What’s a preceptor and how did they get my email?

August 18th, 2011 § 1 comment

Virgil was Dante’s Preceptor.

Instead of flying home last year I had Thanksgiving dinner with my friend and her family, just outside of Chicago. When people asked me how I was enjoying graduate school, they seemed generally confused by the nature of the program, and my use of MAPH-specific terms that apparently don’t get much exercise outside of U of C. I was barraged with question after question. “So…it’s a one-year program?”  “You can DO a one year masters?” “What’s your major?” “It’s a masters in the Humanities? Well, that’s pretty BROAD, isn’t it?”

And of course: “What’s a preceptor?” (Find out, after the jump…)

I’d been so immersed in MAPH’s distinct little culture that I assumed “preceptor” was a term most people were familiar with. They weren’t. To the group I’d been eating with, preceptor sounded like a highfalutin, even somewhat mystical title. Others suspected I had simply made the word up. My friend’s mom in particular had trouble letting the matter go, and eventually an ancient and enormous dictionary was retrieved at her demand to look up the word, like we were trying to settle a decades-old Scrabble grudge. Even after we found its definition she kept finding, with charming midwestern insistence, as many reasons as possible to say “preceptor” throughout the remainder of dinner.

“So they’re like a T.A.?” someone asked. “Why don’t they just call them a T.A.?”

Well, of course, preceptor is a real word. I don’t know why they’re called preceptors and not something else, but after completing the program, I have a good idea of what they do. Preceptors lead your discussion groups for the core course, during the colloquium and the autumn quarter. They grade the papers you write for core, in consultation with the director and codirector of the program. They read your thesis outlines and drafts, and lead your thesis workshop groups once each precept is broken up into smaller groups during the winter quarter. Above all, they are smart and capable people who have years of experience working within the university. With their knowledge of (occasionally ominous) faculty and university courses and policy, as well as their personal expertise as academics and writers, they are one of the best resources you have as a MAPH student. They don’t control what courses you take or who you select as your advisor, but as guides who can inform you about these topics, they’re invaluable.

So who is responsible for creating the precept groups? The Director and Associate Director review everyone’s application materials and put together groups based on what they feel is the potential for cross-disciplinary conversations. So for example, if you study depictions of Ancient Greek toilets in Renaissance paintings, you might be in a group with someone who studies postmodern and contemporary representations of shark-related cultural trauma. And this will confuse you at first. But a lot of thought goes into the creation of these groups, part of the aim being that graduate-level work benefits from the challenge of making your writing and ideas discernible  to people other than yourself.

You can read about these brilliant and helpful people here, on the staff page. Photos of their smiling faces are all up there, too, so you can see what your preceptor looks like before you arrive and find yourself overwhelmed by all the handshakes and new names. For instance, if you want to make it easier to recognize your preceptor at the kick-off BBQ, try taking their picture and photoshopping a burger into their hand.

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