Thursday, 24 September 2009

Day 13/99: The Two Ways of Life

I promised a comparative post on Oxford and Princeton education, so here it is.

Firstly, there are definitely merits in Princeton's approach to some things. The requirement to take a language to advanced level (i.e. about a quarter of your degree being a language, for two years) is something we don't see so much in England, and it's definitely a useful preparationfor scholarship - if I want to become an ancient historian, I really should learn to read Latin and German, and probably some competency in French, Italian and ancient Greek too.

Nor can I find fault with the independent research work - though I haven't done any at Oxford, and have only just started at Princeton, so I'm really just comparing on the basis of word counts. Once you decide to major in History here (halfway through your degree), you write one 7,000-word paper per semester in your third year, and a 12,000-word or so senior thesis in third year; if you take a "certificate" (what most other US universities call a 'minor'), then you may also have to do another piece of independent work (the length varies), but often a thesis spanning related fields can qualify for both - so a thesis on Jewish history would get one both a major in History and a certificate in Judaic Studies. At any rate, this basically compares with the History Special Subject's extended essay and the thesis at Oxford.

Before proceeding, a bit of statistics to show how the courses compare - to get a Bachelor of Arts (A.B.) here, you need to take 31 courses over the four years, so about eight courses per year. In History at Oxford, you take four papers for Prelims and seven over two years for Finals, so about four per year - roughly speaking, then, the average Princeton course should be about half as intellectually rigorous as an Oxford course. To be frank, it isn't.

To some extent, that must be inherent in the system; at Oxford, the academics setting and teaching the History papers can be confident that everyone sitting them has aced an A-level in History, and has been selected by the tutors on the basis of their skill as a historian. That's not the case at Princeton - almost anyone can walk into almost any history course despite only having a high-school (equiv. GCSE) education in it, and perhaps not even having done that well. Even a History major might only have done two survey courses, such as "A History of the World since 1300" and "Science in the Modern World".

There's also something of a cultural difference regarding vacation work. At Oxford, when I took an Optional Subject on Augustan Rome in Trinity, I thought nothing of an email from my tutor at the start of the vacation before telling me that I should read all the set texts (selections, some quite hefty, from fifteen translated ancient works) and maybe some other stuff - and likewise, someone taking a course on Shakespeare would think nothing of being asked to read his plays over the vac, so that tutorials could focus on specific issues and the secondary literature regarding it. As far as I can tell, this doesn't happen at Princeton - certainly nobody's mentioned having been set summer reading. There are courses - one of which I decided against taking for exactly this reason - which seem to be wholly reading courses, ploughing through the texts at a ridiculous rate (three books of Herodotus between Monday and Wednesday, Dante's Inferno in a week) but with no articles, academic analyses nor commentary to read - no discussion beyond the one-hour, eight-student weekly precept. Certainly in a general, liberal arts education, there is some merit to reading and understanding the texts, but in a university context I think that understanding the relevent scholarship is even more important, and I don't think that that's emphasised enough in Princeton except in higher-level seminars and when doing independent research work.

The mode of assessment is also different. As Oxford students will know, for an ordinary Finals paper you'd write six to eight 2,000-word essays (one a week), have a Collection (i.e. mock exam) the beginning of the term after you finish work on it, and take the real exam - three essays in three hours, like Collections - anywhere from three months to a year and a half after finishing the paper, the exam being the only thing that matters. By contrast, in my History/Classics seminar, thirty percent of my grade is based on my participation during the seminar, ten percent on short quizzes which might happen at the start of class, thirty percent on the midterm exam (lasting one hour twenty minutes, consisting of some multiple-choice questions, some names or concepts for identification such as "Pericles" on which we write a short paragraph each, and finally a short essay), and the final thirty percent on the "term paper", the only real piece of written work needed, of about the length and quality of a weekly Oxford tutorial essay. I am not entirely convinced that this is "about half as rigorous" as an Oxford course.

One final point is about books. At Oxford, between JSTOR, the college libraries, and non-lending libraries like the Bod and the Codrington, you'll never have to buy a book, and most people don't. That really isn't the culture at Princeton - even looking at ancient history courses where all the texts are available as Penguin Classics, the reading lists approach $100 or $150 per course ($1000/year on course books wouldn't be surprising), and it must be even worse for scientists or mathematicians who need hefty textbooks. There is, for all intents and purposes, only one library, and it only stocks a few copies (if any) of each text, making it pretty impractical to use for larger courses. Furthermore, because you often only get the syllabus at the first lecture, there's a lot of pressure to go and buy the textbooks at Labyrinth Books rather than buying them cheaply online - and of course, I don't have a US debit card, so I pay an extra currency exchange and commission fee if I buy off Amazon. Long live the Bodleian, then.

I'm still glad I came to Princeton - it's a good experience, and I'm having fun here - but it has made me appreciate, amongst other things, just how good an Oxford education really is in comparison.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Day 11/99: Fleeces and fencing

Only a couple of pictures in this post - I went to the sophomore dinner, and free Butler College fleeces were handed out:

Stash, wonderful stash.

