were and are and regardless of how big the pond seemed were you enjoyed big fish status, University of Chicago is the ocean and you are swimming with whales.  You will share a precept meeting table with a grads from Oxford, Yale, Princeton, and Harvard to name a few.  If you have grown accustomed to being the smartest person in the room–UChicago will come as a refreshing break from all that attention–but that is the point.  Of the thousand or so applicants to U of C’s various Humanities Ph.D. programs who failed to secure one of the handful of slots in the one of the fourteen departments,  the MAPH program is composed of the top ten percent.  Even if you are a genius, your classmates will challenge you and be worthy of you.  But, I promise you… you will not be special.

Second, perhaps I–more so that Bill–remain critical of certain pedagogical choices the MAPH program has made.  This could easily be written off as Monday morning quarterbacking on my part.  However, the other side is that I’m not entirely sure that the frustration inducing confusion and ambiguity that remains in the course’s evaluative structure and pedagogical mechanisms aren’t intentional.  That is, U of C could very well intend the program to do what it does so well–crush students so as to build them up again.  I’m wary of suggesting that something as multifaceted and–frankly–random as the experience of students in the MAPH program could be micro managed in that way–but one could plausibly argue that it is just the ethos of this place influencing the program’s each and every interaction between administrators, mentors, and preceptors and their students.

So, with that out of the way… the final verdict of our Core Sample:

If I were a Core director, Yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum.

I’ve always been one of those guys who assumes those above me know what they’re doing, that there’s some kind of master plan at work that I may not be able to see. I’ve grown a bit more discerning as I’ve gotten older, but I went into MAPH feeling that faith in the program, and frankly, still feel that way a bit. My greatest frustration with the Core was a frustration with myself—despite being an imaginative thinker and expressive writer, I am, as I have confessed before, not so good at analytical exposition. If I could change anything about MAPH—which, since I have not said it yet in this process, I truly love—it would be to move the How To Write the Damn Analytical Exposition workshop much earlier. I hated feeling like such a failure at the process for so long, and think that some more work could be done up front—even during the two-week, pre-class colloquium!—to prep MAPHers for what is to come. It would make Colloquium much less fun but much, much more helpful.

Without further flagellation of the extinct equine, the Core program has a nasty case of the Gotcha! mentality.  There is something terribly wrong about demanding so much while providing so little scaffolding.  That being said, I think much of it might be on the mend.  Writing advisor Jeff McMahon’s presentation on the nature of analytic expositions and the challenges of writing them was masterful–when it came–it just came a month too late.  Judging by the number of presentations McMahon is scheduled to give throughout the preparation of our theses–and the fact that they proceed the evaluative bits, the program has learned its lesson.  However, a paradox still stands at the heart of the Core: on one hand analytic expositions assume (demand) that there is one and only one correct reading of a text while on the other hand several readings given to texts in the core–Dante, Freud, and to some extent Gramsci and Marx–were far from transparent to the original text.  As Bill has already hinted, even the inclusion of a Marxist subtext in this class–and Hilary Strang’s tack in her lectures in particular–seemed unjustifiable by the readings in question.

When in doubt, Galessenheit, Baby! or Keep a Kleenex handy, you’ll need it.

If I had just one piece of advice to give to MAPHers-yet-to-come, it would be…

Surprising, I actually have several. First, get over yourself. Right now. You may be a super smart, special little flower, but so is everyone else in the program. The most annoying part of the first bit of Core (and precept meetings) was the sheer number of MAPHers who were dead set on demonstrating their intellectual superiority. For most of us, we’re in MAPH because we couldn’t or didn’t get into PhD programs[–or got in without funding] (Mm) MAPH is, for that demographic cross-section, going to be the training ground for the next round of applications. Get out of your own way, recognize you have a lot to learn, and start learning it. Thus, the foremost skill to develop is the releasement (Galessenheit, baby!) of ego. Next, tenacity. Stick-to-it-iveness. (There should be a German word for that, too.) For the first two or three weeks, I vacillated wildly between “oh-my-god-I-am-so-stupid, what-have-I-done, everyone-else-is-so-much-smarter-than-me,” and “you are going to work like crazy and then you are going to kick ass. DO YOU HEAR ME?” Lastly, be prepared for what our preceptor called “ground-clearing.” You know both more and less than you think you do. This is your chance to start practicing “know thyself” in a very real and likely very new way. Be willing to let go of what doesn’t work to make room for what will. You will be surprised. You will  be disappointed. But you absolutely will also discover something new and amazing about yourself in this program.

My real fear coming into the Core course was that the limited scope of my undergrad philosophical education would be insufficient requiring me to master new literatures with which another–wider read–student would already have been familiar–think analytic v. continental.  In reality, while it is true that many–if not most–of my fellow MAPHers came in with more experience in the requisite literatures, the Core is really all about quality reading and thinking.  I’ve already put forward some of my thought on what disciplines should be learned in preparation for grad school here, but the real surprise has been that not only is it possible to thrive in the Core without having already mastered all the relevant literatures, but those that have labored to do so have so little advantage.  “Ground clearing”–yeah, just like a nuclear weapon.  I got a really great complement from Jeff, the writing adviser this week and I suddenly realized it was the first nice thing that anyone had said about my work since arriving at U of C.  If, in undergrad, you needed to constant affirmation of instructors and peers, the Core will quickly send you to the suicide prevention hotlines–no, I’m in no way joking.  We lost a fellow grad student just a couple of weeks ago.  The milk of human kindness has turned to cottage cheese at the U of C and that is just the way they like it.

