Web Exclusives: Raising Kate
a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)

February 13, 2002:
Nerds or not?
The Secret Lives of Graduate Students

Rumor has it that if you prepped at Exeter or have robber-baron lineage, the Housing Department will put you in Forbes. Although it's a hike from campus, each room has a private bathroom. More important, Forbes not only has the best brunch of the residential colleges, but also the best view. You can look out over the golf course and see Cleveland Tower in the distance, and if it's raining, everything is misty and spooky. If you want to kill a couple of hours on a Saturday morning, Forbes is the place to do it.

Last Saturday I walked to Forbes, where I ate brunch with four men. This, in and of itself, was an extraordinary occurrence, because I usually eat Saturday brunch alone. And, in the event that I do consume my Belgian waffle and hot chocolate in the midst of glorious masculine company, it's generally because the masculine company in question is involved in some sort of fraternity initiation. As was the case a month ago, when I ate brunch with Batman, Robin, and, somewhat inexplicably, Richard Nixon. But that's another story. Saturday brunch was significant because I ate with graduate students. And here at Princeton, that doesn't happen much.

I sat with Spiro, a grad student in my Arabic class. We were soon joined by three of his friends: Ravi, Mike, and Max. Spiro, Ravi, and Mike know each other from the House Committee, an elected board of graduate students on which they serve. Spiro is the facilities chair, which means that he gets to collect the quarters from all the washers and dryers in the grad college. Ravi is in charge of the Coffee House. His responsibilities include cleaning the coffee filter and charging his colleagues exorbitant amounts of money for stale pastries. I'm not sure exactly what Mike does, but his is a paid position with a term limit, so it might be important. Max's relationship to the other three was unclear. He had just returned from Germany, and didn't have a lot to say.

What follows is insight into the secret lives of graduate students. That is, as much insight as a Saturday brunch can provide.

Math Alive:

"I am going to be a TA next semester," Spiro said proudly. "For a course called Math Alive. Have you heard of it?"

Undergraduates commonly refer to Math Alive as Math for Plants. It is the course of last resort for nonscience, nonengineering majors seeking to fulfill the quantitative reasoning requirement. Rumor has it that Math Alive used to be listed in the course offerings as Math Alive!, and that the exclamation point was removed in order to give the class some sort of legitimacy. But Math Alive has no legitimacy. I can say this because I am enrolled in a quantitative reasoning course that is only slightly less shameful. It's called Astrophysics 203: The Universe, and word has it that you have to identify the Big Dipper for the midterm.

I told Spiro all this, but he didn't seem to care. His friend Mike thought it was pretty funny.

"Math for Plants," he said. "That's a good one."

Something about the way Mike chuckled gave me the impression that he knew a lot more about thermodynamics and multivariable calculus than I did.

"What are you studying, Mike?" I asked him.

Mike told me that he was studying electrical engineering. I didn't even know that there were graduate programs in engineering. I guess I had always figured that after four years of linear algebra, physics, and materials chemistry, you'd be able to go right out and build a bridge. Hell, judging from the way the Missouri State Highway Department works, you could get a degree in comparative literature, and they'd still let you build a bridge.

Graduate Students vs. Undergraduates

"There is a common perception," Spiro said. "That graduate students think that undergraduates are stupid. And that undergraduates think that grad students are, well, nerds."

This is true. Graduate students really think that undergraduates are stupid, and undergraduates really think that grad students are nerds. We also think that they shower infrequently, make bad clothing choices, and are all spies, but that's beside the point.

Personally, I think that the bad blood between graduate students and undergrads is the fault of the Orange Key tour guides. I mean, all those people do is lie to prospective students. "This is not Harvard," they say. "Princeton is undergraduate oriented. You'll have real professors teaching your classes, not teaching assistants." What they don't tell you is that the precept, the most critical component of your class, will be taught by a graduate student. Unless you're in the politics department, in which case it may be taught by a sleazy 20-something from Merrill Lynch. So it's not surprising that undergrads feel a little cheated when they realize that they'll be learning about supply and demand curves from Ljupco-from-Macedonia, rather than from Paul Krugman. It's just unfortunate that they take their frustration out on the entire graduate population. Then again, it's not fair that the grad students monopolize the choicest studying spots in Firestone.

Eating Clubs:

Who would have thought? Graduate students are snobs when it comes to eating clubs.

"What eating club are you going to join, Kate?" Spiro asked me. Ravi and Mike leaned in closer. Even Max looked interested.

"Uh, I don't really know," I said. "Terrace? Maybe Cloister? I have a couple of weeks to decide."

"Ivy," Spiro said authoritatively. "You should join Ivy."

Ravi and Mike nodded. They had heard of Ivy, too. I resisted the impulse to tell them that if I were really Ivy material, I wouldn't be eating brunch with a bunch of grad students. And, that if I were really Ivy material, I would have done something when Spiro took an unauthorized sample of my waffle. Instead, I asked Spiro if he had ever been inside Ivy.

"Oh yes," Spiro said. "It is very nice. I have also visited T.I. and Terrace. I did not like T.I., but maybe that was just because everything was covered in beer."

"From what I understand, it's usually that way," I said.

"I did not like Terrace," he continued. "It was as if everyone on the campus who is not straight was gathered there."

"Sexually straight or ideologically straight?" I asked him.

"Both," he sniffed.


You can reach Kate Swearengen at kswearen@princeton.edu