Last Chance to “Do Chicago”

With any luck the next half hour should cover your Spring tuition bill. 

Just lie back and think of England.

Well, as all the eschatological discussion of convocation, regalia, and final papers implies, the time left for my wife and I to do the sorts of things that one can do at the University of Chicago, but not in a rural town in the Midwest with a population of six thousand, is dwindling.  So, this weekend we had planned to visit and tour the Frank Loyd Wright Robie house and attend one of the University of Chicago’s many shows and plays.

As things turned out, we didn’t wind up touring the Robie House because even though the house is owned by the school, and even though they were thwarted in their attempts not once, but twice to tear the house down in the ninety years, the student discount price for two of us to attend would still have been thirty dollars.  So, we went to a University of Chicago’s production of Volpone (three syllables) or the Fox by the English Renaissance playwright and contemporary of William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson (1572-1637) and had a great evening’s entertainment for ten bucks.

As I’ve written before–or at least meant to write before–the University of Chicago provides an embarrassment of riches with regard to fine arts performances, academic conferences and workshops, and opportunities to learn from politicians and pundits the inside story on global affairs.  One could easily spend every evening and weekend from dawn to dusk sitting in stuffy theaters, classrooms, and informal meeting spaces listening to and talking with some of the best and the brightest.

The downside to having all these resources available is–at least for me–a particular sense of guilt when describing the UChicago experience to those outside or considering the MAPH program.  You see, despite being daily assaulted by emails announcing all the amazing and wonderful opportunities to broaden and enrich my University experience, I have attended just a hand full–five to be exact if you include last night’s performance of Volpone.  Which brings me to my real question: Is it possible to be a MAPH student and actually experience the University of Chicago the way a student at one of the most hustling and bustling centers of academic innovation ought?

I guess it depends–on who you are, where you live, what your relationships are like, and how you are paying for school.

1) If you are fresh out of your BA program and don’t need much sleep, you can “Do Chicago” as it ought to be done if you are diligent and planning on taking a “gap year” after graduation.  That is, if you are still young–or at least not yet requiring regular sleep to function–and willing use every last moment available to you, you can experience both the riches of UChicago and still graduate.  You might not have a 4.0 and you might spend a six month vacation sleeping when you are done, but you can experience a surprising amount of culture and thought by burning the candle at both ends.  The key to sucking the marrow out of the program is scheduling your life like FranklinCovey on crack.

Start by penciling in every class, discussion group, and academic obligation you’ve got.  Then pencil in every activity you’d like to attend.  Where the obligations and the activities overlap ask yourself if you could: a) skip the class or obligation–not all obligations are created equal, b) reschedule the obligation or get the work done early–many precept functions can be rescheduled if sufficient notice is given, or c) leave the activity early or arrive late–lots of things can be fit into a schedule by clipping off their ends.  Once you have a schedule that works, become a slave to it.  When someone suggests that you accompany them to the Divinity School basement coffee shop, look at your planner and tell them when and how much you might be able to fit them into your schedule.  You might lose some friends but think of all the culture you’ll absorb!

2) If you live within a few blocks of school in Hyde Park or live a bit further out and have a bicycle you can also attend your scheduled events while still occasionally eating and bathing.  Some might say that a bus pass will also do the trick, but my experience is that–unless you can use your bus travel time to write papers or do research–the bus will suck up far too much time to make it a viable transportation option when you will be traveling back and forth so often to attend your functions.  The best option for those that can make it work is to simply live in a disused janitor’s closet or attic storage space.  The University’s Gothic revival architecture and penchant for additions and renovation has left a surplus of strange hallways, oddly intersecting non-public spaces, and long-forgotten crannies perfect for scholarly squatting.  If you never leave the school you won’t have to factor in commute time which will pay huge dividends in surplus free time in comparison to those who must walk or ride to attend events.

3) If you are a gregarious person that puts a high value on relationships and interpersonal communication–stop immediately.  The only way to Do Chicago right is to recognize that with relationships come entanglements and with entanglements come obligations and with obligations come a complete break down of your schedule!  Misanthropic introverts are the unsung heroes of academia as they are the ones whose time is not frittered away by proofing other people’s papers, impinged upon by hallway conversations, cramped by lunch dates, or siphoned away by sexual relations.  You must be a small coastal island with only one coconut tree, a grass hut, and no harbor–not even Wilson can come between you and your goal of experiencing UChicago!

4) Now, perhaps at this point you have your schedule, your long forgotten fire hose cupboard, and have long since soured on the milk of human kindness, but still find ten or more hours a week taken up laboring in Althusser’s “worker slot” in order to transmute the lead of your labor into the gold of… well, gold… that pays both for tuition and admission to all these fantastic cultural and academic events.   The answer is simple: human experimentation.  Each year, US scientists require a total of at least 10 million healthy test subjects and depending on duration, rigor, and risk, medical studies can pay as much as ten-thousand dollars each.  When one considers the wealth of University drug trials, psychiatric research patient positions, and–even more lucrative–underground testing performed by eighth year Ph.D. students attempting to make a breakthrough so they can graduate it is not difficult to locate funding for even the most demanding of educational costs.

The vast majority of human guinea pig testing is performed on an outpatient basis, so as long as you are careful about selecting the studies in which you participate and willing to live with the occasional unexpected side effect, you should find human medical testing provides both a lucrative alternative to traditional work study programs and flexible scheduling.

Now, you may be wondering how you should proceed if you don’t fulfill the preceding requirements of: youth, contortion, misanthropy, and willingness to lose a kidney in the service of science.  Again, the answer is surprisingly simple: “Don’t try to Do Chicago.”  The real meat of the MAPH program is in its ability to provide the right combination of access to resources, artificial urgency, and cheer leading.  The extra icing on the cake is the bountiful dessert tray of workshops, conferences, and fine arts performances that the University just happens to make available.  While dessert is always good, too much time spent trying to experience all the extras will starve you of time in which to engage deeply in the content of your classes and the support of your fellow MAPH students.  The goal must always be to balance work with relationship and leisure with research if you really want to “Do Chicago” right.

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