The Master of Arts Program in the Humanities, more than 1,500 alumni strong, celebrates 15 years. Photography by Drew Reynolds and Jason Smith Today, the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities (MAPH) represents the largest graduate program in the Humanities Division. If history serves as an accurate predictor, about 95 percent of this year’s 120 entering students will graduate by August 2012. After MAPH, some will aim for tenure-track teaching positions, though others will opt for careers in fields as diverse as journalism, finance, museum curation, publishing, education, law, consulting, and many others. In other words, MAPH has evolved into a mature program: one whose students develop into competitive PhD candidates and contribute to fields beyond the academy.

But in 1996, no one could guarantee that a one-year course of graduate study would even attract students. According to Gerald Graff, AB’59, one of MAPH's inaugural codirectors,* the majority of admitted students had been referred from the applicant pools of the Division’s PhD programs. Many of them had never heard of MAPH, and Graff and his colleagues were uncertain whether these students would attend a program they hadn’t chosen directly. As he puts it, “We thought if we got ten students, we could run the thing — and if we got 25 we’d be ecstatic.”

The Early Years

Judith Hecker, AM’97, now an assistant curator in the department of prints and illustrated books at the Museum of Modern Art, joined MAPH’s inaugural class after being referred by the art history PhD program. Before arriving in Chicago, she had worked as a curatorial assistant at the Whitney Museum in New York and was pondering a return to the academy. She recalled some of the difficulties of participating in an upstart program.

 "MAPH taught me to fight, and have the courage and conviction to stick to my guns with dealing with smart, hyperconfident people," says one alumnus.“MAPH was new, and at that point a lot of the professors didn’t know what it was,” she says. “And they didn’t know if we would be the same caliber of student” as those admitted to the University’s PhD programs. At the same time, outsider status as a MAPHer afforded opportunities to connect with a broader range of students. “I had classmates who’d been political scientists, English majors, computer programmers,” she says. “It was a really diverse group — much more like the real world and far more interesting.” 

After graduation, Hecker decided not to pursue a PhD, though she had arrived at Chicago intending to apply again to doctoral programs. Courses in the Law School and Art History Department proved directly applicable to her work as a curator; so, too, did the program’s emphasis on the development of writing skills. “One thing I remember taking away from MAPH was really learning how to write,” Hecker says. “I learned how to articulate an argument and fit a line of thought generally into the field.” The flurry of writing assignments in the original Core course challenged students to make arguments on a regular basis, and alumni like Hecker often point to improvements in their writing as having the biggest impact on their subsequent professional life. “It’s 15 years later and so much of what I did then is still relevant to my job,” she says.

The question was how to ensure that experiences like hers could become the norm for MAPHers. More than a decade after Graff’s own departure for the University of Illinois at Chicago, he seemed excited about MAPH’s evolution, but he could still easily think of a problem that remained unaddressed when he left.

“I felt that we never completely solved the challenges of the Core course,” he says, referring to MAPH’s required, fall-quarter foundations course. “I was confident going in that we could teach a one-quarter overview survey of contested issues in the humanities that would work. I still think it can be done, but during the early years I never quite felt that we made the course cohere.”

Building Community in the Core

Graff and English professor Lawrence Rothfield, who continued to lead MAPH after Graff’s departure,* had built a program that could attract a group with diverse academic interests. They had nurtured a sense of broader social applications of humanistic inquiry. When it came to the Core, the challenge for directors has always been to design a curriculum that offers substantive critical tools, presents the realities of professionalized academic work, and offers alternative legitimate possibilities for real-world applications of the humanities.

When philosophy professors Candace Vogler and Ian Mueller took over as codirectors in 2000, they aimed to solidify MAPH’s place in the wider University community but also wanted to overhaul the intellectual centerpiece of the program. During the next seven years, Vogler worked intensively with Mueller (who died in August 2010) and English professor Jay Schleusener, who took Mueller’s place as codirector in 2002, to develop MAPH’s pedagogy, giving it a structure that would seem familiar to most students enrolled in the program today. Under their direction, the Core grew into a rigorous course on critiques of the human subject and became the academic and social heart of MAPH.

“It took a while for us to feel that we had established, in the views of our colleagues and in the views of graduate students, an intellectually demanding and productive program,” Schleusener says. Revision of the Core played an integral role in making MAPH a permanent fixture of graduate life at Chicago, but when talking about why the program continued to thrive both Vogler and Schleusener pointed to the 
camaraderie of each class. 

 MAPHers take more courses per quarter than PhD students and must complete a thesis project while keeping an eye on their job prospects after graduation, all in the span of nine months.“MAPHers work harder than any other group of graduate students entering the Division,” Vogler says. In some ways this is a matter of necessity. In an intense academic environment, she says it is only thanks to the “tremendously powerful social and intellectual network that builds up in each cohort” that students finish their degrees in a single academic year. Schleusener agreed: “One thing that happens in this program quite apart from the agendas of the directors is that you have a forced cohesion that turns into real cohesion really fast.”

MAPHers take more courses per quarter than PhD students and must complete a thesis project while keeping an eye on their job prospects after graduation, all in the span of nine months. All of this seems overwhelming to each individual student “at least once” during an academic year, says Vogler, “but collectively you can do it.” In part this is because of the integral role of social opportunities, including weekly gatherings on Friday (every one of which Vogler and Schleusener were reputed to have attended during their years as codirectors).

Teddy Johnston, AM’02, says interactions with fellow students shaped his memory of the program. “MAPH taught me to fight, and have the courage and conviction to stick to my guns when dealing with smart, hyperconfident people,” he says. After working for several failed Democratic campaign efforts, Johnston served as finance director in Florida for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. He joined and recently left the Obama administration after serving as chief of staff at the International Trade Administration. “I don’t ever sit around and talk with the guys about Foucault and Lacan,” he jokes, talking about the differences between the University of Chicago and the Beltway. “Sometimes I wish I did — it would probably be more interesting.” But Johnston, who works as a political consultant in Washington, DC, has no plans to return to graduate studies.

