Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)

October 8, 2003:

The way of the precept: Inspired or impossible?
The university seeks to improve experience for undergraduates

A week ago the faculty committee on the course of study, the staff of the McGraw teaching center, and the several student leaders put out a shiny, orange-and-white pamphlet entitled "Inspired Conversations: The Princeton Precept" and delivered it to all undergraduate and graduate mailboxes.

Although the theory behind the precept, introduced by Woodrow Wilson in 1905, is sound, even beautiful — Wilson saw the precept as a refuge from crowded lectures, an opportunity for students to discuss political theory and jazz and Nabokov in an intimate environment — things have proven less rosy in practice. Since 1905, the average size of a precept has grown from 5 to 12, and the preceptors, once academicians hired specifically for the task, are mostly graduate students.

"Inspired Conversations" was issued in response to a 2001 USG survey that found that an overwhelming majority of Princeton undergraduates are dissatisfied with their precept experience. The USG put it this way: "Our report indicates that the precept system fails to provide an inspiring, intellectually stimulating environment for many students."

For those who haven't seen it, the USG's 2002 Report on the Status of the Princeton Precept System (http://www.princeton.edu/usg/docs/precept.html) is a must-read: "A student, when asked to describe the characteristics of a good precept, quipped, 'I've yet to be in one!' Several students expressed frustration by suggesting that precepts should cease to be mandatory. One student captured this view, saying, 'I would like to see [the preceptorial system] do something useful, like go away.' These students are clearly indicating that their precepts have failed to provide an opportunity for critical and engaging discussion."

The tone of University-endorsed "Inspired Conversations" differs significantly from that of the USG report. "Inspired Conversations" is relentlessly, resolutely cheerful. My favorite comment is this one: "On the first day of precept, I bring in 3x5 cards and distribute them. I ask students for different kinds of information about themselves — what's their major, their hometown, their favorite film...Sometimes I ask them to draw a picture of themselves." Puh-leeze.

"Inspired Conversations" also contains comments like: "I love the chance to discuss deep issues with other really intelligent people." "Prepare! Do the reading and be ready to actually think!" "Precepts have been the most valuable element of my Princeton experience."

Precepts have been the most valuable element of my Princeton experience, too, if by "precept" you mean either "a genuinely thoughtful discussion led by someone with a Ph.D." or "Guinness on tap." To be fair, though, I know people who've been in wonderful precepts, and I've been in a few good ones myself. The best ones have been led by professors rather than graduate students. But one precept in the Near Eastern studies department stands out as having been particularly well run, and it was led by a graduate student. This is not to say that the person leading the precept should bear sole responsibility for its quality. After all, the most honest assessment in "Inspired Conversations" is this one, submitted by a disenchanted graduate student: "If, after everything has been tried, the precept still does not go well, do not conclude that you are a failure. Chance can throw together a group of students whose ignorance is so universal and whose indifference is so profound that Socrates himself would be stumped!"

I know a former graduate student who thought all his precepts were like that. He told me that on the first day of class, grad students make predictions as to the academic performance of their undergraduate charges. A student wearing a baseball cap is one point; a student wearing a baseball cap backwards is two. The more points, the worse the precept will be.

I, too, have a system: Avoid precepts at all costs. Choose a seminar over a large lecture with a precept component. I've only been in five precepts, and that was no accident. When you're taking a class that meets three hours a week and one of those hours is spent in a poorly run precept, you're not getting the education you're paying for.

The USG concludes its report with a number of sound recommendations: mandatory teacher training for all graduate students, awards for excellent preceptors, midsemester evaluations. Some of these ideas have been implemented: the teaching center recently held a two-day orientation program for preceptors. The program included discipline-specific training in the categories of foreign language, engineering, humanities, social sciences, physics, and sciences.

Hank Dobin, associate dean of the college and one of the principal authors of "Inspired Conversations," expressed optimism for the future of the Princeton precept. "Mandatory assistant in instruction training was adopted and implemented for the first time this fall — that's a huge step forward," he said. "The McGraw Center regularly sends out both encouragement and a template for midterm evaluations."

So where does "Inspired Conversations" fit into all of this? "Arguably, 'Inspired Conversations' directly addresses the recommendations about the affirmation of purpose and responsibility, and, depending upon student reaction, the reaffirmation of student commitment to making precepts successful and stimulating." said Dobin.

You can reach Kate at kswearen@princeton.edu