I've had almost all my classes now - bar a Roman Portraiture seminar, but as that's a graduate course and a lot of the interesting stuff is in German or Italian (surprise: I don't read either) I can't see myself sticking with it. I have Latin four mornings a week, two 90-minute seminars on Classical Greek democracy, a three-hour seminar on Wednesdays on early medieval maps and histories, and a Greek philosophy course (for which I'm about to bunk down and read Plato's Apology after I finish this post). Amusingly, for my two seminars (the only ones that count towards my Oxford degree) I'm taught by a Spaniard and an Austrian - so not really the "American perspective on history" or anything, but good. I might blog later on the educational differences (example: people *have* to go to lectures here!). Also - got a free book from the Junior Seminar:

I had my first fencing lesson tonight, which was really good - the other novice fencers seem cool, I was actually pretty competent with a foil, they have people who know epee and sabre if I want to try that out, and the guy who was teaching us realised I was British and offered to entertain me with his tea collection (YES) and is going to see if I can get a discount on fees due to only being here for one semester.

I also got an email about this really good scheme for the midterm break - a student-run week in Washington DC learning about issues in deaf education, staying at Gallaudet University, the world's only university designed for the deaf. There's also a chance to pick up some American Sign Language. I've always been mildly interested in Deaf culture, for obvious reasons, and if I can get onto it then it ought to be really fun.

Stay tuned - I should hear about rifle-shooting soon...

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Day 9/99: The 'laundromat'

A brief and boring blog today - my weekend's been uneventful save for doing seminar reading - to announce that I've reached a significant milestone; I did my first load of laundry at Princeton. I don't have any photos (because that would just be weird), but I'd like to note that Princeton's 'laundromats' are better than the laundries at Merton on two counts - firstly, they're free, and secondly, they have fancy displays that tell you exactly how long it will be until the washing's done. I've also broken with the habits of a lifetime year, and hung my t-shirts up in my cupboard to "let the creases fall out of them" etc. We'll see how long that lasts, though...

In case anyone's worried I'm going native, I did see someone today trying to make tea by briefly dipping a teabag in hot water then adding sugar, and all my natural instincts rose against it.

9.1% of the way through Princeton already! It's going fast.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Day 7/99: Chalk, grub and guns

Firstly, something I noticed a day or two ago but didn't think was worth a post of its own: they use blackboards here. For a comprehensive-schooled kid who thinks of a whiteboard as low-tech, having your Latin professor scrawl, with chalk, on a blackboard for an hour, ending up with ghost-white hands, is a very surreal experience.

I finally remembered to take my camera to lunch today: the self-service canteen was too crowded to get good photos in there, but I took photos of my overloaded plate, the dessert bar, and the immensely cool conveyor belt that whisks our dirty plates away for washing-up.

The main event today was the Student Activities Fair, where all the Princeton societies turn out en masse with biscuits and convince you to join - I've put my name on the mailing list for the rifle club (exciting or what?), fencing, Oxfam, the Shakespeare Company and three publications. I turned down breakdancing, poker and pro-life campaigning, though.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Day 4/99: The campus

I had a free morning today - nothing until a meeting with my Dean at 11.30 - so I had a bit of a lie-in (only got up at quarter past eight; what a rebel), then did something I've been meaning to do for a while: wander round campus and take photos for this blog.

First things first: a few views of Wilf, my hall of residence.

Some of the other Butler buildings (Wilf's on the right):

Inside - the Butler Gallery (still in progress) and Butler Lounge (replete with grand piano):
The courtyard, and its dedication:
Wu Hall, the main Butler building where meals, meetings etc. are:
Moving away from Butler, this is Whitman College, across the road from me. I can't remember who called it "faux-Gothic" and "like Disneyland", but they were right:
I decided to check out the gym at this point - I'll spare you the dull photos of timetables and weights machines, but suffice it to say that it looks awesome. There's a cardio room upstairs full of crosstrainers and exercise bikes, the Stevens Fitness Center with more cardio stuff (inc. treadmills), fixed weights and freeweights, and a swimming pool downstairs - and everything's free! I could get used to this.

Moving on, the university chapel (it's big and dark, so my flash worked imperfectly and I had to digitally enhance these):

I think the architecture speaks for itself.

Finally, the Firestone Library, which confusingly also looks like a church.

And a few other odds and sods from around campus:

This chap is John Witherspoon, a big figure in the independence movement (boo) and an early president at Princeton.
I don't know whether this comes from Black Books or the Geman, though I like the first option better.
Princeton invariably take the view that it's best to be calm and measured about minor, generally non-fatal health threats.
That's all from me for now - expect another post later, hopefully with a final decision about course choices.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Day 3/99: Needles, picnics and ancient Egypt

Nothing rabidly exciting today - started off by meeting Claire on the way to a talk on The Arts and Humanities at Princeton, which was more hilarious than I expected (like the Creative Writing professor making a joke about urine samples), got my meningitis jab (a steal at $102), went to the picnic that they held since the dining halls were freshmen-only tonight (got a bread roll, three chicken breasts, potato salad, two cookies and a whole bunch of grapes - though I refused the iced tea on principle).

