Precepts: A Diagnosis and Prescription

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The precept system, much like the Honor Code, has a fairly impressive pedigree at Princeton, hearkening back to Woodrow Wilson’s tenure as President of the College in the late 19th century. Like the Honor Code, however, the precept system has acquired its share of detractors and skeptics. Everyone knows “that guy in precept” who speaks often while saying nothing at all. There are numerous additional ways in which the usefulness of precept is often undermined. Although the precept system may not be as broken as it sometimes seems, it does have problems that need to be addressed, and their proper diagnosis and response can restore the importance and effectiveness of the system in our Princeton education.

Ask people what’s wrong with precept and you get all sorts of answers, but perhaps the most common is that, in precept discussions, students seldom engage deeply with the assigned reading and instead take up precious time babbling utter baloney. This occurs partly because Princeton students tend to take on formidable amounts of work, both academic and extracurricular, limiting their ability to give each and every obligation the requisite attention. Moreover, the readings for Princeton courses themselves can be quite dense and difficult to understand even when one has the luxury of focusing on any given reading for any great length of time.

But why do people verbalize what amounts to intellectual fluff in precept? Perhaps most students don’t want to make these sorts of contributions because they are aware of how vacuous they sound, but precept participation grades impel them to do so. Humanities courses in particular only have so many ways of evaluating students for a grade, as opposed to engineering and science courses that have problem sets, labs, and the like. Unsurprisingly, the humanities are typically the worst offenders when it comes to students spouting off impressive-sounding nonsense in precept. Graded components generally consist of one or two exams, one or two papers, and participation in class and precept because professors need some way of testing whether students have in fact done the reading, and more rote means of doing so (such as quizzes) create more work for already-busy preceptors and professors. Now, having specified one of the main problems with precept and the root cause of that problem, we can begin to consider different possible solutions and why some of them are not viable.

One inadequate solution would be simply to make precepts ungraded. Admittedly, if students were not required to say something, anything, in order to keep their grade up, then presumably they would no longer feel compelled to fill the air with words that don’t mean much. In this scenario, one would hope that the student who did speak up would genuinely have something to say about the reading, a thoughtful comment or question. The problem with this approach is that if precept were ungraded, then it is all too probable that no one would say anything at all. This would be a grievous failure to achieve the ideal of the university education, in which thoughtful discussion of scholarly and academic issues thrives. Like it or not, most students need some kind of external motivation to complete course readings and engage with the discussion, so leaving precept ungraded would be a cure as bad or worse than the disease.

Grading students more stringently on the quality of their thoughts would also fail to provide a helpful solution. Students currently can give little thought to what they say precisely because they know that what they say is not so important as the fact that they are saying anything at all. It may be suggested that if preceptors had a clear rubric for identifying and denying credit for insubstantial precept contributions, and if everyone knew this were the case, then presumably students would have no choice but to step up their game and devise more thoughtful responses to readings. This sounds nice in theory, but we cannot avoid the obvious question: how do we arrive at these standards? How can we possibly break down and define precisely what constitutes a “good” precept contribution? The very idea on its face threatens to disintegrate into arbitrariness. In response, one might bite the bullet and leave this stricter degree of scrutiny up to the discretion of preceptors. To defend this move, one might also argue that it can be intuitively discerned whether a precept contribution is “good” or not, taking a leaf from Justice Potter Stewart, who wrote of pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio, “I know it when I see it.” However, even if it were true that good precept contributions are simply self-evident (and there is ample reason to doubt this), it would nevertheless be counterproductive to penalize students for not making “good” contributions, for one of the purposes of precept is for students to learn from one another’s varying perspectives and often even each others’ mistakes. If students are worried about whether their contributions qualify as “good” in the eyes of the preceptor, knowing that their grades will suffer if it is not, then this too will lead to a dampening of discussion. Our goal is to raise the quality of discussion, but actively punishing those contributions that are lesser in quality will only serve to shrink the discussion.

Putting aside these dubious solutions, one way to encourage more thoughtful contributions would be to opt for what some courses have already, namely, precepts guided by previously submitted online discussion posts (with both the posts and comments in precept being graded). Instead of starting precept with little or no defined direction, let it be grounded in the comments and questions students have already submitted in their posts. The potential advantage of this system is that if students have the opportunity to compose more carefully considered responses to the readings via online postings, and if the course grading obligates them to submit these posts, then in theory more students will produce higher-quality responses than they would if they were only tasked with speaking up in precept alone. In practice, some students would surely still neglect to submit a thoughtful post (or any post at all), but the point here is that the combination of posting and group discussion, with the latter being grounded in the former, has great potential to make discussion of course readings more thought-provoking and rewarding, and less of a grading hurdle that students are trying to jump over just to get by.

Another possible means of raising the caliber of precept discussions would be to have a brief quiz on the readings at the beginning of each meeting, with the preceptor quickly going over the answers with everyone afterward before moving on to discussion. Its primary purpose would be to ensure that everyone has a general understanding of the contents of the readings rather than to evaluate students’ relative levels of greater or lesser knowledge. It may be objected here that a quiz would be too limited in scope to capture all of the nuance and complexity of typical course readings, and that a quiz would be ill advised because it would imply that there is necessarily a “right” and “wrong” way of thinking about the readings, a notion that is antithetical to the very purpose of precept. I would respond that with the approach I’m envisioning here, quizzes would not ask questions or assume answers about particular interpretations of the readings, which are rightfully the subject of discussion. Rather, quizzes would merely test the basic facts pertaining to the readings: what is the author’s argument, what alternate viewpoints does the author acknowledge or reject, what is the larger scholarly context within which the reading is situated, and so on. To reiterate, precept discussions are sadly often not nearly as stimulating as they could be because students have neglected to acquire even a basic understanding of the readings prior to class. A quick written quiz would help get everyone up to speed and increase the possibility of a rich discussion.

So, though the precept system has its flaws, I believe they can be remedied. I urge that these and other methods of rectifying precept’s shortcomings be implemented on a trial basis so that we may see if improvements follow. Whatever the outcome, we can take success or failure into account and proceed as necessary, but in order to find the right fix, we must actually try something first.

James D. Clark is a senior from Waycross, Georgia, majoring in the Religion Department. He can be reached at jdctwo@princeton.edu.

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