MAPH: In the Balance Part 5

The fiercest charges made against the MAPH program center on the question of its value. Some outside the UofC see the program as a “piggy bank” that only pays for the lucrative scholarships given to attract Ph.D. students. Some within the University have suggested that the MAPH program is merely a simplified and condensed version of the much better University of Chicago undergraduate Core program. How would you respond to these charges and how would you explain the value of the program to someone not familiar with the University of Chicago or the MAPH program?


The Worth and Value of the MAPH


I get surprisingly (to myself) angry and defensive about the question of whether MAPH is “only” a cash cow, or if it is “worth” it. I mean, it REALLY boils my blood. While I understand the desire to know, to have some reassurance that the prospective risk will be worth the return on investment, it just seems so distasteful. It’s like reading the jacket copy of a book to try and decide if this story will change your life, or running actuarial tables on potential life partners to determine whether or not they’re likely to live long enough to spend some of your own limited life with them. It perverts the process of education, like teaching to the test. By and large, this is a question asked by people who want to know how life will be in lieu of living their way toward the answer, to paraphrase Rilke.

I would suggest that there are more important questions, such as, “Am I ready to dedicate serious intellectual and psychological resources to this project?” or “Is my ego going to get in the way of my education?” I suspect that once the more important questions have been encountered honestly, the less important questions, such “What am I gonna get out of a MAPH degree?”, will cease to be a matter of such urgency. If one doesn’t know about University of Chicago or MAPH, it is better to email current students or visit the program than it is to share uninformed snippets of third-hand grousing. Having pored over the internet looking for those snippets, I can now say with certainty that my one pre-MAPH campus visit told me worlds more than the Gradcafe forums ever did.

Don’t confuse the worth of MAPH with its value. The one has nothing to do with the other.


Okay, I’m pretty sure that Bill is going to punch me–hard and in the face when he sees me tomorrow at graduation–for addressing the question in this way, but as much as I agree with Vincent’s post about the worthiness of the University of Chicago’s scholarly community and Bill’s answer emphasizing the need for students to go into MAPH with the right mindset, I’m going to answer the question pragmatically, like a bean-counter–and then back-pedal like crazy.

The MAPH program is a remedial program. Just like the 100 level Math course I had to pass with a “C” or better in college because my ACT Mathematics scores were too low, the MAPH program is designed to provide graduates of the nation’s multiform and myriad BA programs with the skills that they were not taught or failed to learn in their undergraduate programs. Many of us, even on this blog, have admitted that we came to UChicago with massively subpar close-reading and academic writing skills that have been greatly improved by the application of the Core and thesis’ tough love. I count myself as one of the better–though not nearly the best–prepared for the rigorous academic challenges of graduate studies in my discipline. I had already presented at national conferences, published work in my field before coming to MAPH, and spent much of my time as an undergraduate reflectively trying to “get behind” the game of the academy and understand its demands for scholarly writing, and yet I still was caught flat-footed by the first Analytic Exposition. The MAPH program is most successful doing what it was most tailored to do: helping rejects from Ph.D. programs acquire the skills they need to compete with students that learned how to read and write academically the first time around (assuming that those schools even attempted to teach those skills).

Now, this is not to say that MAPH students come from subpar schools or are subpar people. I came from a great school that provided me with a massive wealth of content knowledge in my discipline and at least an inkling of the demands of true scholarship. However, my school did not place a high priority on preparing its students for graduate studies–and especially not graduate studies at the level of the University of Chicago. Frankly, I think the number of undergraduate institutions that actually do succeed in making successful future top -ten-school grad students with their four-year BA programs can probably be numbered on one hand. So, I am not bad-mouthing the schools that most of us attended, but suggesting that the level of preparation required to secure a position in a top-tier grad program has become so stratospherically high and must necessarily be so precisely tailored to the needs of those institutions that the vast majority of schools would find creating BA programs designed to meet those standards a mismatch with the needs of the majority of their students.

As such, I can understand why some UChicago undergrads have suggested that the MA program is a watered-down version of their BA’s Core program, because in a very real sense that is exactly what it is. The purpose of MAPH–what it does right and with a fiery vengence–is give students from schools other than the University of Chicago a chance to develop the skills that any UChicago undergrad has already been taught as part of their common Core. Now, I would also want to add that MAPH students–having had more experience in their respective fields and a greater exposure to academia–still generally write better papers, make more insightful contributions in class, and are generally better scholars than University of Chicago undergrads. However, that is a testimony to the effectiveness of the Core’s “Foundations” class and the thesis writing frameworks at remedying our lack of academic reading and writing skills.

Now, to the question of the value of that remedial help: if there were a program out there that taught students as well and as quickly the academic skills that the MAPH program’s Core supplies and it was cheaper than the MAPH, then that program would be a better value. While UChicago’s MAPH program does have the advantage of borrowing a “world-class faculty” there is some question as how much marrow even the most committed Masters student can suck from the bone of the MAPH curriculum simply because their exposure to that faculty pool is extraordinarily limited.

Further, presumably part the Masters education should be provisioning students with a comprehensive overview of their discipline. However, the scant seven open slots of UChicago MAPH curriculum need to be filled very, very carefully to provide the same level of foundational content knowledge generally expected in a traditional two year Masters program–and I don’t think that the MAPH’s “interdisciplinary studies in the humanities” approach tends to yield a broad and balanced survey. What one would lose in the absence of Chicago’s scholarly environment or world-class faculty one would at least have the possibility of making up with a more consistent, meaningful engagement with a slightly less jet-setting collection of professors.

All that being said, I am not aware of any other Masters program from any other school that provides the level of remedial academic assistance that the MAPH dispenses so faithfully–so UChicago’s MAPH is worth every penny the program charges. The MAPH program does best what it was most designed to do and it does it with an efficiency and effectiveness absolutely unmatched. For the student that needs the remedial skill training UChicago provides, we have already demonstrated that the program is valuable. For the student who intends to study at a top-shelf school’s Ph.D. program that demands those skills, the MAPH must also be seen as worth the expense of time, effort, and financial burden.

Stay tuned for Bill’s rebuttal…


One comment on “MAPH: In the Balance Part 5

  1. On the whole, I’m happy to let most of MAPHman’s comment stand as his own opinion without need of rebuttal. But the idea that MAPH is remedial and even smart people need “training in the skills that they were not taught or failed to learn in their undergraduate programs” chafes me a bit. That’s not to say that I didn’t need the skills I have learned in MAPH — I needed them quite badly! On the most basic level, yes, MAPH is an excellent training ground for the skills needed in PhD work in the humanities. And in much the same way, a young man with an interest in wood needs training from master carpenters to become the kind of woodworker he wants to be. But in the beginning, the young man with an interest in wood has no idea of what he doesn’t know about wood. This is neither a “fault” on the part of the young man (should he have studied trees harder in school?), nor of those who train the young man in his early years. Scholarship, like anything, seems to me to be a slow process of accumulation, contemplation, and imagination.

    In the end, my “rebuttal,” such as it is, is just to say that I spend a lot of time worrying that I am way, way behind the game in my academic training. But approaching my academic interests with a teleology of efficiency and hitting certain milestones as a guiding influence, then I am unlikely to continue to encounter the weird and branching paths that I have followed to get me this far. While I admire MAPHman’s practicality, and even envy it, I love the ineffable too much to not let it drive sometimes. Although, what I call “letting the ineffable drive” may in fact just be me putting my hands over my eyes and stomping on the gas pedal.

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