One of the proclaimed ‘hallmarks’ of a Princeton education is the preceptorial session and, at first glance, it seems to be a model institution. The precept is an opportunity to engage closely with a course’s material in the company of one’s peers and an experienced supervisor, to participate in meaningful discussion and dialogue, and to receive individualized attention in an academically intimate setting.
Of course, this is an idealized vision, but, nevertheless, it remains both a laudable and a feasible one. To the credit of the university’s faculty and the administrative staffs of the various academic departments, the majority of the student body can surely attest to having experienced a lovely precept at some point, complete with a fascinating instructor and a group of peers possessing talent to spare.
Still, the mechanics of the preceptorial system demand close scrutiny, if for no other reason than the fact that the selection process of the preceptorial system is essentially flawed. Quite simply, the problem with precepts is that students are very deliberately assigned in a random manner. A detached department administrator assigns a student to a precept according to indicated time preferences. The times attached to certain preceptors are not released, as administrators realize quite insightfully that students would then jostle to enroll in the precept of the professor or some other popular preceptor.
The selection process thus reflects, if unintentionally, the aspirations of the liberal arts education. A precept on Victorian literature will be composed of a few historians, perhaps an economics major, the two or three curious engineers, and, of course, the likely preponderance of English majors. It goes without saying that each student is expected to bring a varying and undoubtedly illuminating perspective to the topics of the course.
This system inadvertently brings about a very common scenario: students with a documented interest in a certain subject, such as those who have registered in a department, may in all probability find themselves in a precept supervised by someone other than the professor, almost certain to be a graduate student. With all due respect to these non-faculty preceptors – many of whom are, if not actual faculty, extremely qualified academics – this situation carries considerable consequences.
Students must eventually seek and choose a thesis advisor, and in order to do so they require an opportunity to work closely with a faculty member at some point. Simple correspondence with a professor, participation in lectures that call for it, and the visiting of office hours do not suffice to create an academic relation in lieu of precept participation. How could they? The faculty is burdened with their own precepts and their own research. If a student is not a member of one of their precepts, where and why would they find the time to judge that student’s work?
Despite excusing both the credentials of these preceptors and the limited human resources of the university, it remains an undeniable reality that students seeking admission to graduate school will eventually require recommendations from faculty members. A non-faculty preceptor, no matter how capable, cannot provide these. Again, how then may a student form the requisite contact with faculty in their own department if they do not receive access to a professor’s precepts? What about the access of underclassmen who have a demonstrated and credible interest in joining a department?
Bearing in mind that any reform–short of creating a new system–could never be fully satisfactory, there appears to one relatively practical measure capable of generally addressing these shortcomings: institutionalized preference in preceptorial selection.
To those students with a credibly demonstrated interest in a particular department, the chance would be extended to enroll for a professor’s precept groups before the general selection process. If the student’s schedule could not accommodate the particular precept times, the advantage would be forfeited – saving any undue work for the department staffs and allowing another student, perhaps even one in the department, the opportunity. In this way, a majority of students would have the necessary access to faculty members through actual academic relationships.
Such a system of preference will probably cause some discomfort. After all, what university does not pride itself upon offering “equal access” to all facets of a liberal arts education? The engineer who quotes Shakespeare and the English major who is handy with a wrench: whether determined consciously or unconsciously, these are the aspirations of the liberal arts education.
It may be claimed that certain students will be somehow academically “robbed” if a professor’s precepts were reserved for those students besides themselves who possess a vested interest in that subject. Conversely, some may say that all precepts are of equal quality in every essential aspect regardless of whether or not they are supervised by a faculty member.
If the underlying goal of preceptorial selection for students is to provide equal academic opportunities, the idea that reserving certain precepts is unfair is also patently inconsistent. If it is allowed that a professor’s precepts are in anyway superior in a purely intellectual sense, it must follow – however implicitly – that those students in precepts supervised by graduate students are suffering an inferior education. This is clearly not the case, given the demonstrated talent and efforts of the non-faculty preceptors.
On the other hand, the protest that all precepts are academically equal is irrelevant to any consideration of reserving faculty precepts for certain students. If all precepts are hypothetically equal in academic terms, it should make no difference whatsoever if certain students had the priority to study with faculty members. It is extraordinarily difficult to see how intellectual curiosity, as in the case of a molecular biology major taking a class in the religion department, is ill-served by participating in a precept taught by someone other than a professor.
Realities beyond the university’s control or proper concern are responsible in part for the larger problem surrounding the placement in the preceptorial system. To remain blind to the flaws of the current preceptorial system, however, is to remain irresponsibly blind to the student body’s general interest. With minimum effort, a great number of students throughout the university would be better served for the price of their tuition.
It would be safe to believe that the student body at large is sure to agree that they would rather study with two or three high-profile professors in their departments than experience the potential “sampling” afforded by the current preceptorial system; lectures themselves offer ample opportunity to explore a variety of interests. So, in the correction of this small matter, it is said with great hope that Princeton University will look past any complacency or pride in the continuing interest of the students both within and beyond its gates.