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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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

Bill:

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.

MAPHman:

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…

MAPH: In the Balance Part 4

The existence of an “academic network” is one of those concepts imported into academia from the “Grey Flannel Towers of the Business” and graduate education is frequently charged with facilitating the creation of a network of established professors, people in publishing, and a wider field of resources that students can draw upon later in their academic lives.  The MAPH program then, while not necessarily being expected to provide the same depth and breadth of academic networking possibilities for its students as a Ph.D. program, is nevertheless understood to facilitate connections between MAPHers and the UChicago’s many excellent faculty.  The question, then, becomes “to what extent can a super-intensive nine month program accomplish that task?”

A Social [Networking] Experiment

MAPHman:

One of, if not the most, significant attractions of a top-shelf institution like the University of Chicago is the chance to study under, work with, and make connections with the guy that wrote some of the books you loved as an undergrad or the woman in whose path you’d most like to follow. UofC is The University of Chicago not because it has the most invasive foliage, the pointiest of Gothic Revival windows, or even the most previous winners of the Nobel prize, but because it has some of the most influential and interesting scholars working in academia today teaching classes and advising students. When I applied to UChicago’s Philosophy Ph.D. program I was really applying to work with Jean Luc Marion and Ted Cohen. (If you don’t believe me, revisit the earliest “Prolegamena” posts.)

It is, therefore, with a sad heart that I submit to you that students in the MAPH program will be unbelievably lucky if they manage to actually engage and make lasting connections with any of the University’s most prestigious and influential folks. I did have many conversations with Ted Cohen, took three classes with him over the nine months of MAPH, and even had the chance to have him read my thesis–though he was not my adviser. However, when I sheepishly brought in a couple of books to have him sign after our last class he had to ask my name. He knew me by my appearance and consistently remembered the facts I’d given about my life, my interests, and my new professorship, but clearly the connections made are unlikely to have a shelf-life once I’m no longer actually in his classes. And, quite frankly, the circumstance of professors remaining interested in MA students only so long as they are in their classes seems fairly universal. I found professors teaching classes that I was currently in were generally open to spending office hours and scheduling informal times to meet with me, but once I was no longer taking a class with them, they were unlikely to even respond to my emails or keep their appointments with me.

The relationship that every MAPHer has the highest hopes for is that special bond between a thesis adviser and their advisee. Here, I think the results are mixed. I know that Robert Pippin, my Rock Star adviser wouldn’t be able to pick me out of a line-up right now–let alone years down the road. As we’ve heard Vincent Manella and his adviser had real difficulties working together and that friction ultimately lead to a very unfortunate outcome. It seems like Bill has retained a great relationship with his adviser and that might very well help him down the road. The reality of situation is that the six-months of a MAPH thesis project are not sufficient to build anything like the relationships that are commonly understood to come out of a Ph.D. thesis process. The professors at UChicago are busy people and treat their jobs very pragmatically–spending time and energy where it is most needed and most likely to bear fruit. I don’t blame them, but it is a little heartbreaking all the same.

Bill:

I don’t understand networking, and that might be a problem. If I feel like I am “networking,” I feel like I am faking it. I have heard (and said!) that networking is crucial, but I feel like I would be better at alchemical transmutation than pulling of proper networking. But I do like talking to people one-on-one an awful lot.

I spent a fair amount of time in office hours with most of my professors. I want to do what they do, so it helps to know who they are. Several young professors — Hilary Strang (she of MAPH, and well beloved by most), Richard So, Hillary Chute, Benjamin Morgan — offered me the best conversations about the reality of doctoral work, and perhaps their proximity to my position is near enough that they really remember it. They have been very supportive. My thesis advisor has also been spectacular. I don’t know if it is anomalous, but in my experience, most professors remember you if you talk to them in person, as a person. Don’t have something prove. Have something you want to learn from those meetings. Even meeting with people I didn’t take any classes with gave me a chance to ask real questions of these very real people.

If I believe that my most admired professors will remember me, it is not because of anything inherent to myself as a scholar, but because we got to sit down and have some number of one-on-one conversations. I have this theory: if you get to know a professor only in a classroom situation, it is more difficult for them to distinguish you from other students. If you get to know them as a person in meetings, even if it is always in the context of being a student, having had that kind of eye-to-eye interaction does something important in maintaining that connection.

