How to Succeed in Precept (Without Really Trying)

Precepts are a unique part of the Princeton experience in that they’re usually called discussions or something at other schools. Woodrow Wilson’s little-known fifteenth point was “there should be precepts,” and today he is remembered more for his dedication to the idea of student discussions than for his fervent anti-Semitism. Some find precepts a great forum for exchanging ideas, others find them an efficient means of identifying the biggest tools on campus, but whatever your opinion, you’re going to have to go to precept. Sometimes. Luckily, your friendly neighborhood Tiger is here to tell you how to succeed in precept without really trying.

1. Look at the reading before precept 

As precepts usually deal with a reading, film, or some other such scholarly hoopla, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with said hoopla beforehand by carefully studying it, or printing it out, or at least making a mental note to print it out. This will instantly win you points with your preceptor – just imagine the happiness on that hapless grad student’s face when, without being prompted, you flawlessly recite the name of the book you were supposed to read!

2. Talk early

As with many aspects of the Princeton experience (the Street, football games, etc.), precept starts off fun and accessible and slowly deteriorates into a mind-numbing exercise in futility. Unfortunately, somebody – probably that anti-Semitic jerk Woodrow Wilson – decided that we would be graded on participation, meaning that it is not enough to merely be present for precept, but many preceptors also require students to be fully conscious and to talk once or twice. You don’t want to wait until after that precocious freshman and the guy who’s majoring in the subject of the class have driven the conversation far out of your depth – get off to a good start by making a simple but conversation-starting comment such as “I found this article provocative,” “I really liked this film,” or “I did this reading.”  Speak now and you can forever hold your peace, by which I mean sleep quietly behind your book.

3. Use key words

“The protagonist had an ethos that, frankly, I found problematic, especially when it was complicated by the author’s unorthodox take on the postmodern bildungsroman narrative tone.”

You didn’t understand that sentence, and neither did I. It’s ok – the preceptor did, and she loved it! There are a few key terms, such as “constructivist,” “revisionist,” and the granddaddy of them all “complicate,” that are obscure enough to apply to just about anything. If someone disagrees with the random vague adjective you’ve chosen, just tell them that they’re right – their opinion is more than valid, but you were seeking to complicate the discussion. That’s academic dynamite.

4. Agree with everyone

Most of what people say in precept basically means “The person who just spoke said something smart.” There are really only two or three interesting things to be said about most topics that come up in precept, so it’s not a coincidence that college students have put their heads together and come up with endless ways of saying, “I agree with that last thing.” Just start a sentence with “Going off of what he/she said,” “Jumping off of that,” “Along that same line,” “Going back to,” or even the simple “Like [name] said” and then re-word what [name] said. This proves that you’re keeping up with the discussion, but you won’t look like one of those Type-A know-it-all pricks like [name] who contributes original thoughts to scholarly discourse.

5. Chill

Once you’ve spoken once or twice, don’t overdo it. There are those who can lead an entire 45-minute discussion about a book they haven’t read, but you don’t need to pull off this Herculean task to get participation credit. There’s a reason that they call doing a little work then sitting back and tuning out “giving it the old college try” – Princeton is the “old college” they’re referring to, and saying a few things in precept before just spacing out is the “try.” Besides, there are many things to look for in precept that are far more interesting than whatever the actual topic is. Try to figure out how many people actually did all of the reading. Do they seem like happy people? Is your preceptor hungover? Did you bring the right book? Do you even own the right book? What even is the right book? There are so many great questions to ask, and answering them is far more fun than setting aside an hour a week to actually pursue whatever academic interest you had when you first got here.

Congratulations – you’ve made it through another precept! You now have exactly a week in which to find excuses not to do the reading. And that’s what a college education is all about.

– SBW ’15. Illustrated by AZ ’16.

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