MAPH Week 34: Gradautions & Gradations

Yesterday was the 511th Convocation of the the University of Chicago.  The school has three such convocations a year at the end of each of the three principal quarters of the year: Fall, Winter, and Quarter so that students may graduate as near as possible to the time that they finish their academic work.  While I had intended the one-hundred and fiftieth and final regular post here at MAPHmatically Yours to be on the day of my graduation, the 95 degree heat with 90 percent humidity coupled with the overarching busyness of the day conspired to make it one of the most grueling days I’ve spent in recent memory.  As a result having arrived  home after the Humanities Division’s diploma and hooding ceremony I was in no fit condition to sit and write this, my final regular post.  Things are better today: my sun-burn induced fever has broken, the blisters on my feet from pinchy dress shoes are no longer causing me to wince, and all my relatives–whose presence was certainly welcome at the time–have mercifully made their ways home so you and I can now speak to one another in earnest.

Act 1

I arrived at the decision to attend the University of Chicago’s Masters Program in the Humanities after having been “rejected from the finest Ph.D. programs in the nation”–to borrow a phrase coined by MAPHmatically Yours contributor Bill Hutchison.  My wife and I arrived about a month early in Chicago’s Hyde Park in order to allow ourselves time to acclimate to the city, the shoebox apartment, and this strange new role of “MAPH student.”  We had attended Campus Visit Days together in April, sat through the interminably long–and hot–Q and A sessions, and pouring over the scant and sometimes cryptic snippets on the Web all in the hopes of coming to understand what we should expect from a Masters Degree program in the Humanities and what it would demand of us.  When the curtain of MAPH’s opening Sunday evening “barbeque” finally went up it was suddenly finding oneself standing on the precipice of a new academia–more rigorous, more demanding, and even more colorful than any I’d imagined before.  But then came the readings.  Do you remember reading entire books of dense philosophical prose for each day’s class Monday through Thursday for the weeks of Colloquium?  Do you remember that too-little-butter-scraped-over-too-much-toast feeling as you stood anxiously outside the University of Chicago’s old “Assembly Room,” (Social Sciences 101) waiting for the next lecture to begin?  And then came the writing.  Had a professor ever said anything like “There is one and only one answer.  I have it and it is your job to discover it” when speaking of Foucault’s hegemonies, Lacan’s imago, or anything written by Hegel?  So many, many hours spent plundering secondary commentaries that got it wrong, drafting page after page of hopeful, facile tripe. Can you recall, still, the nausea inducing deadlines when sleepless nights bleed copious ink into the cold sunrise and filled us with terror and frustration at our own stupidity?  They made a mistake.  They let me in.  I can’t let them know how precious little I understand when they smile and vomit the excess profundity of their scholarly conquest.  I can’t do this.

Act Two

Introduced in the first, but hanging dead and rotting from around my neck the second was the thesis.  The itch at the back of my neck that first tingled a little when in conversation someone asked “Have you thought about a topic yet?” became the cracked and oozing sore on my mind by the time  I turned in the final thesis proposal to my preferred adviser and hoped for some miracle.  Then he accepted and I rejoiced because somehow I’d managed to fool the local god-king of the academy.  Perhaps all the analytic expositions of the first quarter had had some secret effect that–so subtly that I hadn’t noticed–transmuted the lead of the “best guess” at a topic into something shiny enough to pass for precious.  But all my happiness drained away when my adviser confided that the only reason he’d accepted my proposal was that he’d never seen someone try to make an ethical case for intentionalism.  So the thing scritch-scratching in basement corner of my thesis was dragged from the periphery and made to put on a little show at its center.

When I think of the Winter Quarter at UChicago I don’t think fluffy snow hanging in the air like confectioner’s sugar.  I don’t even think of three-day old snow grey to black sticking to shoes and sprayed up from automobile tires.  I think of rain bouncing up from the pavement and mist hanging like discarded streamers in the dumpster after the Senior Prom.  The eleven weeks of my Winter Quarter were spent trying to find some way into the question I’d been given in the one and only meeting between my thesis adviser and me.  The whole quarter reminds me walking to and from campus with wet socks and the gnawing suspicion that I’d be found out for the fraud I was.

