Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

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

April 23, 2003:

They aren't like you or me

Graduate students take it on the chin during appreciation week

Illustration by Henry Martin ’48

April 7-11 was National Graduate Student Appreciation Week, an event the University commemorated lavishly by making Friday lunch at any of the campus dining halls free for grad students. To add insult to injury, Professor John Fleming, convinced that Princeton graduate students are getting more than a free lunch, chose that week to pick on the "Gradgrinds." In his Daily Princetonian article, entitled "A Free Ride at Princeton," he blames the grad students for living in ugly housing, for riding on the new P-Rides shuttle service, and for, well, being foreign:

"I live on the edge of the 'Gray Farm,' just across the street from the 'Butler Tract.' The 'Gray Farm' is a neighborhood developed as a 'faculty ghetto' in the 1960s, consisting mainly of good $30,000 houses that now go for about half a million each. The 'Butler Tract' is a graduate student ghetto of ticky-tacky rental property that is easily the best real estate deal in town. Using a tastefully placed screen of fast-growing evergreens the University has done a pretty good job of shielding us faculty from our neighbors; but we all know they are there and doing their graduate student thing — depressing our property values."

Professor Fleming is known around campus for his affinity for Old English — his classes on Chaucer are legendary — and for a fashion spread three years ago in Maxim, for which he wore a three-piece wool suit and posed with several East Village types. Professor Fleming has written regularly for the Prince; as a rule, his column is incomprehensible and outrageously self-indulgent, although not generally offensive. Therefore, the hostility and apparent racism of "A Free Ride at Princeton" came as something of a surprise:

"The [P-Rides shuttle] ride home is fast, fun, and comfortable, not to mention upliftingly multicultural. The bus-driver and I are ordinarily the only native-speakers of a Western language, though not always the same one, of course. I've never been on the bus when Chinese was not the lingua franca, so to speak, of the majority. I wonder what the Admiral [King, an overseer of the Japanese front during World War II, and the man for whom one of the streets in the neighborhood is named] thinks about that."

The fallout was swift. The Executive Committee of the Graduate Student Government, the Butler Committee, the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars, and the Graduate Student Government International Students' Concerns Committee issued a joint letter condemning the tone and timing of the article: "And now, besides all the roles that we play here — student, preceptor, lecturer, research assistant, departmental support staff, prospective student recruiter and host — now we have to take such public abuse even from one of the very faculty who invite us here to work with them and who depend upon us to grade tests and papers — in the case of Fleming, so that he can spend his time dishing trash-talk about us. Happy Graduate Student Appreciation Week."

Happy Graduate Student Appreciation Week, indeed. I went to a party at the Grad College on Friday night, expecting to find the students plotting retaliation and fomenting revolt. Surprisingly, the Prince article rarely came up in conversation. The party was mellow, an instance of the Princeton tradition of pregaming, or drinking in preparation for the main event, which could be a basketball game, the Street, or Thursday night precept. In the case of the graduate party, the main event was '80s night at the D-Bar. Grad students, either because they're more mature than undergraduates or because they're lousy alcoholics, drink less, so they can afford to buy better stuff. Almost everyone who came to the party brought an offering — Carlsburg, Absolut, a case of brown ale, a couple of bottles of Merlot — and the crowd was as international as the bar. About 25 people showed up, most of them engineers or economists, although there was a smattering of philosophers and a couple of musicologists.

I approached one of the engineers, who was mounting an assault on a bottle of wine. Apparently there was something wrong with the corkscrew.

"Having some problems there?"

"Perhaps an undergrad can show how it's done," he retorted.

Perhaps not. If it doesn't come in a white cardboard box — Franzia is a big hit at undergraduate parties — and if I can't pry the bottlecap off with my teeth, I don't know how to open it. My suggestion — that he break the neck of the bottle, rockstar style, against the side of the desk — was rejected.

Helen, a Swedish graduate student studying civil and environmental engineering, threw the party. She lives in the north courtyard of the Old Graduate College, in a two-room single. This is hot real estate, and Helen came by it because she's a member of the House Committee. The House Committee is like the Undergraduate Student Government, but with actual responsibilities, and its members have priority in draw times.

All the guests commented on the spaciousness of Helen's room; most of them, myself included, were envious. Bernard, who had occupied the room last year when he served on the House Committee, bleakly indicated the furnishings. "That's my refrigerator. An undergraduate sold it to me for $80. It was a horrible deal. That's my desk. It was too big to move out, so I left it here," he said mournfully, but then brightened. Bernard is now living in Professor Fleming's "Butler Ghetto," and although he sorely misses his old room, there were certain disadvantages.

"Did you know that I never got sick at Princeton until I lived in this room? I don't think it's very clean. There was a cockroach problem, too."

I asked one of the economists standing nearby what he thought about Professor Fleming's article. He hadn't heard anything about it, so Bernard told him the story.

"Doesn't he like graduate students?" Asked the economist, looking hurt.

"No. He's the kind of person you see on the street and greet like this," said Bernard, executing a sieg heil.

"It's too bad, because he's missing a good party," the economist said, gesturing around the room.


You can reach Kate at kswearen@princeton.edu