Notebook: December 17, 1997

University revamps American studies program
New curriculum incorporates comparative approach to ethnic studies

INTEGRATION NOW!" quips Sean Wilentz, director of American studies, when asked to describe Princeton's plans for the future of the program.
The old civil-rights slogan describes a direction formally articulated in 1994, when the faculty-student Committee on Diversity and Liberal Education recommended that the university address burgeoning interest in ethnic studies by redesigning its framework for the study of American culture and society. The committee recommended "encompassing studies of the comparative experience of the peoples of America, broadly defined."
Three years later, Wilentz and his colleagues in the Program in American Studies have created a new "flagship" course meant to elicit the interest of freshmen and sophomores in the intellectual questions posed by this comparative perspective. They have also revamped the core course and established a host of new advanced courses that cross disciplinary boundaries. Meanwhile, Princeton has attracted faculty with particular expertise in Asian-American and Latino studies.
"Although the United States may not be a melting pot, neither its culture nor that of its ethnic groups is pristine," wrote Wilentz in an opinion column in The Chronicle of Higher Education in November 1996. "To paraphrase the writer Ralph Ellison, Americans are all 'cultural mulattos.' "
Dean of the College Nancy Weiss Malkiel, a member of the Committee on Diversity and Liberal Education, cites Wilentz's course American Democracy and the Atlantic World (AMS 370) as an important intellectual antecedent for the discussion of American studies at Princeton.
The course Wilentz designed breaks from customary frameworks, which tend to emphasize the United States's unique role in history; instead, it emphasizes the idea of the country as an Atlantic nation, one whose relationships to Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa are central to its past and present. The syllabus frames a comparative and cross-regional perspective, "one that starts with the Atlantic world: the economic and political empires, free and coerced labor systems, cultural exchanges, and political institutions out of which the United States emerged in the 18th century," in the words of the course description, and carries on through the political and social transformations of the 19th and 20th centuries.

This semester, religion professors Albert J. Raboteau and Dav’d L. Carrasco are team teaching American studies's new flagship course, AMS 103, American Classics, to 120 undergraduates. They organized the course around certain historical and literary texts. "By 'classics,' we meant texts that were historically specific but opened out onto wider perspectives on some major themes that have characterized the American experience," says Raboteau. Among the themes and texts are the encounter of people of divergent backgrounds (using Miguel Leon's Broken Spears, which describes the Aztecs' encounter with the Spanish); freedom and its opposites (W.E.B. Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk, The Declaration of Independence); and community and identity (Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn).
Carrasco draws on source materials and artifacts from his Mesoamerican Archive; Raboteau, on documents related to his ongoing work on a 13-volume history of African Americans and their religious culture.
The old AMS 201-202 sequence was a two-semester chronology that surveyed important events and broad themes in U. S. history and culture. Students tended to take only the semester that focused on the more recent past. So when faculty sat down to design a course that framed a broader view of the history and cultures of the Americas, they sought to construct "a one-term course that cut across 500-plus years of recorded American history," says Professor of English William L. Howarth. "And we also wanted to give ample attention to the various native and European peoples who produced that history. . . . Rather than envision America as a cultural melting pot, I suggested using American places as a means of locating and exploring our many cultural traditions."
Thus, the new AMS 201--called American Places--follows a model that is both chronological and spatial. "We don't focus just on cultures, but also on the physical locations in which episodes are played out," says Howarth. "Thus, in addition to the techniques of social history and cultural studies, our methods combine those of historical geography and environmental history."

Howarth's course Race and Region is another touchstone in the development of the new approach to American studies. Like AMS 201, this course links the study of social issues with the study of place. "Where people are physically located, where they are forced to move--plantations, reservations, ghettos--says a lot about how they are viewed by others in the society," says Howarth.
Other courses in American studies that exemplify the new curricular approach include Ronald W. Schatz's American Jewry since the 1890s; P. Adams Sitney's The American Cinema; and Emily Martin's Health and Medicine in American Life, which bridge American studies with the history department, visual-arts program, and anthropology department.
Wilentz hopes to continue to forge links with other academic units at Princeton. "One of the fruits of this approach," he says, "has been the recognition by many of us that we have a lot in common, that we can interact more than we did in the past."
--Justin Harmon '78

