In 1905, Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, introduced the preceptorial method — a style of learning wherein small groups of students meet regularly with a faculty member for more intimate learning and discussion.
More than a century later, the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences is modernizing this concept to benefit its recent Ph.D. graduates who are faced with an increasingly competitive job market, particularly those in the humanities and social sciences.
“In the humanities, the job market has gotten much tighter,” said Alex Young, who received his doctorate in English from USC Dornsife this summer. “More and more the model is for humanities scholars to spend two or three years in a postdoc position before taking a tenure-track position.”
In response to this trend, the Office of Academic Programs in the USC Dornsife Dean’s Office has developed the Dornsife Preceptor Program, which offers full-time, salaried preceptor positions to recent doctoral graduates of USC. For the first year of the program, six positions were offered — three in the humanities and three in the social sciences.
A renewed focus on teaching
The program also responds to a dialogue taking place across academia related to teaching, said Steven Lamy, vice dean of academic programs and professor of international relations. There has been a sense of dissatisfaction with research universities around a perceived lack of attention to teaching, which is why cultivating preceptor opportunities such as these benefits both USC and its students.
The program aims to provide preceptors with direct teaching experience that will ultimately lead to a tenure-track position at another university. It creates meaningful teaching experience for Ph.D. graduates that makes them more marketable both to other research universities and high-end liberal arts colleges where teaching is paramount.
In addition to leading four discussion sections as a teaching assistant for a class in the undergraduate general education program, preceptors get to design their own syllabus for a course that relates to their area of expertise.
Preceptors also have the opportunity to receive mentorship from the faculty member teaching the general education course. Preceptors can ask questions and get helpful feedback about their self-designed courses. The job also provides time for refining personal research with the goal of publication, further strengthening their portfolios as they search for tenure-track positions.
Filling a gap for recent graduates
Young, one of this year’s preceptors, was drawn to the opportunity to remain at USC, he said, and teach students of a high caliber. Already an award-winning researcher, he wants to continue his career as a humanities scholar and is looking for tenure-track jobs in American studies or English.
“[The program] fills the gap that’s getting increasingly hard to fill between completing a Ph.D. and successfully finding a tenure-track job.
“[The program] fills the gap that’s getting increasingly hard to fill between completing a Ph.D. and successfully finding a tenure-track job,” Young said. This gives me an opportunity not only to build my teaching profile but to continue to build my research profile in ways that will assist me as I continue my search.”
As a teaching assistant, Young is working with Tim Gustafson, associate professor of English and American studies and ethnicity, for his “Los Angeles: The City, the Novel, the Film” class. The seminar Young conceived is called “Representing the Global War on Terror,” one of the new first-year general education seminars.
“I’ve been interested in how film and literature represent the war on terror,” Young said. “My class allows us to think about how society uses narratives to work through some of the intractable problems that have defined the conflict thus far.”