*****

While I hope both Bill and I will have left UChicago with at least one or two Rock Star relationships (of varying expiration date), I know that the social network that I have relied most upon during my time at MAPH and the one that I have the highest hopes for is the one composied of other MAPH students.

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.

MAPH: In the Balance Part 3

If old articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education can be trusted, the MAPH program has, since its inception, fought to clarify that the program is in no way a “back door”into the University’s PhD programs and the result has been a real reticence on the part of any and all involved in the MAPH’s administration to allow the claim to stand that a MAPH student’s presence in the program might have any bearing at all on their ability to secure a Ph.D. position in the school later.  However, two factors conspire to keep the “back door” fallacy alive.  First, despite all the charges that the MAPH program is a “cash cow” for the University with little value, only serving to fund the school more prestigious Ph.D. candidates, every couple years a couple students from the MAPH program go on to secure positions in their respective discipline’s Ph.D. program at the UofC.  Second, common sense says that in academia where networking is everything there must be some value to having had “face time” with professors also on admission committees as opposed to just being another stack of papers on a conference table.  Like it or not many students [mistakenly} intend the MAPH program to provide a secret entrance into the University of Chicago’s Ph.D. programs.  Is there any validity to that use of the MAPH program?  Does the program “work” in that way?

Dirty Little–Poorly Kept–Secrets

Bill:

I heard a professor describe the graduate admissions as a negative process. That is, an admissions committee doesn’t decide who gets to come to their program so much as they eliminate applicants until they have the (ideally) best pool left. They also confess there is a certain amount of arbitrariness to that end process. This is my way of saying that that “YES!,” if you go to MAPH you will improve your chances of getting into UChicago and any other school, so long as you bust your ass and work like the devil is chasing you through the stacks. But as for a secret back door? I don’t think so.

There’s no code word, no handshake, no arcane recitation that will grant one entrance into the hallowed halls. There’s working hard, writing well, and sure, networking plays in there somewhere, but on the whole, the burden is always on us as students to hone our “studenting” skills enough to appear viable candidates.

The perpetual caveat of this endeavor (re: Ph.D programs) is that I don’t know yet. I haven’t done my second round of applications yet. I’m a better candidate, but still not where I’d like to be. I write better, think better, and know more brilliant profs than I did when I started. Those are the things I hope will best equip me for the next round. Meeting professors at UChicago is a mixed bag. My thesis adviser was WONDERFUL. But she also saw my thesis when it was terrible and in its most nascent stages. Trying to impress people like her on an admissions committee is like trying to play it too cool with your parents — they changed your diapers and got chewing gum out of your hair. They KNOW where you started. So do my UChicago profs. They didn’t just see my best work — they saw all of it.

Go to MAPH, improve your chances of getting into grad school. Exercise more, eat less and you’ll lose weight. But a Master’s program that works like some sort of mythical fad diet? Nein, my friends. Nyet.

MAPHman:

Not terribly long ago, in this post, I shared my the perspective of a particular University of Chicago Divinity School prof who had suggested that the “secret” to getting into UChicago’s Ph.D. program as a MAPH student wasn’t terribly different from being promoted from within a professional organization. That is, at some point a student becomes conspicuously good at being a junior scholar: they contribute meaningful insights not even imagined by their peers, their papers aren’t just literature surveys but actually argue a persuasive perspective, and in a relatively short time they are recognized not only by the professors that have had them in class but some that haven’t yet. In the post that anecdote was juxtaposed with my own experience in academia to suggest that there is some truth in the claim that everyday is an interview for tomorrow–and no more so than in the academy.

Now the subtext of that “Perpetual Interview” post was also a subtle contradiction of the oft repeated claims that a) the University of Chicago’s selection process is so fully based on the writing samples submitted that virtually no other factors were considered and the twin argument we’ve already discussed that circulates in the world of MAPH that b) getting an MA at Chicago does absolutely nothing positive for one’s chances of being selected for the Ph.D. program and might actually negatively impact one’s chances.