With time, more writers and artists also began attending MAPH, drawn by the opportunity to wed creative and critical work. “Attending MAPH was a good move for me, because I was able to move my portfolio through so many stages of development,” says poet Kiki Petrosino, AM’04. “I felt that I’d received a top-notch introduction to critical theory and that I’d made valuable connections to masters in the field.” Petrosino also emphasized the importance of her individual interactions with her thesis adviser, assistant professor of English Srikanth Reddy. “He treated me as a young artist, and encouraged me to think of myself that way. That kind of support is invaluable to a poet at the start of his or her career,” she says. Petrosino went on to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and now teaches creative writing at the University of Louisville.

When Germanic studies scholar David Levin and English professor Mark Miller became codirectors in 2007, they inherited a more coherent and structured program. The preceptors, staff, and faculty advisers who work with MAPHers have contributed to the program’s success, says Schleusener: “The way the program is staffed and structured is extraordinary.” MAPH has an administrative staff of five, and yearly employs around ten advanced graduate students as preceptors to teach academic writing and guide students through the thesis writing process.

“Nobody puts the same kind of resources into advising students,” says Vogler, adding that this investment distinguishes MAPH from other terminal master’s programs in the humanities.

When it comes to selecting a MAPH class, Vogler argues that the task involves meticulous attention to each individual application. “What you’re looking for is the liveliness of the intelligence and what or how that might fit with the resources here to produce a really good year for this human being,” she says.

“If you do that,” Schleusener adds, “something good will happen.”

MAPH’s Second Decade

By 2007, a new set of needs had emerged. Levin and Miller’s primary academic objectives centered on integrating more creative texts into the Core and encouraging more students to complete creative thesis projects. They also aimed to deepen MAPH’s commitment to students who arrived at Chicago planning on applying to PhD programs but left with different intentions.

 “We’ve become increasingly serious about making sure that our students have as many opportunities as possible to bring their investment in humanistic inquiry out into the world." —Hilary StrangThis meant expanding course offerings in fields like community-college instruction and journalism and continuing to fund MAPH internships at city nonprofit organizations. These professional opportunities, created in partnership with the University’s Career Advising and Planning Services office (CAPS), aimed to help students find work in the humanities after graduation.

The opportunity to blend creative and critical work attracted Rob Bolton, AM’10, to the program, but balancing coursework and thesis writing with a job hunt proved challenging. MAPHers can easily find advice about applying to PhD programs or becoming college teachers, he says, “but for someone who wanted to do what I wanted to do — get into consulting — it wasn’t easy at all.” After graduation, it took Bolton a year to gain full-time employment as a writer at Idea Couture, an international consulting firm — as well as “a whole series of coincidences and a lot of work.”

By contrast, Yangyang Zong, AM’10, was able to find work through the program but now struggles with broader uncertainties about her career trajectory. Zong, who completed her undergraduate studies in English literature at Peking University in Beijing before MAPH, obtained a position at the Chicago-based Project on Civic Reflection through a MAPH internship.

Asked about her experience in and after the program, Zong says, “To be honest, I’m still recovering from the trauma of MAPH.” Zong suggests that the program’s compressed time frame makes for an unnecessarily stressful and critical academic environment. Expressing frustrations echoed by many recent graduates, she adds, “I’m still not sure what my humanist background will help me do in the long run.” She remains excited about her current job as a program associate at the Project on Civic Reflection and grateful that her employer is sponsoring her visa. But for new alumni facing debt from student loans and potential unemployment, it can be difficult to determine what the ultimate value of a MAPH degree will be just a year after graduation.

Asked how MAPH is responding to the critiques of students like Zong, the program’s associate director, Hilary Strang, PhD’09, cites continued efforts to expand career advising and draw clearer paths for students after graduation. “We’ve become increasingly serious about making sure that our students have as many opportunities as possible to bring their investment in humanistic inquiry out into the world,” she says. Working closely with CAPS, the program launched an externships component during the 2010–11 academic year, in which students spend one day working in Chicago-area corporate and nonprofit offices, building connections with alumni.

MAPH also began, and will expand this year, a series of events focused on individual career exploration and networking. “The Career Core” is intended as a practical way to get students talking about jobs sooner in the year. It kicks off in fall 2011 with an evening of roundtable discussions with Chicago-based MAPH alumni in a variety of fields, offering students insights into the kinds of jobs open to professionals with humanities graduate degrees. Each quarter, MAPH and CAPS plan résumé review sessions, networking skills workshops, and mock interviews. This year will see a new alumni networking event and an additional workshop on presentation skills. MAPH will also offer quarterly volunteer community-service opportunities that foster “serious conversations about what it means to do humanistic work, and what that has to do with the world,” says Strang.

Fifteen years on, the program remains engaged in considerations of how theoretical insights can be taken out of the University. “MAPH now has the sense of a tradition behind it,” says current program director and Classics professor David Wray. He hopes to strengthen the network of MAPH alumni during his tenure, “while making the program more visible to all the different kinds of students likely to benefit from it.”

A-J Aronstein, MAPH mentor and outreach coordinator, graduated from the program in 2010. To find out how to reconnect with the program, get involved with alumni events, or check in with updates about your post-MAPH activities, e-mail him at ajaronstein@uchicago.edu.

*Corrections and clarifications on January 10, 2012: Lawrence Rothfield codirected and codesigned the MAPH program with Gerald Graff from its creation in 1996.


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