How to Write a Precept Response

Having a pen in hand (and using it with some frequency) will set you up for active reading.

The precept response is a veritable Princeton institution, right there alongside Reunions, long nights in the library, and overly-friendly sidewalk squirrels. Somehow, I didn’t encounter this special form of assignment—where, as the name suggests, you “respond” to that week’s readings—until my sophomore year, but now I feel as though these responses set the rhythm of my academic week. On Mondays I’m responding to readings for a seminar on mythology. Wednesdays, for a history of science course. And Fridays, for a junior colloquium in Religion. Yes, friends, I cannot escape the precept response, and if you’ve read this far, I suspect you cannot either. As a celebration of our shared weekly assignment,  I’d like to offer some tidbits of accumulated wisdom for completing the precept response.

Typically, the precept Blackboard or email response is designed to a) keep you on track with the course readings and b) assess your ability to do (a). To that end, perhaps the single most important component of the response assignment is actually doing your readings. Obviously, life happens, and no one can do all of their reading all of the time. But habitually “faking it,” while your prerogative, is at odds with the spirit of taking a class in the first place. It also won’t help you complete your response. Plus, as more than one preceptor has chided, we can all tell when someone never does the reading. Bad looks, friends, bad looks.

Anyways, my main point is that grappling with the readings is an essential prerequisite for a successful response. Notice how I said grapple with. By this, I do not mean “understand perfectly” or “assault with a highlighter.” Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things…but keep the bigger picture in mind: you’re trying to learn the material and demonstrate that attempt to your preceptor/professor.

What does this look like in practice? Engage with the reading as you progress through it. (One simple way to do this is to imagine your side of a conversation with the author.) I also find that writing commentary or notes in the margins helps me to remember what my initial reactions were to a particular passage. Finally, refer to whatever instructions you have for the assignment and refine your marginal notes through the lens of what’s being asked of you.

I’m of the persuasion that written responses need not, to quote a former philosophy professor, offer a “blindingly original theory of everything.” In fact, my experience at Princeton thus far suggests that academic humility fares much better than egoistic attempts to demonstrate supposed “mastery” of the material. Especially in a short assignment, focus on incremental progress, not perfection!

On a related note, I caution against excessive use of technical jargon, fancy words, or other academic smokescreens. Stylistic flair is fine, insofar as it doesn’t detract from the clear expression of your ideas. The world wants to know what you mean, not how well you can run around the question at hand! (Of course, this distinction between clarity and argument-masking will not look the same for everyone. Writing is a discipline to which we all have varying degrees of exposure to prior to Princeton. If you feel like you struggle with clarity of expression, Princeton has many resources for you, including the Writing Center and other posts on this blog.)

There you have it then, folks, my suggestions for conquering the precept response. If nothing else, I hope you’ll note the importance I’ve placed on active reading and engagement with the course material prior to beginning your response. If you’ve thought a lot about the reading, you should have no shortage of things to write about. Now go forth and tackle that assignment—after all, precept is coming up!

Shanon FitzGerald, Social Sciences Correspondent