Review of American Public University

Since, naturally, my experiences at American Public University (APU)[1] were limited, this review will be limited.  I do not claim it to be a sweeping, all-encompassing review of the institution.  I’ll begin by explaining the kinds of coursework I did at APU, what I intended to get out of it, and the general nature of my educational relationship with APU.  I will end with my assessment of the quality of the programs and school.

Going in, my hope was to accomplish two a few goals: 1) develop a writing style or a strong sense of writing style; 2) acquire a philosophy background; 3) acquire history of science background; 4) become an individual of letters, in some sense.  My personal goal, at this stage of my life, only some years ago, was to move from the sciences into the discipline of history and philosophy of science.  Coming from such a background, most in physics, astronomy, and mathematics, I wanted to develop my writing ability to write, over and above the mechanical style that so often pervades science.  In one sense, I wanted to heighten my literary aesthetic sensibility, both in writing and reading.  I also wanted to fill in knowledge gaps I had in philosophy and in history of science.  Though I had done quite a bit of reading in philosophy prior to this time, I had but a few courses under my belt, and philosophy of physics, at the graduate level, would require quite a bit more.  Additionally, the techniques of history writing and methodologies were not skills I had yet acquired, so the history of science, history of technology, and course in Darwin, offered by this history and humanities departments, I felt, would move me toward satisfying these deficiencies.  My last major purpose was to develop a sense of literary scholarship.  For anyone who hasn’t read my anecdotal preface (see this blog post), I grew up poor, and the first books that ever entered my home was in high school; I purchased them.  For the most part, I grew up without access to libraries, and nobody in my family read.  Even as a high-schooler, I read little.  This all changed during my break (the summer) between high school and university.  Nonetheless, I had always felt like I didn’t know much about anything, hadn’t read the classics, and really didn’t have much clue about aesthetic qualities of literature (i.e., the art that is the written word).

The way I set up my studies at APU was as follows: I would take almost all the undergraduate philosophy courses they had, and then to move into the Master of the Arts (M.A.) program in Humanities.  The philosophical coursework satisfied the selfsame deficiency, abovementioned; the latter would satisfy the others, being that the program entailed the option of history of science courses, was reading and writing intense, and the program is largely structured around the classics.  That was the rationale.

The plan proved overwhelmingly successful.  I will start with the philosophy program.  I didn’t feel it necessary to do another bachelor’s in APU’s philosophy program, partly because of the number of credits that it required, and the fact that I didn’t feel like going through the process of transferring credit.  The courses I took were all fairly stimulating, and I think the reading load was just a bit less than what I would get at a decent state school.  I imagine that a student attending APU’s philosophy program would be able to make a fairly smooth transition to a master’s program at a brick-and-mortar university, no problem.  Maybe they need a stronger course in twentieth-century philosophy, perhaps survey/excerpt style.  I think the one thing that would have been a major equalizer for APU’s philosophy program would have been to read excerpts from a couple of primary sources, rather than just reading Frederick Copleston’s volumes.  This is one respect in which the department of humanities has a leg-up on the philosophy department —the humanities department reads numerous primary texts by philosophers (e.g., Aristotle’s Poetics, Neitzsche’s The Joyous Wisdom, James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, etc.).  I was definitely please with content of their courses.  The work load wasn’t bad: ten-page papers and a couple of 2-page assignments were sprinkled throughout the courses.  As far as the quality of work expect of students, I don’t have much of a basis for criticism, because I got all A’s.  However, I do feel that certain professors were not as good at keep students on task in the weekly forums all the time; and so I will now move on to the instructors in the philosophy department.