Now, I understand why professors and administrators are quick to deny that the MAPH program is a secret “back door” to the Doctoral programs because, in the most basic way, it simply isn’t. For the vast majority of students, a piece of paper from Chicago with a “Masters” at the top isn’t going to have the slightest impact on the selections committees for Ph.D. candidates and, in fact, if the student pursued that MA within a few years of the application season in which they are applying and the professors don’t remember them, their previous MA really is going to be a black mark on the student’s accounts. (Thus, the reason why having an MA from Chicago can actually negatively impact your chances of securing a Ph.D. slot).  This is not a situation where UChicago feels any compunction to select a few from their “farm team” to round out their “professional roster.”

However, as I’ve already suggested, having attended UChicago previously, having learned to be a competent academic writer and thinker, and having made a real “buzz” among the faculty of your discipline for your insights and work will indeed improve your chances of being selected to return to the quads for a Ph.D.. However, that student whose insights are sterling and arguments gold is one in a hundred–a thousand, ten-thousand. Thus, the appropriate answer to the “common” MAPH student that asks if the MA program will allow them an extra-special shot at the Ph.D. is for most intents and purposes the pragmatic “No”–but, as you now know, that is only the short answer.

*****

The goal then is to be extraordinary, to be conspicuously good at being a student, all the while knowing that there is an excellent chance that you will not ever entirely meet your goal.  However, whether UChicago picks you up or not, you will have acquired more of the skills necessary to be attractive to other schools and other employers, which at the end of the day, is the point of the MAPH properly pursued.

Bradbury’s Intentionalism – Fahrenheit, Censorship, & Misinterpretation

Ray Bradbury died yesterday.  Few authors can claim anything like the depth and breadth of influence enjoyed by the author of almost fifty books written over a career spanning seventy years.  Behind Kurt Vonnegut alone, Bradbury stands as one of my most faithful companions with whom to share a solitary hour.  My first meeting with Bradbury’s work came, like many, with an assignment to read Fahrenheit 451 in ninth grade English.  In the edition I first read–1979 Del Rey edition–Bradbury had added a “Coda” that chronicled the text’s gradual “destruction” at the hands of his publishers to render it more child friendly and eventual restoration of  a handful of four-letter words that appeared in the original 1953 edition.  Despite having commented in that forward on the irony of the gradual laundering of Fahrenheit (a book about a dystopian future where “firemen” burn books because they contain dangerous ideas), Bradbury denied that his book was ever meant to be a warning against governmental censorship.  Instead, Bradbury claimed that most if not all the critical commentary on Fahrenheit had misconstrued the book’s purpose and that his most famous novel was really meant to be a warning against other media’s eventual supremacy over literature.

Now, the biographer will find Bradbury’s “revised” moral of the story adds yet another level of paradox to his protests against the anti-censorship interpretation. Bradbury himself adapted sixty-five of his stories for television’s The Ray Bradbury Theater and facilitated the adaptation of thirteen of his stories for the radio show Bradbury 13 in 1984–even contributing the opening monologue to each half-hour episode.  As early as 1951, Bradbury foreshadowed his fears concerning television, in a letter about the dangers of radio, written to fantasy and science-fiction writer Richard Matheson. Bradbury wrote that:

“Radio has contributed to our ‘growing lack of attention.  This sort of hopscotching existence makes it almost impossible for people, myself included, to sit down and get into a novel again. We have become a short story reading people, or, worse than that, a QUICK reading people.”

Now, I don’t believe that Bradbury’s anti-television interpretation of Fahrenheit coupled with the seeming contradictions of his own cooperation with others’ efforts to adapt his works in other mediums necessarily suggests that Bradbury was guilty of some sort of hypocrisy–in the popular sense of the word–or some strange retcon/revisionist agenda with regard to his own life’s work.  Bradbury’s concerns had more to do with the way media was programed–as hopscotching, isolated chunks that could not be unified–than with the film, television, and radio mediums themselves.  However, how can Bradbury’s frequent denials that Fahrenheit was about governmental censorship be made to accord with that work’s formal elements?  Briefly, doesn’t Ray’s strange anti-television interpretation of ‘451 prove the wisdom of anti-intentionalist criticism’s denial that the intentions of the author–communicated extra-textually–have any bearing a text’s interpretation?

