The last week of every quarter in University of Chicago’s system is–not surprisingly–exam week. For most MAPH students in their first quarter this means one or two exams or one or two seminar papers. For me it was two seminar papers, one on the fundamental paradox in Hilary Putnam’s semantic internalism and another on Hume’s Standard of Taste as a “Reign” of Taste rather than a “Rule.” I won’t bore all of you with either, but suffice it to say that I am very satisfied with both–at least until I get my grade report in a few days or weeks.
The eleventh week is also a time for reflection on the MAPH program as a whole and my time in it. This last week Bill and I discussed and contrasted our experiences of the Foundations of Interpretive Theory (Core) course and I think it safe to say that both of us were very pleased with the result–I hope that all of you were too. However, in this post it’s just me and you and one-quarter at the U of C. I doubt that I’ll say anything terribly new–or at least anything that you wouldn’t expect me to say based on the posts that have come before. But, I would like this to be a resource for those who would like to have a summary of the program up to this point so I’m going to revisit some of my older posts and make some comments, revisions, and perhaps rebuttals to the things I wrote in the earlier weeks of this program.
During the colloquium–the first two weeks before class actually begins for everyone else–I wrote a series called “You Oughta Know” calling out the skills that I thought would be helpful for aspiring academics to master–or at least attempt–during undergrad. I wrote that,
“Generous readings show a certain amount of respect for their creator as a member of his or her guild, the work as a contribution to its discipline, and the knowledge and wisdom of the past. They can be grueling to construct because they demand a thorough understanding of the text, its contributions, and the conversation to which it belongs. However, only a generous reading actually attempts to understand what a creator was trying to communicate.”
One argument that was–perhaps justifiably–made against generous readings as I defined them was that such a reading was pragmatically unnecessary or as the one of my friends put it that such a post required his attempt to “problematize both the persistent relevance of the question of generosity across many pragmatically oriented hermeneutics.” However, after a quarter at U of C churning out analytic expositions under the extreme scrutiny of preceptor, writing adviser, and all of you, I am as committed as ever to the idea that understanding a text–really grasping what it means–demands something more than pillaging it for what one can use it for. In fact U of C’s analytic expositions would be impossible to write with anything less than a generous posture. That is, pragmatic hermeneutics–focused on how one might exploit a text in the service of one’s program–are doomed to remain as distortions of the text rather than readings. Now, I’ve got a ton to say about authors, intentions and interpretations but those arguments will come out in time. At this point, suffice it to say that while analytic expositions’ explicit goal of providing the “plain meaning” of texts remains an impossibility in my opinion, I would argue that the more transparent a reading is to its original text and the harder it works to place the text within its context, render a plausible intentional scheme, and provide a historical conversation into which that text speaks the more likely that reading is reading–rather than a misreading.
While this first series’ musings came when I was still in the very earliest stages of interacting with grad school expectations at U of C, I would stand behind them still today.
MAPH Week 1-3:
October began classes proper and the inauguration of the weekly round-ups: “MAPH Week__“, the whiny “Academic Autopsy” series, and its more constructive cousin “Anal-ytic Exposition Dump.” These weeks were all about the adjustment to the University of Chicago’s expectations and methodology summarized in the post “MAPH Week 2: Gotch-U” in which I wrote:
“This could be read as a rant or a gripe session—and perhaps it is. However, it is also a warning to future MAPHers and a plea for real pedagogical reform. I’m going to return to the topic of just what exactly is expected of an analytic exposition in future days and weeks, but for the time being let it be known that the U of C seems to have nasty habit of preferring that students fumble about in the dark basements of their ivory tower before they turn on the lights.”
Now, as I suggested in this past weeks’ “Core Sample” I’m not entirely sure that the MAPH program doesn’t intend the analytic expositions to function as a particularly egregious–but perhaps necessary–form of slash-and-burn-farming in which students convinced of their own self-value are razed to the ground in order for U of C to plant her own seed in their decimated egos. I’m not as angry about the way that analytical expositions function within the MAPH program as I was when–one month into the program–I penned the passage above. However, it is only because I have given up on the idea that I will achieve any “evaluative success” in the form of a high GPA and have learned to make due with the success of actually learning to read and write better.
MAPH Week 4-8:
The key features of this time period orbited around the question of coercion–being pressed into a particular mold by the extreme market forces of the academic job prospectus. That theme came out especially clearly in “Continental Drift” and “Rockstar Profs and Coerced Groupies” posts that struggled to come to grips with the fact that whatever womb-like bliss we had enjoyed in under grad, MAPHers were now having to address the possibility of making concessions in their studies to the realities of the job market. I’ve taken a lot of heat for using the labels “analytic” and “continental” to mean anything more than the imaginary “us” and “them” of Ivies v. state schools or Ivy Pluses v. up and coming private liberal arts schools. Yet, for all the crap I’ve taken for suggesting that there are some real differences between the approaches of strongly analytic schools (like U of C) v. my own experience of the approaches of strongly continental undergrad programs (private liberal arts), I still find that my–somewhat–tongue in cheek post: “The REAL Difference between Analytic and Continental” still gets an average of ten hits a day most weeks from Google searchers and re-posts in far-flung corners of cyberspace. I would maintain my position in that post, that foundationally analytic and continental monikers are merely sociological descriptions for academic pedigrees with more in common than in contrast with the following caveat: analytical and continental writing styles are truly distinct and legitimate the use of the monikers–at least in that limited capacity.
The question of to what extent any young philosopher should allow themselves to be manipulated by the demands of an unfavorable job market and a disproportionately anti-continental bias in top-shelf schools remains open–as does the question of to what extent a young philosopher should allow themselves to be taken in by the mythos of Rock star profs. However, I believe that–given time–more definite answers will make themselves known–at least by way of anecdote.
MAPH Week 9-11:
These past three weeks have been chock full of “Lexicon” posts calculated to do a bit of “undercover philosophy.” To a certain extent these posts were designed to test the theory that by problematizing certain common language expressions, I could hook an audience into reading a post on a (rigorously?) philosophical topic that they never would have otherwise. Now, it is always difficult to gauge how successful such strategies are, but judging by some of the comments that were OK’d for general consumption–and some others that were not–I feel like the Lexicon was a useful pedagogical tool for introducing and sustaining some remarkably complex and fiddly distinctions and theories about common language usage. With some further polishing, I can imagine some of these topics returning in the class room at some later date–and I hope that everyone had as much time reading them as I did writing them.
Fact is, the Lexicon was one part pedagogical experiment and one part necessary self-deception: with the series going on I could craft a post every day while still managing to focus on my final papers without the need for liberal amounts of time spent in reflection and research that usually characterize normal posts to this site.
This past weekend has included a trip back to my undergrad institution to stump for a job and the results suggest that cautious optimism is a real possibility–but the real take-away from the experience has been the sense that I really have grown as a philosopher and an academic as a result of these thirteen short weeks spent in the MAPH program. Not that I have all the answers now and I can come riding in on a white charger to correct my former professors mistaken understandings, but a sense of just how much better equipped I am now to learn from these folks that I thought I’d somehow come to the end of. I had the sense in undergrad that I was very fortunate to have these mentors available to me among the corn-fields and cow-patties, but after a quarter in U of C I feel even more indebted to the people who got me here and that continue to support my growth–not just because they’ve helped me professionally or personally, but because I still have so much to learn from them. So, thank you, my dear professors and thank you to my dear readers–I hope that I can be worthy of you both.
Tomorrow: The promised H. G. Wells themed essay from Bill Hutchison!