Web Exclusives: Raising Kate
a PAW web exclusive column by Kate
Swearengen '04 (email@example.com)
October 8, 2003:
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
"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."
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."
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org