When Cornel West GS '80 left Harvard University to come to Princeton in April 2002, Matthew Briones was faced with a difficult decision. West had been Briones' dissertation adviser in the History of American Civilization Department at Harvard since 1999.
Despite being married with a child, Briones chose to migrate to the University with West and remain a preceptor for his class.
Numerous students are attracted to certain courses at Princeton by virtue of the popularity and personalities of the courses' star professors. These professors also attract graduate students and post-docs who want to be assistants for their classes.
Besides teaching undergraduates, these professors also maintain strong academic and pedagogical relationships with their teaching assistants.
Briones was the co-head teaching assistant for West's popular course, Introduction to African-American Studies at Harvard — a course in which roughly 600 students enrolled, he said. He now commutes to Princeton from New York City.
Even though West is still Briones' adviser, Briones will receive his Ph.D. from Harvard. But upon moving to Princeton, Briones became a preceptor for West's class, AAS 369/REL 369: Philosophic, Religious, and Literary Dimensions of DuBois, Baldwin and Morrison, last spring.
Briones is not the only teaching assistant drawn by the scholarship and personality of the University's most famous professors.
Jennifer Weber came to the University as a graduate student in the history department to work with James McPherson. Weber, whose area of interest is the Civil War, had McPherson as her dissertation adviser as well.
Having completed her dissertation on the Civil War, Weber is now a lecturer in the History Department and the lead preceptor for HIS 376: The American Civil War and Reconstruction.
"I came to Princeton as a graduate student to work with [McPherson]. [Being a preceptor for his course] is a very natural progression," Weber said. "He's the person with whom I have the closest intellectual relationship."
This semester's HIS 376 is McPherson's last course in his teaching career and has roughly 400 students enrolled, Weber said.
Unlike Briones and Weber, who were familiar with the professors as advisers, Christopher Karpowitz, a sixth-year graduate student in the politics department, was drawn to POL 316: Civil Liberties because it is taught by professor Robert George.
"I was very interested in the opportunity to work with Professor George, because he has a very good reputation as a lecturer," Karpowitz explained.
"I've had very good experiences with teaching with other professors at the University but the experience of working with professor George has been the most enjoyable."
As a preceptor, Karpowitz said he has learned from George's ideas and demeanor in the classroom. He also praised George's treatment of preceptors.
"Professor George is very approachable and is very interested in making sure that preceptors have appropriate direction, but also gives us the freedom to structure the precept in a way that we find most useful," he said.
McPherson holds a weekly meeting with the preceptors to talk about the material for his class. This is customary for large undergraduate classes in the history department, Weber said.
"He is not prescriptive at all in what we are supposed to talk about and what angle we're supposed to take," she said. "He's democratic in that way."
Damian Madan, a graduate student in the molecular biology department, was a lab assistant for MOL 101: From DNA to Human Complexity, taught last fall by Eric Wieschaus.
Wieschaus won the Nobel prize in physiology and medicine in 1995.
Madan found Wieschaus' interest in teaching counterintuitive.
"One thing that I probably would have thought was that such a high profile professor wouldn't be interested in teaching a 101 class," he said. "I've taken a class from him as a graduate student. [He's] probably one of the most enthusiastic professors I've worked with."
Madan said he was motivated to become an assistant by the opportunity to work with Wieschaus.
"[The assistants] interacted with Eric quite a bit," he said. "He would come to the labs very often, even if there was another professor or a TA who was responsible for that section."
Similarly, Briones praised West's style, both inside and outside the classroom.
"[West] is one of these big name professors, who is the most human and most personable professor I've worked with. He thinks of himself first and foremost as a teacher. He really cares about his Ph.D. students and his undergraduates," Briones said. "It really means a lot when a mentor like that takes interest in who you are as a person instead of what you are working on."
In addition to the interaction with the professor, Karpowitz said his precepts are enlivened by the presence of bright students interested in the topic area.
"Well-known professors tend to attract very good students. Having students that are very motivated is helpful for any preceptor," he said. "We all want to teach motivated students who are interested in the topics. I think professor George's students are just that."
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