Fresh Reserves and Weary Veterans: Campus Days in a Nutshell

I can’t take credit for the analogy that casts this year’s outgoing MAPH soon-to-be graduates and Campus Day’s prospective students in roles of military veterans and reserve reinforcements–it was Bill’s–but I feel that it is an apt one.  As most of you know, this past Sunday and Monday the University of Chicago played host to the roughly hundred students offered positions in next year’s MAPH program.  My wife and I had the additional pleasure of playing host to one of them in our home as he considered how Chicago’s Masters of Arts Program in the Humanities might contribute to his philosophical education.  As such, we had plenty of opportunity to ruminate on the changes that a year in Chicago’s pressure cooker had wrought on us–and in my outlook toward academia more specifically.

Now, I’m not sure that Bill would agree with all the characterizations I am about to make–and undoubtedly his view is correct.  However, one of the joys of writing a blog like this is that I don’t have to worry about always trying to communicate a balanced and equitable picture of the program.  I try not to lead anyone astray, but as it says in the “About Me” this blog is an attempt to allow potential University of Chicago students to examine their presuppositions about the U of C and its MAPH program in light of my experience in the program.  What follows is nothing less than a bunch of shameless, unwarranted generalizations about current MAPH students, those prospective students that I met during Campus Days, and the program more generally.  So to recap, Bill is right, I am wrong, and this post is a waste of your time.

The Graduating Class of MAPH Students

We are tired.  At just a couple weeks beyond the two-thirds mark in this round of MAPH, most of us are very, very ready to be done.  Or at least we would be ready to call it quits if we actually had some security regarding our future academic and professional careers.  The MAPH “year”–actually only nine-months but consuming an entire year’s worth of application season–rushes by far too quickly to allow real panic attack inducing anxiety as one moves quickly from one deadline to the next with nary a moment to consider the time beyond deadlines.  However, there is a core anxiety–like the sub-audible hum of a “silent” room–the blood rushing in our ears that reminds us all those bodily needs for food and housing and existential  place remain imperiled.

We are scarred.  Most of us came into this program with a giddy mixture of insecurity and brevado usually only exhibited by Miss America contestants going into the Question and Answer phase of the competition.  The Core Course (Foundations of Interpretive Thought) was a pedagogical cruise missile laser guided to the seat of any academic’s self-worth: their ability to read and interpret texts.  From the rubble that remained after first quarter’s grade card, the vast majority of us fought to erect a new academic avatar: a scholastic alter-ego who had learned the secret of writing and the secret of University of Chicago’s evaluative expectations.  We say that we learned how to write an analytical exposition, and we present our grades in the non-core classes as proof that we are better writers than we were when first we slaved over the tangled texts of Freud and Hegel.  But secretly we are glad that we will never again have to strain texts desperately while hoping for a sign from our precepter that we have stumbled upon a reading that matches the one, officially licensed, UChicago “Answer” to what Dr. Blank really meant when he wrote….

We are jaded.  This thing, this monolithic University of Chicago Program in the Humanities is proof that the academy is a machine peopled by cogs–some of whom are more willing–and others less–to let the academic mask slip and embrace us as fellow people.  We all have stories of success and failure coaxing this professor or that professor to become “real” with us as fellow researchers.  There is a recognition that some have played the game better than others and will shortly be reaping the benefits of their skill and audacity.  However, we all know that we are, have been, and will be forever making calculated moves and taking calculated risks in a game whose rules are not entirely understood so long as we persist in the academy.  Fear grinds optimist into fine mist in the mill of experience–or finds optimism not so much optimistic as certain in the warm glow of justified expectations.  Either way, we have settled into patterns of thought, hardened into way of seeing ourselves and the academy.

The Fresh Faced Candidates

They are expectant.  UChicago has shown itself to be surprisingly accommodating.  In the back seat of the MAPH program’s affected congeniality, the prospective student’s uncertain and fumbling questioning is rewarded with a unfastened bra and a come-hither statement of intent.  The academy bends over backwards to provide everything that perspective students believe themselves to be entitled too.  Yet, this Venus in Furs will turn in a flash from virgin to dominatrix.  She is the untamed, the unpredictable, the unknown and ultimately unconcerned monolith that grinds your bones to make her bread.

They are cautiously optimist and we become unconscionably cruel in our haste to dissuade them of their innocent faith and toughen them up for the coming assault.  We cannot warn them enough.  We cannot over-dramatize the frustration enough.  We cough and run dry piling up unhelpful metaphors and unheadable warnings.

We are the weary veterans, who bloodied but unbowed, shake our heads in rasping futility at the fresh-faced cannon fodder that bounces from high-point to high-point unaware of life in the trenches below.  They are the reserves who, for the glory of our shared enterprise, take our places in the ranks–not so much to make war as to be made soldiers.  The next hill will not be taken by either our theses or theirs, but the fight will make all of us soldiers capable of returning once more unto the breach to wall up with the living-dead the ivory tower in future battles.  We will not overcome the horizon of our ignorance, we will not win a decisive victory, but we will have become those tellers of war stories who will incite the coming generations to wonder at glory of intellectual empire as we take our leave drinking too much in the public houses of the public universities.


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