Group Dynamics: Ph.D., MA, & BAs in Class

Judging by the number of questions focused on the topic during Campus Visit Days, many potential and incoming MAPHers are deeply concerned about the quality of relations between the three distinct types of students attending University of Chicago: undergrads pursuing their Bachelors degrees, graduate students working through the MAPH or MAPSS programs to earn their Masters, and graduate students completing their coursework on the way to earning a Ph.D..  From the perspective of a MA student there are several potential reasons for all the hand-wringing.  One might have heard horror stories from other schools–as I had–about the attitude of Ph.D. folks toward the “lesser-than” MA students.  In such a scenario MA students are looked down upon as rejects from the Ph.D. program demanding resources better used by the real graduate students.  Such an attitude manifests itself in MA students sensing that every question they asks in class is “bunny trail,”  every second of a professor’s office hours they take up a concession to their own inferior abilities, and the general sense that they are allowed to attend a school only because their tuition dollars support valuable Ph.D. candidates.  However, one can also imagine scenarios were undergraduates working on their BAs have the attitude that MA students are targets for intellectual point-scoring in order to elevate their own worth.  In that scenario an MA student must watch his or her back because hungry undergraduate are just waiting for the opportunity to take the graduate student down a few rungs. Here are a couple examples of both attitudes cropping up at UofC.

“…the class was supposed to be for serious students (…) [but] conversations were hijacked by Masters students that obviously hadn’t a clue.  Masters students get permission to attend these classes so why can’t professors get more selective?” (Anon. in Maroon).


“I did my undergrad at UChicago, and I can say that among undergrads, there was always general frustration with the quality of MAPH students. The program seems to me more like a glorified version of Chicago’s undergrad core curriculum combined with a few more specialized courses, but I can’t say I examined it very closely.  Do realize that you’ll often find yourself in class with a lot of self-consciously obnoxious undergrads (most, though not all, humanities graduate courses are open to undergraduates in some way or another) who’ve been reading Foucault in the original French since Autumn quarter of freshman year and aren’t afraid to let you know. (…) I wasn’t deeply impressed with the handful of MAPH students I personally got to know but my experiences aren’t necessarily representative of the program as a whole.”  (vosemdesyatvosem in Grad Cafe)

Now, these quotes taken from folks that perport to be UChicago students suggest that MAPH student’s fears of being targeted from both sides aren’t entirely groundless, but is it really the case that MAPH students are pariah–not welcome by anyone at UChicago?

Quite simply, “No!”  While there might be a few bad apples in the bushels of Univerisity of Chicago undergrad and doctoral students, I have never felt as thought I was attacked by undergrads or pointedly ignored by doctoral students.  My sense has been since I arrived at UChicago and continues to be that I, as a student, was being treated in accord with my individual strengths and weaknesses.  In some courses and in some conversations I have been one of the main interlocuters–expected and sometimes even called-on to ask questions and make comments–while in other classes I have struggled to find my voice among the many other students that have so obviously worked through their own research and ideas on a given subject.  As such, in some cases, like the 50xxx doctoral class “Heidegger and Christianity” I began as a “hanger-on” but gradually found by bearing and became someone to be respected by my classmates and the professor.   In a combination grad and undergrad class, “Meaning and Reference” the minority of Masters students so cowed the majority Bachelors students that a special facilitator was brought in at the midpoint of the class to encourage their participation.  In my pedagogy class “Composing Composition” I was one of only a handful of Masters students in a vast sea of Doc and post-Doc students it was clear that many of the doctoral students had shared many, many writing education classes together through Chicago’s Little Red Schoolhouse program (LRS)  designed to train Ph.D. candidates how to teach effectively.  However, I never felt any animosity from the Ph.D. students and occasionally was actually solicited for my perspective from “outside” the LRS.

However, the “Sword of Individual Merit” cuts both ways, and I can think of Bachelors, Masters, and a couple Ph.D. students whose classroom antics earned them eye-rolls and frustrated stares.  One of the high points of my UChcago experience was watching Prof. Ted Cohen–normally the most mild-mannered man imaginable–ripping into a student after they dismissed his challenge to their claim with a shrug, but the student had already been testing the patience of the entire class for almost twenty minutes.  Across the board UChicago student self-images are the highly combustable result of combining a certain arrogance–they did secure admission to the University of Chicago, afterall–and a particular insecurity–UChicago is a place where “your best” is seldom “good enough.”  I think both attitudes captured in the preceding quotes are the result of this strange UChicago self-image, but precipitated by some actual justification.

So, the moral of the story is this: as an MA, you will find yourself–generally–treated with the respect or disdain you deserve and those that make sweeping generalizations about the relations of Ph.D., MA, and BA students reveal more about their own arrogance and self-doubt than anything about how the groups actually get along.  So how is that for a sweeping generalization?


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