As a moderate actual intentionalist, I’ve gone on the record as saying that author’s intentions for what their works mean do indeed shape the formal choices that they make and therefore must necessarily constrain the range of possible interpretations that critics and readers can ascribe to any given text.  Bradbury’s oeuvre–and Fahrenheit itself–does prophesy and satirize a culture obsessed with wall-sized flat panel displays and other visual media that distract them from deep concerns with trivial factoids and also address the theme of censorship.  Where interpreters and Bradbury, himself, differed is that in Bradbury’s vision of the future the population itself that would eventually call for censorship in order to better focus on the trivial and the banal without the distractions of jarring dissenting opinion.  While critics have long acknowledged the twin themes of popular visual media’s attempted suppression of literature and the censorship of texts, it takes Bradbury’s own extra-textual testimony to pull the two together in a way that makes any other dualistic anti-tv v. anti-censorship reading impossible.  My point is that Bradbury’s comments on what Fahrenheit was intended to mean do provide a valuable interpretive key that–though extra-textual–does accord perfectly with the material in that novel to show a unified purpose for the work.

Bradbury himself spoke powerfully against the idea that critics and commentators could “help him” with the meaning of his works or improve them against his protests to the contrary.

“The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people run­ning about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/ Republican, Mattachine/ Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme (…).

In sum, do not insult me with the beheadings, finger-choppings or the lung-defiations you plan for my works. I need my head to shake or nod, my hand to wave or make into a fist, my lungs to shout or whis­per with. I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book.  All you umpires, back to the bleachers. Referees, hit the showers. It’s my game. I pitch, I hit, I catch. I run the bases. At sunset I’ve won or lost. At sunrise, I’m out again, giving it the old try.

And no one can help me. Not even you.”  (Ray Bradbury. “Coda” in Fahrenheit 451. Del Ray, 1979.)

*****

I’m actually a little sick to see that on the day after Bradbury’s death so many blogs and news commentary pieces (like this one, this one, and this one) are still ignoring the author’s own explanations of what Fahrenheit 451 is about and casting the book and the man in the mold of some Rush Limbaugh-like uber-libertarian, anti-government kook.  You have missed the point.  The point of the “Coda” to the Del Ray edition, the point of Fahrenheit 451, and even the point of mentioning a great man the day after his death.  You are one of those Bradbury warned against who run about with lit matches “helping” him to make your political and ideological point.  Bradbury was concerned to defend an author’s right to mean as he intended not your anti-government agenda.

MAPH: In the Balance Part 2

Welcome once again to the second installment of the final dual-blogging retrospective covering the whole of the MAPH year and asking the question “Does the program do what University of Chicago promises and what people intend it to do?”

The Grey City: Houses of Sand and Fog

MAPHman:

Quickly flipping through the University sponsored alumni profiles in the MAPH section of University of Chicago’s website one finds a common thread: students who were uncertain about their future success in graduate school or unclear about how best to pursue the topics they desired to study. I suggested in yesterday’s post that UChicago’s MAPH program, because of its intense demands, truncated schedule, and pressure-cooker atmosphere is an insanely powerful tool to separate those students well-fitted for academic work from those more likely to find fulfillment in the professional world and I think that ultimately that is a service to MAPH students uncertain as to whether they are well suited for life in the academy. Now, for those who might pay $46k to learn that they’ve been barking up the wrong Ph.D. tree, the selection mechanism undoubtedly arrives as cold comfort, but what does that mechanism do for those who decide to remain “in the hunt” for a Ph.D.?

Well, for starters the MAPH program does do wonders for flabby, unfocused research proposals. As I’ve written before, I thought that my research proposal was a sharply defined and well written outline of the course of study I intended to follow while in a Ph.D. program, but a few months in the MAPH program, writing my thesis proposal and associated documents, quickly showed me that my proposal was about as sharp and refined as a campfire marshmallow. While I wouldn’t recommend only taking courses in some ultra-narrow field if one wants to pursue a Ph.D., I will say that the process of selecting courses from the vast range available and shopping courses that one doesn’t necessarily take still pays the dividend of allowing one to understand what courses one might take to meet a particular need or for the purposes of a particular project–a very valuable skill for the third, fourth, or fifth year of a Ph.D.. The final benefit I can see to the MAPHer who continues on the academic path–other than the one I’ll be focusing on in two days–is access to the resources of a top-flight school like U of C–including some very helpful insights from faculty deeply imbedded in the highest circles of academia. I benefited greatly from several casual conversations before class with a particular prof and the perspective he was able to supply clarified both my thesis project and my overall trajectory as a philosopher.