Now, I’d had some success at UChicago that gave me hope too.  My first quarter seminar papers had been the best I’d ever written and I entertained hopes of publishing them.  I’d met some truly wonderful fellow MAPH students who gave of their time without thought to its cost–and value.  I could see that I was asking different questions of my writing that forced it to condense and contort into strong and steely shapes of academic argument.  It was also just at this darkest point when the the guarded and hostile relationship I’d built with my preceptor–consummated when I, like nearly all MAPHers, learned that earning an A from our preceptors in the Core course is a near impossibility–could not longer be sustained and I cracked–spilling out all my frustrations and anxieties and found myself finally working honestly with my fellow MAPH students and advisers.

However, this new-found spirit of openness and comradery did nothing to lessen the very real sense that I was falling farther and farther behind the implied schedule of thesis completion, the expectations of my advisers, and my peers in the program.  I wasn’t treading water.  I was drowning.

Act 3

Following the completion of the second quarter’s three seminar papers–one of which required a complete blank-paper revision and an entirely new topic–I knew I had only about two weeks to lock myself in a room and find a way into and through my thesis.  After trashing four twenty-plus page failed treatments I had boiled the central focus of the paper down to just three core ideas and I spent hour after hour scrutinizing each, turning them this way and that in the light of all my research, trying equation after equation in vain attempts to make them yield an answer that was not self-refuting.  Night after night I woke from anxious dreams, compelled to rub sleep from sand-paper eyes, and return again to my desk, the mountains for books, and stare at the blinking cursor.  Writing, tentatively at first, and then faster.  Finishing the pivotal paragraph or page that would fix my thesis–and then deleting that addition when I read it again.

I’d love to point to some decisive hour when the content of my course work, the contribution of some long-forgotten text, and the circumstance of my life conspired to form a singularity that birthed a “Eureka!” moment, but that is not the way it happened.  At 3am after waking up in a cold sweat and puking my guts out, as quietly as I could so as to avoid waking my wife for the second or fifth time that night, I just wrote until the page count reached the prescribed minimum and turned that first draft in.  Somehow in all the weeks of  flailing and fevered revision I’d finally understood the mechanisms of the paper–the careful balance of this point and that–and just scribbled it out.  The morning I, white and shaking, turned the paper in I skipped both my other classes and crashed on the couch at home.  I hadn’t planned to cut class.  When I walked from my adviser’s mail box my feet just kept going.  I was running away without knowing it and unwilling to reread my paper for fear that I’d discover my “success” was only a fever dream.

When my adviser returned that first draft I discovered only a smattering of brief and repetitive challenges to my thesis.  I quickly sent emails to everyone that might have any possibility of helping understand what had happened.  Did my adviser think so little of the paper that he found nothing substantive to challenge or praise?  Did my paper accomplish so little that its claims weren’t even worthy of being contested?  All my fears and anxieties, brought to the fore in those first few weeks of Analytic Expositions, crashed like a wave on volcanic rock and pulled me under again.  I wasn’t just drowning.  I was dead.  Only one of those desperate cries for help was answered, but Bill’s response was troubling in itself.  He wrote “You’re not going to have to work much harder to get an A out of Pippin for this.”

I didn’t believe him.  I rewrote the entire paper  from a blank sheet in the last two weeks before the final version was due.  I rewrote the paper to address to the two oft repeated challenges that I thought my adviser seemed to be making over and over, before the claim and after and then once more at the end for lagniappe.  With a sense of fatalism more than self-confidence I methodically, but leisurely wrote page and page until the final version was turned in with a couple hours to spare. But as it turned out, Bill was right.

I am not the genius scholar with moments of blinding insight or the erudite reader who crafts a theory as the predetermined outcome of his research and regards the outcome with neither particular joy or particular surprise.  I am not even the tortured genius burning the candle at both ends likely to die too young and appreciated only after the fact.  If I am any sort of scholar, I am the workman who persists where others walk away.  The MAPH program capably razed all the grand pretensions of my undergraduate “success” to the ground and through ceaseless effort I erected a single stone in their place.  Small and not particularly noteworthy, this stone may in time may be joined by another and then perhaps another so that if I live enough years I might eventually climb the narrow staircase of a tiny ivory tower and see over the horizon the mansions that others have built in far less time.  This dark winter of rain and mud is over and I stand, for the experience, a little wiser and a little better equipped for the challenges to come.

