A Prospective Retrospective

I want to again introduce an alum of MAPHmatically Yours, Mr. Vincent Mennella who last offered his thoughts on the proper selection of thesis advisers in a guest post here.  Vincent was one of the very first MAPHers who took an interest in me and in this blog and–whether he knows it or not–he has contributed many ideas and insights to it over the past months.  At my invitation Mr. Mennella penned this far-reaching celebration and critique of the MAPH program, University of Chicago’s faculty, and the experience of a Masters student at UChicago in general.  His honesty and his candor are very much appreciated and I recommend his account heartily to all of you considering the program.

The Past, the Present, and the Future: Acquiring Mastery of Arts in Philosophy and Humanities at the University of Chicago

A Prospective Retrospective

I want to suggest that there are a number of insights worth articulating that are captured in the title of this, my guest blog post. As many titles do, and as many titles should, the point is to inform readers what to expect in the text that follows. This post is a “prospective retrospective” of my experience as a MAPH student. Here, I offer an account of my experience at the University of Chicago, and what I hope was accomplished by having had the experience. However, I want to suggest that this title also communicates a more subtle point that will only become legible after the post has been read. (Along Hegelian lines the title continues to grow and unify, avoiding unsatisfying one-sidedness).

The Past

While this is an account of my “experience” as a MAPH student, my remarks will be limited to the academic dimension of that experience beginning with its first significant challenge: the Core course called “Foundations of Interpretative Theory.” I did not do very well in the Core course, and I am quite pleased that I did not do very well. However, I would not have told you that at the time, as not doing very well in that course was extremely frustrating. I am quite pleased that I did not do very well because having produced poor quality work for the Core motivated me to do my best work in more important Fall Quarter courses. I don’t think many students new to the University of Chicago have any sense of the scrutiny their course work will receive but, by doing very poorly very early in the Core course, perhaps they will–as I was–be pushed to work harder on the projects for other courses. Trust me, those are the more important courses.

It was painful to see that my analytic exposition of Hegel’s sense certainty chapter had only earned a “B/B-”–especially when I had presented on that same chapter from the Phenomenology of Spirit in the precept group the week before and even more so because I am a Kant aficionado, and there is nothing that irks a Kant aficionado like having an inadequate grasp of a German Idealist you have already read. However, receiving that kind of grade on a dense piece of prose like Hegel’s Phenomenology feels much better than bombing an analytic exposition on some simpleton garbage like Descartes’ Meditations.  Throughout the core course your preceptors and mentors are likely to tell you that your grades will improve over the sequence of analytic exposition assignments, but that is a myth. Some people might receive improved grades later in the quarter, but most will not. If you have read MAPHman’s posts on analytic expositions, then you should not think you’ll get it right when no one else before you really has.

The next most significant movement in your development as a MAPHer (you’re not a scholar” yet, but hell, I’m not either) comes when selecting a thesis adviser. Some time ago, I offered advice on that subject in this blog, but my perspective has evolved since that time. I have no serious complaints about my thesis adviser. He did nearly everything I expected of him. We met about six to eight times throughout the Winter Quarter and Early Spring. However, if you are the kind of student that I am, then six to eight meetings won’t be nearly enough–at least, if your advising sessions unfold the way mine did.

I’m a student who benefits from a high degree of Socratic interlocution and creative brainstorming, but my thesis advising sessions did not unfold that way. I submitted a lot of written work, and my adviser read it carefully offering a great many comments. However, for me or someone like me, understanding how to respond to those comments requires more dialogue. I’m not suggesting that my adviser needed to tell me how to respond to his comments, but without sufficient dialogue I did find myself confused as to how to respond to them. Engaging in dialogue with others about philosophy has been the best way for me to philosophize and I have always had a better relationship with professors who engage me in that mode.

I realized too late that my thesis adviser didn’t work like that, so my advice to MAPHers to come is to discuss not only the content of their proposed thesis and their expectations for how often they’d like to meet to work on it, but also about how that adviser prefers to work. If the adviser you are considering doesn’t work in a way that will help you, then find a different adviser.

The consequence of the mismatch between my adviser and myself is that my adviser will not be recommending me for further graduate study in philosophy. There are other philosophers who will recommend me, but not because they know something about me my adviser doesn’t. They will recommend me because I worked better with those faculty members than I did with my own thesis adviser. My adviser can’t say the things about me that need to be said to get accepted to a doctoral program in philosophy. That’s not a mark against my adviser, against me, or against my thesis project. That mark reflects how well we worked together. One piece of advice I can offer to help future students avoid this problem is to limit their choice of advisers to professors with whom they have already taken classes, because by having taken classes with that professor the student will have a sense of how he or she prefers to work and help to build a relationship that precedes the adviser/advisee relationship.  Unfortunately, I did not take courses with my adviser and I think that damaged our relationship.  At the very least, check to see if your adviser is teaching courses that relate to the content of your thesis, because by seeing this person every week you will forge a stronger relationship with them.

At this point I should mention that my preceptor, Will Small, was incredibly helpful during the thesis project. In fact, he’s one of the two best philosophers I’ve met– including the many I’ve met who are faculty at UChicago. However, even having a great relationship with your Preceptor cannot take the place of working well with your thesis adviser. What your preceptor believes calls out for attention may differ significantly from what your thesis adviser is irked by and visa versa. There may be a difference between what counts as a student misunderstanding their authors and what counts as the same student working creatively with their authors from the perspective of your adviser and preceptor. I’m not suggesting that all these things happened throughout the course of my project, but take this as a word of caution: do not think your preceptor and your adviser offer equally helpful advice. Your adviser’s eyes are the ones grading the project, and it is easy to lose sight of that fresh out of responding to your preceptor’s criticisms on those damned analytic expositions. I’m not trying to suggest that my preceptor mislead me by discussing the content of my thesis, Will only helped me improve my project, but I am trying to suggest that your preceptor and your adviser may leave you confused as to what you need to accomplish over the months you write.