For the professional, I’m less certain what benefits the MAPH might have beyond any other comparable quality Masters program. Certainly the MAPH program opened up my eyes to the world of curators and curating–a field that requires both a very broad understanding cultural and historical trends–so as to examine the effect and significance of a work or event–and highly specific knowledge and research skills–used to verify and categorize objects or to accurately represent and interpret historical narratives. However, there are only so many museums, galleries, and collections in need of professional curators. MAPH also seems especially adept at introducing students to is the world of academic publishing. Perhaps the greatest benefit for the MAPHer hoping to find a professional vocation is the network of MAPH alumni positioned all over the world and anxious to introduce new graduates to their pet industry.

Bill:

I again can’t help but wish I could check in with future-Bill to see how things turn out. I, for one, recognize that while I thought I was ready for graduate school, I was so far from it that it causes me to cringe with embarrassment to remember. I think my anxiety about saying, “Yes! I found my path thanks to the MAPH program,” is that while it’s truth, I’m not yet sure if the path I have found is actually going to let me tread upon it. The next round of applications will answer that question. But I am more certain than I was (which was often quite uncertain in the earliest weeks of the program) that I enjoy doing academic study and am decent enough at it that I remain convinced I should give PhD applications a go. I am less convinced I am ready, but if anything, that verifies to me a dramatic change in my preparedness from when I was sure I was a great candidate.

MAPHman’s comments on focusing research is dead-on. I learned tremendous technical skills in MAPH and how to write in something more closely resembling an academic voice. Nearly every undergraduate college student in this country needs to vastly improve their analytical and synthetic writing abilities to handle MAPH. Instead, MAPHers seem to do it on the run.

As far as MAPH helping to prepare students for a professional life, it’s hard to say. I came out of the professional world, but I still managed to learn quite a lot from the various professional development forums. Some were rudimentary, but necessarily so — MAPH has far more early-to-mid-twenty-somethings than thirty-something former professionals. They seem to be a pretty damn fine resource to me. With A-J in the office this last year, his fervor for helping people prepare was unmatched. Let us hope that next year’s mentors are up to the task. I have a feeling they will be equally as dedicated.

*****

Part of the challenge of deciding whether the MAPH is successful in helping students who intend to apply to future Ph.D. positions is distinguishing between the value of actual improvements the program might foster in a participant’s thinking, writing, and arguing and the value of the program as a indicator to other schools that the MAPH graduate has the intellectual chops to compete with graduates from other more prestigious grad and undergrad programs.  As Bill rightly points out, it is difficult–if not impossible–to speak to the latter question of how well the MAPH program “shows” on a CV.  However, both of us acknowledge that our time in the MAPH program has made us better writers and communicators suggesting that–presuming that we could secure positions in top-shelf grad programs–we would be successful in those Ph.D. programs.  If a person that failed to secure a Ph.D. candidacy in their first year of applying were to ask whether the MAPH program would help to get them into a program in the next season, I’d ask first to read some of their academic writing.  If the writing sample was up to snuff, I would be more likely to tell them to simply wait another year and apply again, but if the sample lacked clarity, strong organizational cues, persuasive logical argumentation, and the other hallmarks of “academic voice” I’d be more likely to suggest the MAPH program.  However, I can also imagine student with great writing skills passed over by Ph.D. committees because of poor undergrad grades from a second or third tier institution that might benefit from the “clout” provided by good transcript from UofC.  In contrast to Bill’s position, I’m not sure that the MAPH program offers professionals any benefit not available from a comparable, and likely cheaper, Masters program–unless that professional needs to have skills in the area of academic-style writing.  This is not an indictment of the program or its staff, but of the incredibly low bar set in business and professional environments.  In support of that claim and to close, here is a sample of the sort of formal communication that occurs between middle and upper level managers in a multi-million dollar company I used to be part of (the speaker was fond of noting that he had an MBA from “name” institution).

“Neither I or you have lots of excess time to waste on these topics because we are busy persons.  Hopefully the issue I’ve discussed to you should necessitate further thinking and action before its too far gone.  We can not lead by example if we remain thinking inside the box.”