All praise to the savant, the son of an erudite man that did not squander the gifts afforded by his father’s success, and to the prodigy, the daughter of favorable stars whose facilities are boundless.  They are the choicest quarry of the doctoral selection committee who learned once–or always knew–the skills that the workman strains to perfect in dismal seasons of toil and failure.  But, spare some tiny morsel–a tip of the hat and no more–for the journeyman and the laborer who in time assemble a modest collection of true and solid stones that they might scale in order touch the hem of the garments of the sages who lay rich robes of maroon and black and bestow flowing hoods on those who persist in the love of wisdom.

Persist.  The MAPH program is not easy and it will not be intimidated by whatever previous success you believe yourself to have enjoyed.  The rewards of scholarly community, intellectual insight, and hard-fought contribution to the stores of our disciplines await the diligent mind.  The MAPH will raze you to the ground and allow you to build yourself anew which is, for many, the only possible path toward success left open.  Hyde Park is a strange crossroads where the rich unwashed and the pure poor rub shoulders with criminals and Nobel laureates.  The MAPH program will change you.  It will remold you in its own image or break you to pieces.  It is the contingent remedy and the necessary evil.  Good luck.  God bless you and yours. May you someday be welcomed into the ancient and honorable fellowship of scholars.


This is the last regular post on MAPHmatically Yours which was always conceived of as having a finite expiration date.  By “regular” I mean a post that is an account the MAPH at U of C through the eyes of one of its students.  I am now a graduate of the MAPH program and Bill, the website’s other “father” is soon to be part of the MAPH staff for next year.  It is my hope that “Future Bill” will return to the website to answer all those questions about how beneficial nine-months at the University of Chicago can be in securing future Ph.D. success.  I imagine that I will likely post any future events in my scholarly path that tie back to the MAPH program, the University of Chicago, and the massive number of MAPH alumnists floating about, loose in the world.

I’ve decided not to take off the MAPHman mask and reveal my real identity–something that I had always intended to do in a final post from the very conception of the blog.  My pseudonym was originally adopted to avoid the possibility that any negative things I might say on the blog about UChicago or the MAPH program would wind up hurting my grades or future prospects.  While that circumstance is no longer a likely possibility and hence no longer a concern, I appreciate the fact that as time goes on and memories fade the little hints that make this blog unmistakeably mine now will lose their specificity and significance and the MAPHman will become the “every-student” that I always hoped he might be.

For those that know the me that will go on beyond MAPHmatically Yours, know that I am still considering the possibility of a new blog perhaps related to my new position as an adjunct philosophy professor and perhaps to one or more of my other academic and artistic interests.  If there is such a blog, it will not be pseudonymous and, therefore, will not be publicly linked back to MAPHmatically Yours–but I’ll let you know where to find it, if you’d like.  The email address on the About Me page of the blog will be checked periodically, but probably not terribly regularly until next years (2012-13) admission season when I reserve the right drop back in to answer questions as I am able.

One might say that this is the first of two expiration dates for MAPHmatically Yours.  The second will come when I feel that the content of this blog no longer reflects an accurate portrayal of what one might expect to experience as a student of the MAPH program either because radical revisions have been made to the curriculum or simply because the incremental changes that naturally occur have aggregated sufficiently to make this testimony irrelevant.  The posts will be saved to the digital equivalent of a memento box to be poured over by a future me with failing eye-sight and lumbago.

Thank you.  Thank you to the University of Chicago, the MAPH Staff, my Adviser, Precepter and peers. But above all, thank you to Bill Hutchison, Vincent Mennella, and Alissa Smith who contributed their insights and experiences to the blog as guest-bloggers and to you future MAPH students for whom all this was undertaken.  Thank you!


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