On the Campus - January 27, 1999

Those pesky townies

Always spoiling my lectures... or are they?

by Nancy Smith '00

In my first semester at Princeton, I remember sitting in a sociology lecture pondering a statement by the professor that the Internet would soon subsume the university as the most accessible academic community. The prediction made sense; after all, why come to Princeton when the world is at your fingertips? But his vision of this futuristic "interactive" learning that would take place at isolated computer terminals instead of among fellow students in precepts and study sessions was still somewhat frightening.

While a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints is emphasized as an integral part of the academic community at Princeton, it is easy to overlook its subtle influence in a room full of twentysomethings who all dress in J. Crew and discuss the latest episode of Ally McBeal before the professor comes in. But recently, a public lecture in the Woodrow Wilson School offered a very different demographic picture of academia, prompting me to re-evaluate the meaning of an academic community.


Students arriving at the door of Dodds Auditorium at 4:20 to hear a well-known politician or media personality will usually mumble curses at the "old people" as they catch their breath, having hustled across campus after their last class. The lectures are advertised in local as well as campus publications and are open to the public, causing motivated retirees to arrive 30 to 40 minutes early to get seats. Students end up huddled together in the aisles, hugging their knees in the margins of the audience. The pointed comments from the moderator--usually a professor in the Wilson School--about fire code violations go unheeded by determined students, who refuse to be relegated to a basement room for a video-screen simulcast.

Then, when it comes time for questions, it is usually the distinguished gray-haired members of the audience who get the most access to the speaker. These experiences leave students, many of whom attend these lectures hoping for career direction or research ideas, wishing the rules for lecture auditing applied in this case, which require the retired crowd to keep silent to allow the students to get their tuition's worth.

Early in December I was one of these bitter students, feeling cheated that I, a Wilson School major, had not been able to ask former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers my burning question. Used to getting advance e-mail notices of visiting speakers and opportunities to join them for dinner at Prospect House, I fumed at having to share access to intellectual stimulation with other people. Then, aware of what I was saying, I had to recoil at my own elitism. Why, after all, should students be entitled to a special advantage? Sure, we do pay tuition, but this claim is somewhat questionable when we've been known to skip class to get in a nap or catch up on our soaps. And besides, I reasoned, it's inapplicable in this case; the whole point of a public lecture is to attract a wider audience.


I had to admit that the questions posed by the senior group, many of whom I assumed to be Princeton graduates, were astute and reflective of a very different political voice not generally represented at Princeton. Here were members of a generation drawn to the polls by concerns about Social Security entitlements and glitches in the health care system, issues that most of the J. Crew-wearing, Ally McBeal-watching student population blissfully ignores. Efforts by the university to invite the participation and engagement of different generations in the Princeton community, while perhaps a logistical nightmare for fire marshals and busy students, are in fact reflective of the diversity that makes an academic community meaningful.

The other response many students have to the auditors--sometimes attentive, sometimes slumbering--who silently occupy the front rows of their course lectures is an envious one. "I wish I could take classes I like, then not have to do the reading, turn in papers, or take the exam," many students have said. The concept is at once appealing and foreign to students who are often more caught up in the academic rat-race of word count and grade point average than in reaping the academic rewards promised in exchange for their tuition. What Princeton promises is a liberal education that motivates you to attend lectures voluntarily and to ask intelligent questions. All of us students crammed in the aisles are hoping we don't have to wait until retirement to enjoy it.


A teacher's death

Howard Stone left his friend a book and a dream

by Daniel A. Grech '99

In November, Howard Stone, my favorite professor, died. He was 37 and had been in failing health. Howard taught my freshman physics class, and every Wednesday night he ran a problem session for the following day's quiz. Around 2 a.m., when the last of us was beaten and exhausted and ready to go home, Howard would pick up his coat and half-joke that his wife was going to kill him. In a course evaluation, one student wrote "Howard is a god," and that pretty much echoed what we all thought of him.

Howard was ashen, with dark eyes and hair. He was a little too thin. But he was always in high spirits and his excitement for physics was contagious. When he taught, his nasal Oxford accent used to echo through the second-floor corridors of the old Palmer physics laboratory, the same halls Einstein had once wandered.

In life, Howard was spirited and humorous, though there was a hint of sadness behind his perpetual cheer. I was in shock when I heard he'd died. His death only hit home later, at the memorial service, when the casket-bearers, on their way down the Chapel stairs, staggered slightly under the weight of his body.

Outside the Chapel, I ran into Daniel Wesley, a junior physics major and a friend from high school. Dan was wearing a coat and tie and under his arm he carried a tattered book with a faded green cover.

Dan was the most gifted of my friends in high school. The summer before his senior year, Dan picked up tensor calculus, and for his 18th birthday his parents gave him a textbook on general relativity our friends jokingly called "the big black book on gravity." Throughout high school, Dan discussed physics with Mr. Schwartz, our wonderful physics teacher. "Then one day," recalls Dan, "Mr. Schwartz said, 'Look, this stuff is way beyond anything I can teach you.' It was a really sad moment. Mr. Schwartz was a teacher who loved nothing more than to teach."

Dan came to Princeton, one of the world's top physics schools. Howard was his adviser, and Dan remembers he had one strict rule: when they met, Howard always bought the coffee. During his freshman year, Dan saw Howard often. All of Dan's "Howard stories" begin, "One day, I was sitting in Howard's office and . . . ." One day, Howard gave Dan a manuscript from the 1700s analyzing billiards -- written completely in French. Another day, Howard gave Dan an article by physicist Richard Feynman *42 arguing that light can travel backward in time. Once, before Dan even had a chance to sit down, Howard looked at his watch and said, "Want to blow out of here for a few hours?" They went to the Quakerbridge Mall.

"Howard opened my eyes," says Dan. "Physics is not a static subject but one where you can mess with the rules and see what happens."

During Dan's sophomore year, Howard became harder to find. "He'd been denied tenure, and it really demoralized him," says Dan. "I mean, if you're a physicist, where do you go after Princeton?"

The book Dan was carrying at the memorial service is 95 years old. Its spine is broken in half, and the flap covering the spine is detached on one side. Written on the flap, in faded gold lettering, is "Ernst Mach, The Science of Mechanics."

Inside, the pages are brittle and yellowed and dog-eared, with wavering underlines in pencil. Howard was the last person to take the book out, and it fell apart while he was reading it. When he tried to return it, the librarian stamped the inside cover "Withdrawn from Princeton" and was ready to throw it away when Howard asked if he could keep the book instead.

Howard wanted Dan to read Mach's book, but it was out of print. "So one day we were in his office and Howard opens a desk drawer and pulls out the book and says, 'Why don't you just borrow my copy?' Then, after Howard handed it to me, he said, 'You know, Dan, this book was quoted by Feynman and Einstein while they were at Princeton. They probably read this very book -- those underlines may be one of theirs. So don't lose it.'"

Dan read the book -- "I physically held in my hands the same thread of thought that inspired Einstein," he says. But he never got a chance to return it to Howard before he died.

"One of the last times we were together, eating cheesesteaks at the mall, Howard was lamenting how difficult it is to be in physics. He talked about the great tradition of gentlemen physicists who investigated nature with no thought to its use and how they had the luxury of living in a culture that believed there's a value simply in the search for truth.

"These days," Dan adds, "there are only 50 assistant professorships for the 1,500 Ph.D.s awarded in physics nationally. I've put a lot of energy into this romantic dream of one day becoming a physics professor, and Howard helped set me on that direction. Now I wonder: If Howard couldn't do it, should I bother even trying?"


Daniel A. Grech can be contacted at dangrech@princeton.edu.