President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
June 5, 2002
For many of you, I would guess that the thought of May in Princeton evokes bitter-sweet memories, made up of a combination of glowingly beautiful spring days and frantic all-night writing sessions to finish last-minute papers. You may still experience variations on the anxiety nightmare around “Dean’s Date,” the deadline for much written academic work. My most frequent example of such a dream is arriving at an English exam having read none of the novels.
This year there was a steady stream of students traversing McCosh courtyard the afternoon of Dean’s Date on their way to hand in papers, their pace quickening as the 5:00 p.m. deadline approached. Since freshman year, Rakesh Satyal ‘02, a Comparative Literature major, has set up a “help desk” in McCosh courtyard on Dean’s Date. Offering staplers, paper clips, pens—the accoutrements of the last-minute assemblage process—Rakesh sings out encouragement to passing students, who often return after handing in their work to join him in cheering on their classmates. From a group of four students his first year, what he calls the “Reading Period Theater” has grown to a crowd of about a hundred students who assemble around his card table. With this year’s donation from the Undergraduate Student Government of Italian ice, and the firm promise of several students to continue the event, the Reading Period Theater has every promise of becoming a new Princeton tradition.
May is also the time of year when members of the senior class, theses bound and final papers in the hands of the faculty, suddenly encounter that most precious commodity at Princeton—free time. While still contemplating the last exam, and looking toward graduation with a mixture of excitement and sadness, students have a tendency to become particularly nostalgic about their alma mater, and conscious of some of the missed opportunities during their four years. These include the courses not taken; the intellectual doors not opened. And the thought of starting all over again, with new courses and a new area of concentration, gains real appeal. So it is perhaps not surprising that members of the senior class filled Peyton Auditorium one evening during reading period to hear Astrophysics Professor Richard Gott talk about time travel—backwards into the past as well as forwards into the future. Professor Gott has written about time travel in his book, Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe, and teaches about the phenomenon in a course he and colleagues in the Astrophysics Department give on a regular basis. Indeed, he developed one of the nation’s first courses in general relativity for undergraduates and astrophysics courses for nonscience majors, as well as graduate courses in relativistic physics. But his lecture this May evening was part of a special minicourse series arranged by the senior class.
The minicourse series was the brainchild of last year’s senior class president, Justin Browne ’01. The series, which begins at the end of regular classes, offers seniors a chance to hear faculty lecture whom friends have raved about but whose courses they were never able to take. This desire to experience great scholars who are also dynamic teachers is overwhelmingly what draws the students to these minicourses.
This year’s senior class president Spencer Miller and his colleagues, including Ravi Ramachandran and Loran Gutt, put together a diverse array of offerings that extended well beyond esoteric lectures. They included “A Beginner’s Guide to Viruses” with Professor of Molecular Biology Lynn Enquist, and a chance to sit in on the filming of a program for Australian television that features Professor Peter Singer discussing human values. I had “tea and cookies” with a group of twelve seniors last week to talk about their Princeton experience and the future plans of the University. In addition to faculty lectures and seminars, the program includes courses that develop a senior’s extracurricular talents or teach vital life skills. Minicourses on practical issues included how to read an apartment rental agreement and how to repair a car, while others covered some of the finer points of life—dance lessons, a course in massage therapy, and wine tasting.
Justin Browne hoped that the senior minicourse program would carry over to the Class of ’02. The enthusiastic turnout last year and this year’s equally high interest suggest that there is a demand for this program, and at Princeton, as at most venerable institutions, a one-time event that is repeated successfully for a second year becomes a tradition. But from my experience the best reason to believe that the senior minicourse series will continue for years to come is that it satisfies the desire to learn that seems to be the hallmark of Princeton students. Professor of English and Comparative Literature John Fleming’s minicourse this year was on what humanists do. In an hour he suggested to the seniors some of the joys and challenges (if not risks) of reading a text, of understanding the artifacts of “human intellection,” and of understanding life from different perspectives. Fundamentally, the discussion he had with them will help them hang on to the central elements of their Princeton education—their intellectual curiosity and the joy of learning.