MAPH Thesis Work: Smother-U?

This past Wednesday I emailed my preceptor: 1) my annotated bibliography–that is the sum Of the work I’d completed over Winter break on my thesis, and 2) my first draft of a thesis proposal. Two days later, our precept groups discussed our thesis proposal drafts after having attended a workshop on how to write them. On Monday I was told to email my preceptor with yet another statement of the progress of my research and another statement of the progress on my thesis proposal, the second draft of which will need to be uploaded by this Wednesday so that it may be discussed–yet again–by my precept group on this coming Friday. On that same Wednesday I will meet with the co-chair of the MAPH program and liaison to the philosophy department in order to discuss the potential recipient of that proposal and its general progress. On Thursday I will meet with my Preceptor to discuss that meeting, my progress on the thesis proposal, and the general state of my thesis research. If the pattern holds, I will then need to submit another email outlining the progress I made over the weekend on both by noon on Monday until–in two weeks–I’ll be working in my thesis workshop group—but still submitting all my work to the Preceptor first. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

A cryptic complaint voiced by former MAPH students during last April’s Campus Visit Days was the obnoxious amount of “hand-holding” in the program. Given last quarter’s decided scarcity of helping hands as all of us struggled to write our analytic expositions and first seminar papers, most of us were completely at a loss as to what those MAPH alumni had in mind. However, just a week into this second quarter–AND THESIS SEASON–I now exactly what irked them about the thesis process: somehow first quarter’s Gotch-U has morphed into second quarter’s Smother-U.

Now, I know that the purpose behind the frequent status checks and Preceptor meetings is to:

1) Encourage students to front-load their thesis writing project. That is, to spend a lot of time conceiving, planning, and sharpening their research question so that the actual research and writing will be well-scaffolded and hopefully easy by comparison.

2) Allow preceptors to offer the kind of advice that will help students avoid research pitfalls and speed them toward helpful resources. Much of the work of a thesis is the clarification of the research problem and delineation of the conversation to which the final thesis intends to contribute.

3) Prevent the possibility of procrastination. At least one sage mentor has been known to say that while every year there is a thesis written the night before the final deadline, there is no reason why a thesis must be written the night before, and surely no thesis is better for having been written the night before.

So, with all these excellent reasons for status checks and preceptor meetings, what’s wrong with Smother-U? Well, for starters the there is a real temptation when mandates pile up to cut corners and start reading for distance rather than argument. Arbitrary deadlines every week—or sometimes every few days—contribute to the sense that research and writing are more akin to cubicle work than inspired scholarship. That is, what is necessary to a thesis writing is not diligent, impassioned study, but begrudging grunt work.

Second, while certainly Preceptors have much assistance and wisdom to offer, I find it hard to believe that they will have new and sparkling insights every two or three days. Truth be told, I imagine that the Preceptors themselves get tired of dealing with all the bureaucratic status reports and associated silliness.

Finally, let’s be honest here: it is just as easy—if not easier–to half-ass a series of small, busy-work projects than to procrastinate on a massive thesis paper. Everyone knows that these assignments do little more than remind MAPHers that they will–at a massively later date—have a major project due, but they do little to contribute to the substantive work of that project. In practice I find that I have to get through the make work status assignments so that I can focus on the work that is genuinely difficult—and takes significant time and commitment to accomplish.

So, what’s wrong with the absence of Gotch-U and the arrival of Smother-U? I expected University of Chicago to be difficult. I expected University of Chicago to be a cold and imposing place where one earned whatever respect was due him or her. I expected that the weight of learning would fall on my shoulders and no one but me would be responsible for it. So, while Gotch-U was unpleasant it was at least in keeping with the spirit of the place—Smother-U on the other hard is as out-of-place at UChicago as daycare at a convent.

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