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

May 16, 2001:
What in the heck is Frick made of, and how do you say "R" in Arabic?
Homing in on a major is all in the details

May 4 is the deadline for freshman course selections. Punitive fees for late course cards run $50 for each day past the deadline; factor in the fact that Princeton is raking in 10 cents on each cup of water sold at Frist, and you can see why Hal Shapiro isn't the only reason the endowment has climbed to eight billion dollars. Filthy lucre and the lure of profit can motivate anyone; there's a reason, after all, that students sign up for classes like Stochastic Calculus for Engineering and Finance.

Since the calculus class I took during my senior year of high school almost stood between me and a black-and-orange beer jacket, I had sworn off math courses early on, thinking I was relegating myself to an undistinguished future as a liberal arts major. This is no longer the case: According to a recent article in the New York Times, the State Department is in desperate need of college graduates who are proficient in Arabic.

Of course, I'm a long way from proficiency. The other day, I caused a stink when I mistakenly referred to the Arabic letter "raa" as an "r". After class, when my professor questioned me about my linguistic lapse, I told her that I had momentarily forgotten the name of the letter.

"When you asked me the name of the letter, the first thing that popped into my head was 'aire,' the pronunciation of the letter 'r' in French," I told her. "But I knew that couldn't be right, so I guessed 'r' instead. I figured it could be the same in Arabic as it is in English."

"It's a good thing that you didn't pronounce it the French way," my professor told me. "Because 'aire' is the Lebanese word for penis."

"And I bet you would have pointed that out if I had said it, right?" I asked her.

"Of course," she said, and then she laughed.

But while the article in the Times has more or less cemented my future as a policy wonk or international spy, Princeton is still trying its darndest to widen the collective horizons of its students. Take, for example, the epistemology and cognition requirement. For the fall 2001-02 semester, students interested in fulfilling this requirement can choose between anthropology and philosophy courses. To be honest, I'm not up for the high-level navel gazing required by philosophy courses, since the paradoxical question I most often ponder is why, at a school full of socially inept engineering majors, I can't get a date for houseparties. So it looks like I'm going to have to complete the epistemology and cognition requirement with an anthropology course.

I brought the issue of course selection up with my friend Katherine. A freshman from Massachusetts, Katherine completed organic chemistry while still in high school and, at the green age of 18, is planning to major in the field. Although she is still in the process of choosing fall courses, she is planning on taking 400-level chemistry and physics classes.

"I'm halfway finished with my lab requirement," I told her. "I took geology 201 last semester. Did you know that it's widely considered to be the pinnacle of the gut class hierarchy here at Princeton?"

"You learned a lot in that class, and I think it's great that you can identify the composition of campus buildings," she kindly told me. "What kind of rock did you say they used to build Frick?"

"Uh, I forgot," I told her. "But I'm sure I've got it somewhere in my lecture notes."

"I also want to take The Literature of Fact," Katherine told me. "It's being taught this semester by a man who writes for the New Yorker."

"I want to take that class, too," I said. "But I'm going to wait until John McPhee teaches it. He's written a lot of books about geology, so I'll have a leg up on the application process due to my expertise in the field."

You can reach Kate Swearengen at kswearen@princeton.edu