I have to begin with Dr. Steven Gans of the philosophy department, who I also borrowed from that department to be my thesis advisor in the M.A. program.  Dr. Gans is an unusual breed of professor who is willing to give back as much as a particular student is willing to give.  He positively reinforced my interests, stimulating me at times, challenging me at others.  He is a wonderful human being and a very knowledgeable scholar.  We were at the point where we would exchange thoughts daily and do phone calls every couple of weeks.  His knowledge of the speculative turn in philosophy and the work of Bruno Latour —and, of course, twentieth-century continental and analytic philosophy, in general— led me to very quickly fill in the massive knowledge gap I was suffering in twentieth-century philosophy, and his knowledge also inspired my M.A. topic, which I began to formulate while a student in his Enlightenment philosophy course.  In short, he is a treasure of a philosopher, teacher, and person for a university like APU.  I would recommend taking as many courses with him as possible, and even wait to see if he will be teaching any given course.  Another fine philosopher, and perhaps my favorite discussant in the forums for any class, is Christopher Myers.  Partly a product of Princeton, Myers is very passionate, earnest in discussion, humble, and extremely knowledgeable about the primary branches of philosophy (especially epistemology).  I don’t think I interact nearly as much in any class’ forum as in Dr. Myers’.  It was a joy.  Sadly, I must report that there is one professor that APU absolutely needs to get rid of, and for numerous reasons.  Kurt Messick nearly cost me admissions into numerous universities, because he failed to send my letter of recommendation to the programs he had agreed to.  In class, he is elusive, hardly ever stimulating conversation in any substantial way, and goes missing in action for lengthy periods of time.  He kills with kindness, presumably to offset his professional deficiencies; and so, being that, in addition, he is a priest for the Anglican Church, it is probably the case that people don’t complain because it would feel wrong.  Such was my case.  After I was contacted by numerous universities (or had checked the status of my letters of recommendation), telling me his letter had not been received, I sent him numerous emails.  With no response, I had to impose on some professors —fortunately, I am very well liked!— to write a letter of recommendation at the drop of a hat.  Afterward, seeking to hear what happened, I tried to contact Messick through every form of media which permitted private messages.  About the only one I didn’t employ was twitter.  Messick even refused to respond to my message through Facebook.  Given his suspect behavior of disappearing in class, leaving many weeks of work ungraded until the end of class, giving feedback of poor quality, and the case I have described, I think Messick should be shown the door.

The quality of professors in the humanities department is of a high quality, as well.  But first, I have to give notice to a particularly exceptional professor, Dr. Anne Millbrooke, author of Aviation History.  She’s in the history department, but my program in humanities permit taking courses over there.  I am sad to say that I only had the pleasure of taking one of her courses, called “History of Science.”  The only way I can describe how fortunate APU is to have her high quality instruction is by analogy: It’s sort of like having an NFL all-pro player on your CFL team.  On assignments, her criticisms are extraordinarily constructive, her suggestions are very thought provoking, her knowledge vast, and she is a great reader and writer (i.e., her knowhow of technical writing for precision and aesthetic in sentence construction are expert).  Of all the graduate coursework I did, I think I learned more than any other.  I highly recommend taking a course with her, just so you get a feel for what taking a class at a top university feels like.  The standard she imposes on classes is similar to what I have experienced at Indiana University Bloomington and Harvard University.

The M.A. in humanities is structured largely, though not entirely, around Mortimer Adler’s series, “The Great Books of the Western World.”  For me, this was blissful.  As a result of this fact, not only did I get the opportunity to read scads of literature, but, in my opinion, I got to read a great portion of philosophically inclined classic literature.  The adjustments in the program’s readings were made in order to supplement Adler’s compilation with works of feminist perspective and works like slave narratives.  Reading works, like Crime and Punishment and the Aeneid, made for a very rich literary experience.  The work load is rather considerable, but that’s how one becomes a great writer: by reading, writing, and writing some more.  The transformation that my skill underwent was radical, and I accomplished exactly what I wanted.  Before entering in, writing a draft for a 25-page paper, for which all the necessary research was already complete (and just the writing needed doing), would have taken many, many weeks.  Afterward, I was able to complete such a draft in two solid days, or maybe a bit more.  The director, Ev Corum, was very reasonable and flexible in allowing me to work with Gans and on the project that I wanted for my thesis.  His instruction in class and administrative guidance definitely made APU a wonderful experience and enjoyable time.  A good administrator cannot be overvalued in any university department, but especially when doing online schooling.  In sum, the M.A. in humanities at APU is highly recommended to anyone who wants to become an individual of letters.  I also think that the program can launch someone into a PhD program, if the appropriate effort is applied to the studies, just like any university.

Depending on what you are doing and how seriously you will take APU, I think the university has the clout and substance to catapult students to where they want to be, even if the goal is an even higher level of education.  After completing the M.A. at APU, I was accepted into Indiana University Bloomington’s graduate program in the prestigious Department of History and Philosophy of Science, which was the first department of the kind, founded by Wittgenstein’s student, Norwood Russell Hanson and Ed Grand in 1960.  Today, a panel (click here) put together by the top philosophers of science number IU Bloomington among a very few, elite graduate programs in philosophy of science.  I am very proud to be a part of that tradition, and I sincerely believe APU helped me acquire the necessary skills and background to make that possible.

Feel free to ask questions about the university and program on any topic you felt I should have discussed.

[1] APU is under the umbrella of the American Public University System (APUS), and, as far as I experience can tell, American Military University students attend the same classes as APU students.

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