The Last ‘Precept Group’…

Hello again all.  Yesterday stood as a milestone for those of us fortunate enough to count ourselves as 2011-2012 MAPH students: the last precept group meeting.  The MAPH precept performs two primary functions in the life of a MAPH student: one pedagogical and one social.  What follows is summarizes my thoughts on precept groups in the blog thus far:

THEN

1) The dynamic of a preceptor and precept group is not immediately discernible or static.

– A preceptor is the Ph.D. student assigned to shepherd 8 to 14 MAPH students through the MAPH program.  In the first quarter he or she is the implacable enemy–the surprisingly uncommunicative one who gives out the grades–and in the second and third quarters they are revealed to be actual human beings capable of empathy and compassion and encouragement.  The precept group is the flock of students being run through the shepherd’s training gauntlet sometimes comfortable, sometimes shell-shocked, and other times angry or depressed.

2) Interpersonal relationships in precept groups begin rough and improve with time.

– Few situations are as likely to leave one feeling stupid as finding oneself suddenly labeled smart and in a very real way much of the first few weeks of MAPH are designed to give one the sense that they belong at UChicago–in essence, telling folks they are smart enough.  The end result is that folks–myself included–spend the first few weeks or even months at U of C trying desperately to come up with something witty and significant–or at least cogent–to contribute to the conversation already in progress.  With this in mind it is not difficult to understand why those early precept group meetings were so difficult to get through.  People’s insecurities are on red alert, defense shields had gone up, and evasive strategies had been deployed–just at the point all when we  were supposed to be getting to know one another.  However, there usually a moment–for my precept group it came the night we gathered outside normal class hours and location to bake a desert for social hour–when people drop the act and actually become real with one another.  The night we discovered we were all “misfit toys” (trademark Bill Hutchison) marked a turning point for our precept meeting dynamic.  First things became bearable, then pleasant, and eventually enjoyable as we became comfortable with ourselves and our idiosyncrasies.

3) The people of UChicago–and particularly the folks in your precept group–determine, to a large extent, your experience of the program.

– While all of us have friends from the larger communities of our classes, disciplines, and the university as a whole, the people who you work in close proximity with in precept group become your inner-circle of friends.  The first two-week colloquium period puts you in a room with the same folks five days a week for hours at a time as everyone in the program struggles to get through the first couple analytic exposition assignments.  This trial by fire in which everyone is struggling toward the same goal with the same experience of preceptor and discussion section meeting goes a long way to forging bonds of camaraderie.  It might just be a nod to a more Dewedian social learning approach–in contrast with the grating isolation of most Ph.D. experiences–but the MAPH cohort method does work causing students to value and even rely on the other folks in their precept.   When the precept groups bring together the disparate readings of many talented folks and allow them to do battle for supremacy, the end product is truly greater than the sum of the parts.  However, being part of a precept group where many are disinterested, unwilling to speak or where the preceptor fails to manage the conversation makes it more difficult for everyone in the group to succeed.

4) The preceptor sets the tone for the precept group.

– Preceptors are given a very difficult job description.  During the first quarter of the program they are responsible for guiding and evaluating their precept group’s analytic expositions.  This task, at least the way my preceptor did it, requires certain willingness to be tough and decisive regarding the expectations of the course.  My preceptor’s job–as he understood it–was tell we, his precepts that “there is an answer, I have that answer, and it is your job to discover that answer.”  For those of us from schools of philosophy were a plausible and defended reading is the necessary condition for success–as opposed to discovering “the one, true and perfect reading” this very modern, very analytical approach was a bit of a shock.  Running smack-dab into UChicago’s barely concealed analytical bias resulted in a rather adversarial relationship with our preceptor for many of us during the first quarter and real concerns about how helpful this person might be when his job description changed to “cheerleader and facilitator” for our own thesis projects in the second and third quarters.  All of this is to say that the same qualities that can make a preceptor unbearable during the evaluative first quarter can make them invaluable during the second and third–and vice versa.

NOW

So coming to the end of precept group how have my feelings changed?  Very little in some cases and quite a bit in others.