Thanks for Playing; Here’s Your Parting Gift

Probably the most significant take-away for me hasn’t been connected with some particular bit of content–although I did enjoy the introduction to Luce Irigaray–but the utter joy of cracking a particularly challenging text.  I came into grad school with more time invested in theology than in philosophy, though I majored in both, and, therefore, some misgivings concerning a life of thought over a life of service.  The Core class has confirmed that there is a true academic hiding somewhere in me who is very much pleased to find an outlet for all that pent-up desire to research and be socially awkward.  However, the Core also does the opposite task just as well.  I know several of my fellow rejected Ph.D. candidates who–after having snuffed their love of big ideas out against the cold stone that is the MAPH–are certain they want nothing more to do with academic life.  I can’t really imagine that either the content or themes explored in the Core will necessarily show up in my work at some later date–but for what else I’ve gained, I can’t consider the time I’ve spent engaging them a loss.

I came to UChicago thinking I was a philosopher, or rather, that I was going to “do” philosophy. I was rejected from a variety of philosophy (DePaul, Boston) and interdisciplinary PhD (Berkeley’s Rhetoric, Stanford’s MTL, UChicago’s Social Thought) programs before coming to MAPH. MAPH and UChicago, in concert, have forced me to abandon my romantic conceptions of what it means to be an academic and get really, really real. I used to hope I was a genius. I have discovered that what I am, instead, is a smart guy who works hard. (As one of my profs said, “you have to work your bloody ass off.”) I spent twelve years in the “real world” as a professional this-and-that, and I don’t really want to go back. I’m in it for the long haul, and MAPH was the trial-by-fire I needed to learn that. Half or more of the thinkers we engaged with in Core are central to the kind of continental/literary theory work I do, so I know their deployment will continue. More than anything, my take-away from MAPH has been a newer, more serious version of myself: someone who still loves to play with ideas, but whose play got very fierce and serious.

I Miss Core, But My Aim is Improving

I’m going to miss Core. I’m going to miss all three instructors: David Wray’s coy, seductive pedagogical charisma; Ben Callard’s nervous, “uh, umm”-brilliance; and Hilary Strang’s fervent and passionate leftist critiques. I’m going to miss all the MAPHers gathered in one place, and seeing the desperation and anxiety in my eyes mirrored in one-hundred other pairs of eyes. I’m going to miss my precept group, all us misfit toys gathered in one room together. I’ve moved from loving core (first five percent) to hating it (middle eighty-five percent), to learning a grudging but profound respect for it (last ten percent). It has been the single most intense experience of my academic life, and it may hold the record for a while. I am glad it’s over. I would never wish for it to last longer than a single quarter, nor would I survive it. But Core, alone, is worth the shocking amount of debt I will have taken on to be here. It’s cod liver oil; you know it’s good for you, but my god, it is not pleasant. After Core, everything else is just icing on the cake.

One gets that strange “nostalgic” feeling when anything this difficult and this intense finally draws to an end–or at least I do.  As Bill has suggested, MAPH is a pressure cooker and Core is our first experience of heat and pressure we are doomed? to endure for the next thirty-three plus weeks.  That being said, one can’t help feeling a deep connection with the folks that you’ve been stewing with and–though perhaps it is Stockholm Syndrome–a certain affinity for those whose been your guides through the process.  I imagine that I will miss the lectures–or at least the lecturers–at various points down the road, but I am breathing a great sigh of relief that I’m on the downhill side.  I really can’t imagine a Core course that continued throughout the year–I mean besides the fact that I’d lose two slots for other grad courses.  Core is just too intense an experience to be sustained for that amount of time. Certain frustrations I felt keenly at the beginning–like the impossibility of actually receiving straight As or even As in general–have abated somewhat and other things that I dreaded at the beginning–like precept group–have actually become much more enjoyable.

Plausible Reliability

Prospective MAPHers: there is free booze at Social Hour. I mention the free booze and social hour because one of they key MAPH survival skills is talking to other MAPHers. I’m not a big drinker, but get a couple of paper cups of a fine boxed wine into me, and I’ll tell you all my secrets. It turns out, thanks to Social Hour (which scared the hell out of me at first) and other interactive events, that my secrets (and worries and fears about MAPH and academia and life in general) are shared among many MAPHers. Be wiling to get into the psychological muck and mire with your cohort, confess a little. We’re all different, sometimes freakishly so. I think of my ten or so favorite people in MAPH, and a more disparate group of souls could not be assembled. My opinions probably differ radically from some and overlap with others. But I don’t think my feelings about the program are, by and large, atypical. I’m certain of this much: somehow, we all ended up here together at the same time, walking across the same quads and staring up at the same ivy-covered stone. We all watch the same bunch of squirrels, busily rushing around collecting acorns, and I’d bet that when we look at the nut-burdened squirrel and then down at our own armload of books, all of us thinking of the winter ahead and the storms that are doubtless coming, the circle of kinship feels wide indeed.

Obviously, I can’t speak for all MAPH students or even the majority, but judging by the level of synchronicity–in the Jungian sense–of Bill’s posts with mine, it seems that my experiences might be more indicative of the norm than I first thought.  Now, both Bill and I are massively non-traditional students–I was out of school for ten years before I returned to earn a bachelors in philosophy and theology–and both of us share a whole host of other odd fascinations–Bill, I have a Remington Model 5 that I would go into a burning building to save–and we have both published scholarly works in one way or another before grad school.  As such, we are probably–a little–more capable and committed than your average undergrad.  But no one at University of Chicago is average–not the Ph.D., MA, or BA students–otherwise they would not have had the privilege of contributing to the upkeep of the gargoyles.


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