I also decided to try and call on my next-door neighbour (we're adjoined by the bathroom corridor), and discovered why I haven't met him yet...

..nobody lives there. I now effectively have access to two rooms and my own bathroom, so win.

One of the main academic things I'm doing at the moment is selecting my course choices - I had the Student Advisory Fair tonight, where other people tell me about the choices they took, and I have a meeting with my Dean about it all tomorrow morning. I've pretty much decided on three of them - a Junior Seminar on views of history and geography in the first millenium BC (for which I'll write a 30-page paper), a seminar on Greek democracy and a 9am beginner's Latin course with a professor I had described to me tonight as "one of the best Latinists in the world". I could leave it there - Oxford only ask me to take three courses - but the normal Princeton load is four or five, and I did enough Latin over the summer that LAT101 should be fairly easy-going.

One of my two main choices for a fourth course is The Ancient Egyptian Body - basically an art history course - with a new, youngish professor, which is fairly undersubscribed, so I'll get lots of class time. The difficulties are that I don't know very much at all about Egypt, nor art history, so I can't tell whether I'll be qualified. Another one is Classical Roots of Western Literature: it's taught in the Comparative Literature department by something of a genius who apparently speaks nine languages, and consequently is a lot of work - 200 pages a week on top of everything else (compared to 60-90 for the Egypt course), and student reviews of it online talk of having to read Dante's Inferno in a weekend. That's 432 pages in the Penguin Classics edition.

There are a range of other courses I could take - introduction to art history, or a course on how the Queen of Sheba's been portrayed from Biblical times to today - but they don't grasp me as much as those two do. Hopefully it'll become clearer, as I get more advice from people, which one is best for me.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Day 2/99 - the evening

Just got back from a meeting in the International Office - found out a bit about what's required of me coursewise, but more importantly, found out about the events they put on - a weekly Chinese lunch for $1 (about 60p), a weekly game of Go (like chess but eastern), and trips - to see Hair on Broadway for about $45 (yes please), or historical tours of Philadelphia. It sounds really fun - I don't think I'm going to be short of things to do here at all. I also hung out a bit with the French exchange students, from Sciences Po, and they rubbished the Sorbonne as not being prestigious at all since it offers correspondence courses anyone can take - and also, two of them remind me spookily of people I acted with at Oxford...

Have also sent an email about the problem with my swipe card (I can't get into my building after 6pm, and have to stand around looking pathetic until someone takes pity on me and swipes me in), so hopefully that will be fixed tomorrow. Tomorrow also has a talk on The Arts and Humanities at Princeton, a third international students' meeting, a few other college meetings, my Meningitis jab, and my first meals in Wu Hall, so that should all be fun.

Finally, I include this photo only because it will bring great happiness to my long-suffering mother:

Days 1 and 2/99: The journey, 911 and the mall

I'm in America, after one or two points of hassle (not sleeping from 6am to 3am UK time, accidentally calling 911, trains not running) and quite enjoying it. It's really warm and sunny - about 28 degrees Celsius, almost 80 Fahrenheit - and I've spent the day out shopping with the other internationals. I met them all, and the Princeton people responsible for us, last night - though the boxes of Dunkin' Donuts they had for us were easily the best part of the evening, especially as they were all I had for dinner.

A few observations about the US:

On my NJ transit ticket, in the picture above, you may just be able to make out the phrase "Seating aboard NJ Transit vehicles is without regard to race, creed, color (sic) or national origin." I mean, obviously it's nice that they're making the effort, but how many other civilised countries need to make that disclaimer in the 21st century?

Speaking of train seating, it's really nice - 1930s and leathery - which is in stark contrast to the very weird unpainted steel outside of the trains.

As I say, today the Princeton international office ran a shopping trip to a local mall, for which they hired this:

Truly, I am in America.
Between my trips to Walmart, Best Buy and Target, I got bedding, another towel, a phone, a mug, and an alarm clock. I also got camera batteries on 2-for-1 at Boots at the airport, so I should be able to keep photographing away as long as I'm here.
At Best Buy, I take a photo to prove that the "it's going to be a New Jersey winter and you'll freeze to death" predictions of my friends and family were a little bit hyperbolic:
Also, a picture of my bed last night, complete with stolen aeroplane (I keep wanting to say 'airplane'!") sleeping materials:
And, more comfortably, today:
That's a fleece-like blanket on the bed, by the way: it was five dollars cheaper than a duvet ('comforter' here) and I don't need to wrestle to fit the cover over it.
That's pretty much everything - expect to hear more interesting things from me as my schedule gets busier over the next couple of days! As a quick taster - there's a 5k race next weekend to celebrate my college's redesign, which is a little bit tempting...