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

April 4, 2001:
Practice or precepts
When Lake Carnegie is a bit more compelling than Arabic vocabularies

"You wouldn't believe how tired I am," I told my parents the other night. "Crew is killing me. We were on the water for two hours today, and then we went inside and worked on technique in the tanks. My back is throbbing, and I have a stomachache. Do you think it's a reaction to Hoagie Haven's chicken parm, or gastrointestinal bleeding from the six Advil I took after practice?

"Didn't you have an Arabic quiz today?" my mother asked.

"Yeah," I said. "That went OK. But practice was tough. It was raining, and we were soaked when we finally got off the water. Then we had to spend 20 minutes picking dirt and crusted feathers off the sides of the boat. Too bad Lake Carnegie is hot property for every Canada goose in the tri-state area."

My mother sighed ominously into the telephone.

"Kate, we're not sending you to Princeton to become an Olympic rower," she said. "I'm more interested in hearing about your classes. And why haven't you said anything about midterms? Don't you have them next week?"

"Hey, and isn't your first race in a couple of weeks?" my father asked. "I hear that the Brown team is pretty good this year."

"That's enough, Jim," my mother said.

This semester I'm taking Arabic, sociology, a course about U.S. policies toward the Middle East, and international relations.

Arabic is basically the same as it was last semester: The class is dominated by graduate students whose claims of having no prior exposure to the language are belied by their knowledge of obscure vocabulary words like "fertilizer" and "imperialism." We still read from the same imposing red textbook, in which we follow the exploits of two highly fictitious and greatly tormented characters. One of them, Maha, is a student at New York University. She studies English literature, and suffers from "feelings of loneliness" as a result of her only-child status.

The other character, Khalid, is a callow youth whose enjoyment of life is hampered by the fact that his father is forcing him to major in business. I'm hoping that Maha will be killed by an errant taxicab and that Khalid will fail out of the University of Cairo and be forced into a life of prostitution. As predictable as the book is, though, it's a safe bet that Maha and Khalid will meet, fall in love, and get married. By the second textbook, Khalid will have found a nice job, Maha will be writing a bestseller, and both will be living the American Dream in Dayton, Ohio.

Or maybe not. A semester of sociology spent reading the works of Max Weber and Karl Marx has killed my optimism. It's a heavy price to pay, considering that I signed up for the class in order to correct my friend Nate when he misquotes Hegel. The class has been valuable in its own right, though, as the material I've read on social theories and poverty trends has added to my understanding of other political issues.

"Yeah, right," my friend Janet said when I tried to tell her that. "How hard can that class be? What are they going to ask you on the midterm? To write an essay about why inequality is bad?" Janet, a premed, is worried about taking organic chemistry in the fall and feels entitled to make such comments. I told her that sociology would look good if I decided to apply to Woody Woo.

"So will international relations," I told her. "Which is what I keep telling myself, every Tuesday and Thursday morning."

International relations is a great class. Although the first month was spent discussing dull readings on realpolitik and liberalism, things have picked up since we started analyzing the possible causes of World War I. And all those rumors about the professor being a communist probably stem from disgruntlement over the midterm essay prompts. International relations has been a novel experience for me, and not just because it's the first class I've taken in which the professor has seized upon every opportunity to work the names of former Soviet republics into his lectures. It's also the first class I've taken at Princeton where my precept hasn't been led by the professor.

Most preceptors are graduate students. Alex, who leads my Tuesday night precept, is not. He is in his early 20s and works for Merrill Lynch. He does offshore trading. From what I understand, that means helping people in London and Tokyo make the kind of investments that are illegal in this country.

"Man, all these other preceptors here give me funny looks," Alex said our first night of precept. "I can tell they're thinking, ëWhat's he doing here? He's not a grad student. He doesn't even go to lecture.' Don't look for me at lecture, guys. I won't be there."

"Yeah, well, don't look for me there, either," joked Ryan, a senior in the politics department.

"You know, I'm a pretty laid-back guy," continued Alex. "I'm not going to make you come to precept if you don't want to, because in a few years, you won't even remember the classes you took in college. You know what I remember now from my four years at Cornell? I remember the deep, intellectual conversations I had with some of the guys at frat parties. The smartest guy I knew in college was a guy who was just barely hanging in there. He had, like, a 2.0 GPA. But if you had a conversation with this guy, he was just amazing." He then went on to talk about a BMW dealership in Munich.

At the second precept on the following Tuesday, Alex was unusually quiet.

"Guys," he said quietly. "Someone complained to the professor that I talked like we weren't going to do any work in precept. So you've got to start doing the reading. And you really should come to precept every week."

Sounds of general dismay followed his announcement. Sensing the loss of future writing material, I plotted revenge against the informant.

"Let's kill the mole!" said Ryan indignantly.

But international relations isn't the only course in which the instructor is at the mercy of spies: the professor of my near-eastern studies class also feels the threat of an unseen foe.

"Close the door," he shouts at students who slink into class late. "My enemies are lurking outside."

While these displays of paranoia are likely nothing more than theatrical attempts to make the assassinations and depositions of Arab rulers relevant to a group of students attending college in New Jersey, they are highly entertaining. Even better are those comments that simultaneously explain the political structures of Arab countries and poke fun at our current presidential administration.

"Syria," he said one day. "Had no history prior to World War I. For that reason, none of the institutions in the country is perceived to be legitimate. Things are different here. For instance, let's say that a high court intervened disgustingly in a national election, causing an unqualified and decidedly stupid man to be elected. Sure, there would be protests, but people wouldn't go out on the street and shoot each other. That's what they'd do in Syria, though. They'd go out in the street and shoot each other."

I related the story to my parents, and since both of them are ardent liberals, they found it quite funny.

"It's a great class," I said. "Too bad I'm over 400 pages behind in the reading."

"Well, read it now, and get caught up," my mother said.

"I'll try to later," I told her. "But I've got to go to crew practice now."


You can reach Kate Swearengen at kswearen@princeton.edu