Can’t understand the preceptor, eh?

by Kai Chan

Ask anyone about his thoughts on the precept system and you will be sure to get an earful. For my part, I have precepted three undergraduate courses over the years. Although it can be rewarding, precepting does have its downsides. One annoying aspect is that every year I will read an opinion in the ‘Prince’ by someone who is unhappy with her preceptor. Invariably she will rail about her preceptor’s dearth of talent in teaching and poor command of English. Some of the beefs that students have are legitimate, but sometimes they are just inane.

I recall an incident several years back that amused and angered me. A former colleague of mine, John Woo (not his real name), related an interesting story to me. Born and raised in upstate New York, Woo is as American as apple pie. When Woo was “serving his time” he was a very popular teacher. Indeed, in the year prior to us meeting, he had won a distinguished award in teaching. Students would pack the classrooms where he taught, and there were always more students who wished to be enrolled in his section than the registrar’s office would permit.

One day, early in September several years ago, an undergraduate had approached the then-economics departmental chair, Ben Bernanke, about transferring out of Woo’s precept. This student had said that he wanted to transfer out of Woo’s section because he could not understand John’s English. That seemed odd; if anything, Woo speaks with an upstate New York accent. Was this gentleman, who had requested a transfer, from a part of the country that had a hard time picking up the upstate New York accent? Then just as John was about to deliver the punch line, I picked up on the story. This guy had never sat in on John’s class. He had never talked with John or bothered to pick up the scoop on his teaching abilities. He had simply looked in Fisher Hall to see the precept list posted in the basement, and when he saw that his assigned preceptor was “John Woo” he had already made his judgment: John Woo is an ethnic name, ergo he must speak English with an accent. And so this student felt a need to directly go to the departmental chair to ask to be transferred; all the while dozens of other students were clambering to get in. For this student seeing an ethnic name was reason enough to complain about the English facilities of his preceptor.

Now this story is not meant as a sleight against undergraduates. For the most part, the undergraduate population here is very wonderful (and one realizes that even more after having served as an assistant master). But it only takes a few rotten apples to make the precepting experience bitter. Moreover, what incentives do preceptors (or professors) have to teach with passion? Indeed, there is every disincentive from being a good preceptor. Take, for instance, the fact that preceptors are usually assigned a certain number of teaching and grading sections. The better one is at teaching, the larger will be one’s class size and the more problem sets one will have to grade. Indeed, a good preceptor holds lots of office hours for his students and spends a lot of time preparing for class, which is more time out of his own research agenda. Most significantly, a good track record in teaching will not land anyone a job at Harvard or Stanford. At the end of the day, if preceptors (or professors) take the extra time to be a good teacher, it is because that is their natural disposition.

Unless the administration can place a carrot on a stick for graduate students to teach with passion, undergraduates shouldn’t expect a fiery graduate student standing in front of the class reading Voltaire with the passion of and charm of Churchill. Ultimately, since precepting only peripherally enters into a graduate student’s formula for success, many will only peripherally care about their teaching obligation.

As for me, English is not my mother tongue, and I speak with a very thick Canadian accent. (I don’t know what you’re talking aboot, eh!) But I hope this hasn’t ever been an excuse for any of my erstwhile students to have transferred. Not that I am in the same league with Woo, but I do have a very ethnic sounding name.

Kai Chan is an economics graduate student from Toronto, Ont.

The Daily Princetonian: “Can’t understand the preceptor, eh?”

Published: Monday, May 10th, 2004