A) While in a perfect world a preceptor would be equally gifted with the skills necessary to accomplish his or her two, very different jobs, the reality is that my preceptor’s strict and decisive mind was a God-send during the later two-thirds of the program.  The fact that his demand for absolute uniformity of reading and sentiment in very difficult and contested philosophical texts caused the vast majority of his precept group–myself included–to receive a B or B+ is unfortunate, but that portion of his task was less important ultimately than the help that he provided as we wrote our theses.  I’m glad that I had a demanding preceptor with a clear analytical mind as I know that he contributed substantially to the success of my thesis.

B) It is an unfortunate consequence of the nature of the program that so much of the first-third of the MAPH program is spent getting close to those in your precept cohort and so little time is available to spend with them in the latter two-thirds.  The result is that, for some, the second and third quarters are considerably lonelier than the first, but also that one’s sense of the program’s quality and value is more closely related to the courses that one is taking individually instead of being dictated by the common core: “Foundations of Interpretive Theory.”  I, personally, enjoyed the Core’s readings and topics, but I know that many not coming to the MAPH to study philosophy found its focus on Hegel, Nietzsche, Foucault, Descartes, Marx, and Althusser far too dry, technical, and distant from their own interests.  I would imagine that for those English, Art History, Creative Writing, and Gender Studies majors the perceived value of the first quarter was negligible, but things became much more enjoyable in the second and third as they were able to select courses and work on a project in which they were interested.  However, in summary, a good–or bad–experience in one’s precept group does not make or break one’s experience of the program as a whole going into the second and third quarters.

C) The smaller “thesis workshop groups” which the larger precept groups are broken up into in the second week of the second quarter take on much of the significance of formerly enjoyed by the large precept group.  I was fortunate enough to have a great thesis workshop group with the majority of people members becoming deeply invested in each others’ work.  The bad apple of the group thankfully stayed away for all but one of our meetings and gave the rest of us more time to present and sharpen our projects.  The three of us that put in the time and effort benefited significantly from the experience but thesis work is still largely something done by individuals locked in rooms with stacks of mouldering books and copious amounts of caffeinated beverage.  I didn’t get to spend as much time with my thesis group as I had to spend with the precept group as a whole which is unfortunate.

On the whole, as I’ve said, the whole MAPH Precept Group model seems to be a stab at a more Dewey-styled social learning approach to graduate work.  The emphasis placed on the refining qualities of academic discourse among one’s peers is a great reminder that while  our theses might be written for an audience of one–our thesis advisers–they are seldom the product of one author–but are necessarily collaborations with talented and like-minded peers.  If strength of the approach is in its ability to make that collaboration both organic and fruitful  However, the flaws inherent in Dewedian pedagogical philosophy are also present in the precept concept.  One can never force all the square, triangular, hexagonal, etc. pegs into the round hole the program has envisioned for them and the MAPH program’s insistence on a narrowly defined analytical approach to what are primarily philosophical texts in the Core course necessarily leaves some bent out of shape.

On the social side precept groups do provide some comfort and friendly embrace within the comparativily indifferent and austere UChicago ethos–but that “safe haven” does erode a bit in the second and third quarters if one’s thesis workshop group doesn’t move in to take up the slack created by the dissolution of the Core class.  The final precept meeting we had yesterday–when all the little thesis workshop groups were once again combined to reform the original, big precept group–was actually a strange sort of experience.  It was almost as thought I was transported back to those first couple weeks of colloquium, struck by the idiosyncrasies of my fellow precept and paroxysms of self-doubt.  I had working alongside these people intimately for several months in the first quarter and yet, and–with the exception of those also in my thesis workshop–they had all changed so much it was as though I was meeting them for the first time.  Those that worked hard and put in the time are better thinkers and better scholars while those who only feigned interest and managed to scrape their way through had dropped all pretense at being scholars.  Both for the good and the bad, I was surprised to see how much this experience had effected those of us working through it.  When we all trotted off to the last Friday afternoon social hour it was obvious that this past nine months had been eventful for all of us–some learning what they were capable of and others learning what they were unwilling to do.

Yeah, I’m going to miss each and every one of them.

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