MAPH: In the Balance Part 1

It has become tradition here at MAPHmatically Yours to close out each quarter with a set of retrospective posts designed to summarize the trials, tribulations, and successes of the previous weeks from multiple perspectives.  However, this time around Bill Hutchison and I decided to expand the discussion of the final MAPH Spring quarter to include the MAPH as a whole– hopefully providing a broad overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the program.  In contradiction to those who seem willing to pass judgment on the program as though it were a one-size-fits-all hat, Bill and I have endeavored to identify some of the purposes and problems for which MAPH is said to be a useful tool or a solution and evaluate each individually over the next five days.  This first post is meant to examine the value of the program for a) those wishing to improve their chance of securing a Ph.D. position, b) those seeking to gain intellectual and academic skills applicable to professional advancement, and c) those who intending the program to “build a bridge” between their previous undergraduate major and the dissimilar graduate work they would like to pursue.

MAPH as a place to Know, Grow, and Change


The University of Chicago describes the MAPH program alternately as “a chance [for students] to strengthen their candidacy to Ph.D. programs” while “carefully evaluat[ing] how disciplinary graduate work in the humanities fits into their own intellectual and personal desires” as well as “a vital means of professional advancement at any stage of one’s career” for the purposes of “test[ing] and enrich[ing] their critical capacities, to bring greater analytic force to their writing, and to carefully consider how to bring their intellectual interests into the world at large.” From this it would seem that students might expect the MAPH program to either make them better candidates for admission to a Ph.D. program or better candidates for professional advancement.

For those intending to take the academic path who hope to increase their content knowledge and develop the skills of academic discourse by doing MAPH I would suggest that the program can be successful at both–up to a point and depending on their own choices. The MAPH program is an example of a pedagogical approach in which students get back according to what they put in. Because students have only one required content course–the Foundations of Interpretive Theory CORE class, can take any classes available in the Humanities catalog, and are never forced to specify what their “major” within MAPH is to be, one can easily “cherry pick” too narrow a selection of courses rather than building a course of study focused on broad, foundational content. However, even where students work very hard to build a balanced program, they still have only seven course slots available to them in the whole nine month program so the opportunity to build a discipline-wide grasp of a particular area is limited.

For those intending to enhance their professional pedigree, as in the mode of “continuing education,” the MAPH program does provide an excellent opportunity to take only those courses that will help to build critical thinking, rhetorical skills, and content knowledge applicable to their vocation. One can easily imagine a History or English teacher taking the MAPH in order to further their studies and reignite their passion for their discipline. One can also imagine a practicing artist using the MAPH program as an alternative to the MFA or “Masters of Fine Arts” with greater emphasis placed on the skills of theoretically justifying or historically situating their work within the history of creative writing, visual arts, music, and performance. However, the reality is that most MAPH students who view the MAPH program as a place to acquire professional skills are not professionals returning to the academy, but BA graduates who have not yet entered the workforce.

If all this seems to suggest that the MAPH is unsuccessful in strengthening scholars or enhancing professionals that isn’t true either. For academics, the MAPH acts as a admirably efficient sorting mechanism dividing those who believe themselves to be future academics into those that truly have the skills, passions, and commitments to succeed from those who would be happier in the professional world. For those that remain committed to competing for Ph.D. slots, I have no doubt that the MAPH’s thesis requirement provides the opportunity to write a truly great writing sample and a good GPA from University of Chicago’s program demonstrates the ability of the candidate to successfully complete graduate level work. For the professionals, the MAPH might provide some additional weight and interest to the application of a person competing in a crowded market for one of the more interesting professional positions available–a position that would be unlikely to go to a person with only a BA degree. The MAPH program does also seem especially proficient at getting students positions teaching at the community college level which for those intending to stay in the Chicagoland area can be a great boon.

So, in summary, while the MAPH program might not–in and of itself–provide the same kind of discipline-spanning mastery that the coursework required by a Ph.D. is supposed to provide, it can supplement a strong undergraduate major in a particular discipline–if the courses taken during the MAPH are selected with care. Also, the rigor of the MAPH program does promote the development of academic discourse skills including strong writing, insicive argument, and critical thinking useful in either academic or professional realms. The veteran professional returning for continuing education would be better served by Chicago’s MLA (Masters of Liberal Arts) which does not necessitate a full time commitment to earning a Masters. What the MAPH does do fantastically well, is allow a student to earn a MA in record time–which is, itself, a reason to take up UChicago’s MAPH offer.


I’ll take a crack at the question of students who see MAPH as a way to establish new credentials in the area of humanities to which they intend to switch their focus first because it’s hardest to answer. My cohort is just making its first forays into the wider world, and most of those who are applying to PhD programs, including myself, don’t have deadlines until the winter. Perhaps then MAPHman will be able to report back with a sketch of how successful post-MAPH application rounds turn out to be.

In regard to wish to improve content their knowledge and academic skills, I think MAPHman has done a capable job in his (very analytic) answer. I would add this: during my MAPH year, I saw many fine minds around me expand and grow mighty. I don’t know if any of us turned into geniuses. But I do know that we were deeply and profoundly interested. There was no risk of boredom. My MAPH year consisted of a lot of good people working very authentically and passionately on what mattered to us.

Will we be better PhD candidates, better non-profit staff, better entrepreneurs? Sure, probably. It is certain, however, that in overwhelming numbers, this cohort is leaving Chicago as better human beings.


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