The science of decision-making

WHAT IS THE BEST WAY to pack your suitcase? What's the quickest way from here to there? Why is there a Burger King next to every McDonald's? These are among the questions approached--and even answered--in The Science and Technology of Decision-Making (Civil Engineering and Operations Research 105), taught by Assistant Professor David H. Bernstein *83.
The course, says Bernstein, considers how decisions are made by individuals, organizations, and businesses, and "how they should be made." In particular, it focuses on the use of computing and information technology in the decision-making process, he adds. The course is designed primarily for A.B. candidates, many of whom take it to satisfy the university's quantitative-reasoning requirement.
The Science and Technology of Decision-Making covers optimization, probability, and statistics, the three major tools of an operations researcher, says Bernstein, who joined the faculty in 1994. "Optimization is finding the best way to do something--it might be the production plan that maximizes your profit, it might be the shortest route from A to B. Probability is a mathematical tool for modeling uncertainty. And statistics is a way of summarizing large amounts of information."
Because the course is for nonmajors, he adds, "we relate the material to problems anyone can understand--like how to pack your suitcase efficiently."
When his students pack their suitcases to head home, Bernstein acknowledges, they "probably won't use the fancy algorithm--a step-by-step procedure for solving mathematical problems--they learned in class. But there are problems in the real world that are very much like how to pack a suitcase that people solve all the time using similar algorithms. Let's say I have a bunch of packages to deliver; in which trucks do I put which packages in what order to deliver them most efficiently? This is a problem that Fed Ex and UPS face every day; there's a lot of money at stake in packing the trucks properly."
The relevance of class material is clear to the students. Graham Watson '00 came to Princeton "to study dead English writers, not computers. But the truth is that CIV 105 deals with so many real, and oftentimes humorous, issues--from traffic flow to gambling, from packing a suitcase to managing commercial shipments--it's hard to ignore its practical implications."
Each week Bernstein introduces a new question. He talks about the problem, discusses the basic decision-making context, and gives his students, he says, "the math tools to get started."
Indeed, one thing he wants them to gain, he says, "is confidence not to be scared by the use of Greek letters and other mathematical symbols in math formulas. There's nothing mystical about them." Students then conduct a lab assignment to explore the problem further, carried out on their computers using Netscape, Internet Explorer, or some other Java-capable browser. An assignment might involve calculations that use the same math principles learned in class, says Bernstein, but that would take too long to solve by hand--for example, a problem using a digitized New Jersey road map on which students can calculate the shortest path from Princeton to New York City. Things get a lot more complicated when you want to go Princeton-New York through New Brunswick, Asbury Park, Hopewell, and Cape May, in any order.
Bernstein developed the computer programs last year. Class readings, which are available only on-line, are from Bernstein's forthcoming textbook.
In a recent class he presented "The Commuter's Dilemma." Using Bernstein's commute from nearby Lawrenceville as a case study, the class talked about the virtues of Route 1 (55 mph, three lanes in each direction) versus Clarksville Road (40 mph, one lane in each direction). Which path will get him to the E-Quad sooner? Clearly Route 1--if Bernstein were the only commuter on the road. "Every day," Bernstein pointed out, "we have to decide what choices to make based on what choices we think everybody else is going to make."
Equilibrium is reached when "nobody can unilaterally change their behavior and make themselves better off." Bernstein detailed on the board a model that describes equilibrium, involving variables such as numbers of people, distance traveled, and time consumed.
He pointed out another flow pattern in which commuters as a whole could be better off. Given 20 commuters, "if 13 out of 20 days you used Path 1 (Route 1), and 7 out of 20 days you used Path 2 (Clarksville Road), your total travel time over 20 days would be less than it would be in equilibrium." Unfortunately, people generally choose the quicker route (in this case Route 1) for themselves, without regard for commuters as a whole.
To remedy this, transportation planners like Bernstein--a consultant to the New Jersey and U.S. departments of transportation, among other entities--want to use incentives to make transportation more efficient. One way to do that, he says, is to use tolls to reduce congestion.
In his interactive lectures, Bernstein often uses humor in making points. In a recent game played in class, Bernstein brought in a bag of candy and had everyone write down what they would pay for each piece. He gathered the bids and gave them to one student, who then had two minutes to make as much money as he could.
Bernstein points out that with 35 students in class and 16 pieces of candy, "the candy vendor couldn't possibly evaluate all the bids. The question was how to decide systematically which candy to sell to which person."
After Bernstein demonstrated an algorithm for solving this problem in optimization, the student got to keep the $6.95 he made.
Apparently, Bernstein has optimized the teaching of quantitative reasoning to nonquantitatively savvy students. "I signed up for this course for the wrong reasons," admits Paul Black '01. "It appeared to be off-the-wall interesting (it is!) and easy (not even!)." While often struggling to overcome a "mediocre" math background, he has found that "CIV 105 helps you to see the math behind the green curtain of everyday events."
--Caroline Moseley

By the Numbers: The most popular majors

MAJOR MAJORS: If their choice of majors is any indication, Princeton students on the whole are most concerned with the material welfare of mankind (and perhaps of themselves). Last year, economics jumped to the top of the class, skipping over history, English, and politics, each of which had attracted more students than economics in the '60s, '70s, and '80s.

1. Economics
2. Politics
3. History
4. English
5. Molecular Biology

1. History
2. English
3. Politics
4. Economics
5. Woodrow Wilson School

1. History
2. English
3. Politics
4. Economics
5. Civil Engineering

1. Engineering*
2. History
3. English
4. Politics
5. Biology
6. Economics

*Was not broken down into majors within the engineering school.
Source: The Office of the Registrar