I want to take a moment to consider the thesis project in general. I do not think it is what you think it is, or what you think it will be when you start working on it. The thesis project is more like a term paper than an academic document. However, it is a term paper that is composed without ten to twenty course meetings, and a classroom full of interlocutors. It’s a strange kind of term paper and it will not necessarily be the best piece of scholarship you ever produce. However, it is a valuable learning experience. You will produce better scholarship because you had undertaken your particular thesis project. I would move to say that my Spring Quarter term paper projects are the best quality scholarship I have produced to this date and I intend one of them to be a future writing sample when applying for further graduate study. However, I could not have been in a position to produce the quality of work they represent not having undertaken my thesis project. Those papers are the consequence of the application of all the skills I learned while working out my thesis.

I say that the thesis project is not what you think it is or what you think it will be because the whole process happens too fast to be what most people perceive it to be before they complete it, and even while they are working on it. As a philosopher, for example, at the beginning of the Fall you start by reading a lot of secondary literature on Kant, Plato, Hegel, or someone else who is a really important to the History of Philosophy. By the beginning of Winter you are supposed to tell your preceptor and your adviser what you think about that literature and around the beginning of Spring you are expected to express and defend whatever you told them at the beginning of Winter on paper with a lot of ink. At the beginning of Fall I read a lot of McDowell, Brandom, Sellars, Davidson, and Quine in an effort say something about Kant. I had a lot of ideas about dualism between conceptual schemes and empirical content, epistemological reflection, synthetic a priori truth, and skepticism. However, at the he beginning of Winter I could only tell my adviser and my preceptor that I read those authors along with something about skepticism. At the beginning of the Spring I had a paper about McDowell’s use of Sellars in overcoming skepticism, but that McDowell’s use of Sellars falls short of overcoming skepticism without a significant use of Kant (something I am not convinced McDowell is comfortable doing). However, to go along with that I ended up with two nice papers at the end of the Spring. Both of which touched on the ideas I had at the beginning of Winter that at that earlier date I could not have articulated to my preceptor and adviser. Had I worked on my thesis over the Summer, after my coursework was completed, I could have composed a better project. However, that is not the schedule most MAPHers commit themselves to, and there’s a good reason for that: who wants to spend more time getting a Masters degree than they have to?

The Present

Now we have come to the point where we can examine the present in an effort to understand the future. I have realized that further doctoral research in philosophy is exactly what I want to do in the future, and that I am better prepared to pursue that goal than I have ever been before. If had sat on the admissions committees that scrutinized my applications last year, I now know that I too would not have accepted the application I sent. However, after being here at University of Chicago, I can safely say I can compose a statement that shows one is ready to do doctoral research, submit a writing sample that could capture a faculty member’s interest, and overcome the suspicions raised by my first two years of undergrad.

The fact is, if I couldn’t say these things about MAPH, then that would be proof that something was seriously wrong with the Master of Arts in the Humanities degree. The very least anyone should expect in obtaining a Masters degree is the ability to write a better statement, submit a better writing sample, and present a stronger transcript. However, those aren’t reasons why you should study at the University of Chicago. The reason to study at the University of Chicago is the faculty are all excellent scholars and the time you spend with them will help to make you a better scholar. That’s the water. The salt is that, in many cases, these people do not have that much time to offer. Don’t expect to walk into the office of a semi-prestigious faculty member here and “philosophize”, and in some cases, don’t expect to walk into their office at all.

One of the worst experiences I had here was when a faculty member would outright ignore my requests to discuss the term project I was working on for his course. He didn’t say no (he can’t really say no). He didn’t say his office hours were between x and y, so that, if I wanted to see him that badly, I could wait outside until he had nothing better to do. He simply didn’t say anything. I was crazy enough to take two courses with this professor and heard the same song both times. He’s a brilliant scholar, a name you would recognize, and I learned a lot listening to his lectures. I got good enough grades in his courses, but I also knew the material he was covering quite well. If, on the contrary, I had been a student who hadn’t already covered that kind of material, I would haven been quite uncomfortable handing in those term papers when the time came.  Yes, the grades were good enough, but grades aren’t everything, and producing I higher quality of work typically requires at least a small contribution by a faculty member who critiques the project.  Aren’t office hours and student meetings some of the most fundamental responsibilities required of professors at most institutions?

The Future

The result of experiences like mine is that you think twice about whether Uchicago is the best place to pursue doctoral studies–or recommending that others attend for any kind of study at all. As one of the MAPH mentors put it to me once “faculty members here can be real good at not helping students”. However, UChicago is not just any other school and I couldn’t recommend that anyone decline an offer from UChicago.  There are some faculty members who will disappoint you, even if they had been one of the reasons you wanted to attend UChicago, but fortunately there is also a whole larger culture of scholarship to enjoy.

MAPH does not promise you a backdoor into the PhD program at UChicago, but that isn’t why you should be attending the institution. There’s a culture of scholarship that you should want to immerse yourself in. Don’t come to MAPH asking your thesis adviser where you can find a free pass to doctoral studies. In fact, if your experience is anything like mine, your thesis adviser would be the last person you’d want to ask. My intuition is that anyone who would come looking for a secret “back door” to a doctorate is exactly the kind of person who would never pursue their MAPH studies hard enough to be successful, much less find a golden ticket to UChicago’s program.

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