We Princeton undergraduates are familiar with the sight of Prospect House, Princeton’s “private dining room serving the faculty and staff.” Some students dread this sight, as it represents an unwelcome and imminent (note: lengthy) diversion as they horizontally traverse Princeton’s campus. To many others, the sight of Prospect House is a symbol of something deeper than route calculation. That is, Prospect House is a symbol—a false one—of a certain kind of interaction that exists at Princeton between undergraduate students and faculty members on campus.
Yes, Prospect House has come to represent one of a few major myths surrounding the Princeton education: that intimate undergraduate student-faculty interaction is widespread here. It’s a myth that is perpetuated in a number of different ways. Take the Princeton webpage titled “Undergraduate Admissions,” for example, where we learn that the student-faculty ratio is 6:1. These numbers provoke the illusion (at least in my mind) that six students sit around with one faculty member in front of a fireplace daily, engaged in deep conversation about a philosophical text. Or, if you’re feeling even more cynical, take the trite tour guide exclamation: “Our professors encourage us to come to their office hours and invite us to lunch at Prospect House!” It’s an exclamation that suggests broadly accepted truths about Princeton professors.
The truth is, they aren’t truths in the least. How often invitations to Prospect House for “group meals, coffee hours, and meetings” are extended, I’m not sure. But I speak from personal experience when I say: I’m not yet convinced that I will establish the sort of intimate relationship with a professor that the University suggests I can—the sort that the visual cue of Prospect House intimates I am able to build.
I won’t deny that these sorts of relationships do exist in some nooks and niches on campus. Certainly the collaboration between students and advisors intrinsic to independent work can breed these sorts of relationships, and certainly academic all-stars hunt down connections like these. But they’re few and far between. Given that most students require advice about their academic and post-Princeton choices during their undergraduate careers here, and that most reach out to professors to obtain this advice, half the responsibility falls in the hands of the professors to put in their share of the effort.
Maybe it takes a certain kind of professor to maintain an intimate connection with a student. The kind of professor I’m defining here cares about his/her student in academic and personal spheres. Moreover, this professor cares about the progress of his/her students and knows his/her students long enough to register this progress. At this point, however, questions still remain: If professors choose Princeton over, say Harvard, so they can work mainly with undergraduate students, are not all professors the kind of professor who would want to form the intimate relationships I describe? Why, therefore, don’t all professors reach out to undergrads in this way?
Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the very first form of contact that students make with professors when they come to Princeton: freshmen academic advising. It’s not only the first form of contact, but it’s also a seriously flawed one too. The freshman advising system sets low expectations of what we are able to derive from our relationships with professors.
Designed to bolster the residential college system, this form of advising links freshmen with advisors who are affiliated with their residential colleges. Freshmen report to these advisors for every academic decision they make during their first two years at Princeton. Of course, student-advisor match-up is dependent on which of the two academic tracks the student plans to pursue (A.B. or B.S.E.). But any sort of matchmaking stops once this fork in the academic road is reached.
We’ve all heard of the anecdotal Whitman College freshman who is gypped by this system of advising. The one who intends to major in molecular biology, only to find that his academic advisor is a professor in the music department. Of course, this advisor possesses no knowledge whatsoever of anything biology. As this professor pushes his advisee towards MUS 323: Beethoven and the like, the student grows inevitably disheartened by the advising system and becomes inevitably more confused about his course selection process.
It is the inherent randomness of freshmen advising that renders the system so painfully defective. It’s a system that provides no solace to freshmen, from their first days at Princeton onward, that professors are looking out of them—that professors care about their progress. The underlying issue here is that freshmen advising is college-based. It simply shouldn’t be this way. Instead, students should be matched with professors in their field of interest, regardless of professors’ college affiliations. If the advisor-advisee relationship isn’t a match made in heaven (after all, not all blind dates lead to love…), then students are at least better positioned to find other professors in their discipline whom they can contact with questions and concerns.
If freshmen advising is altered in the way I explain, then important academic junctures in the life of a Princeton undergrad might see serious improvement. How helpful it would have been to have a professor, one who genuinely cared about me as a student, guide me through things like selection of my major, deliberation over certificate programs, P/D/F decisions, or even summer opportunities available in my academic discipline.
I realize that the change I describe here is a small one, and it’s a change that, if implemented on its own, won’t completely revolutionize undergrad-professor relationships. I wouldn’t expect advisors of freshmen to suddenly start meeting with their freshmen over lunch at Prospect House. That said, we need to set a higher standard for what we want to obtain from our relationships with professors if we want to see improvement, and this standard should be met during freshman fall. As I continue to scheme for an invite to Prospect House, I also scheme for ideas on how we can strengthen our relationships with professors. Professors: Need a date for lunch? Students: Have any suggestions? Shoot me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.