These quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.


This past month, I conducted interviews with Princeton faculty on Princeton topics—ranging from eating clubs to student mental health, grading policies to the Honor Code. Here’s what I learned.


The Outtakes: What Happens in Class? 

“My classes are always around 7:30 PM. My students are always tired. I don’t think that they have the energy to do anything.” – Siavash Isazadeh, of the CEE department.

“Someone who’s a Twitter phenomenon kind of invaded a colleague’s class and took over for a few minutes… it was a little bit unpleasant.” – Leeat Yariv, of the Economics department.

“Oddly, some of my very best classes were conducted via Zoom, despite all the handicaps; though we prefer classroom teaching of course.” – Joyce Carol Oates, of the Creative Writing department.

“Some witty undergraduates [at a non-US university] transcribed a lecture by a professor and submitted it as an essay to another professor, whereupon it received a very poor grade.” – Nigel Smith, of the English department.


Eating Clubs

Eating club operations and contributions to campus life are mysterious to our faculty. Oates could only speculate what students might be looking for in them, saying she “would certainly want to be associated with an eating club to which arts students, humanities students, and students studying science belonged.” And what happens to Tower’s Milk Money? Isazadeh suggested a possibility: “Maybe they buy milk and then they give it to someone.”

Hanna Garth, of the Anthropology department, has “had several students do projects or write theses on them.” Still, she said, “even with that level of experience, I don’t actually know enough to say what they do socially for people.” Jing Wang, of the Chinese department, didn’t see a great distinction between eating clubs and the dining hall: “My students like being members of eating clubs because it creates a new community for them where they have closer relationships with their friends. But if you talk about the dining hall, that also creates a space for interactions and communications among a different group of students. It’s just two different spaces.” Yariv was more doubtful. “I’ve always had this concern that they might select for certain dimensions and not be open to everyone on campus. It would bother me if that’s the case.”

But when it came to eating clubs’ specifics, everyone was at a loss. “People have stereotypes or impressions of eating clubs, but I have personally never set foot in one—even though I’ve had a lot of conversations about them,” Garth said. “I’d be hard-pressed to name three of them,” Yariv admitted.


Honor Code

Smith and Oates both discussed the symbolism of the Princeton Honor Code system, with Smith referring to “the privilege to come together and study” and Oates pronouncing it “a tradition that makes Princeton University special.” But Oates also put herself in students’ shoes. “Obviously there are moral quandaries involved in any uniform code of conduct.  It would be very difficult to report a friend—or any classmate—who was believed to have violated the code; each individual must search their conscience if confronted with such a dilemma.”

Yariv had similarly mixed feelings. “Right now, if someone is found to have made a mistake, we punish them severely—and young people who are under a lot of pressure sometimes make mistakes. I would prefer to prevent those mistakes, rather than punish mistakes very harshly when they happen.” Garth suggested that the onus for preventing violations falls on a clear and well-constructed syllabus. She stressed that she tries to create projects which require independent thought and couldn’t be completed by AI, let alone mere Googling, rendering the Honor Code irrelevant. Smith brought up AI as well, a twinkle in his eye. “I’ve been reading this half-semesters’ papers just to see if I can find out if anyone’s getting an app to write their paper!”


Grading Policies

It’s well-known that different departments have vastly different grading policies. Wang told me how the Chinese program’s grading policies have changed over the years, causing an overall increase in the number of A’s given out by the program. “We stick to the actual grades,” she explained.

Smith emphasized progress over numbers, describing the ideal response from a professor as “detailed, informative, productive comments on a paper… so that the student is enabled to do better next time.” He noted that because of the competitive nature of Princeton applications, the average admitted student is already “very strong.” Instead of encouraging students to regurgitate ideas or write in a certain way, professors should advise students “to help somebody; take themselves to the next plane. There’s always a next plane. Even professors have next planes,” he added with a chuckle.

Isazadeh also lamented students’ focus on grades, citing the individuality of his department, CEE, as a complicating factor. “I don’t have exams, I have five homework assignments. I have a presentation, I have a site visit report.” He sighed. “Nobody wants to take even one step out of his own comfort zone.” Should students be taking more initiative? I asked him. “If you’ve given an instruction, the students follow it. If you don’t give an instruction, even if you go and teach it in the class, and it’s all over the place in the slides, it’s not an instruction, and they don’t follow it.” He also described how students are “coming and complaining” about their grades. “Undergrad students are more fixated on getting A‘s in whatever class they are taking than paying attention to the course content.”

I was surprised to hear that this happened to him so regularly, so I inquired further. It turned out his grading policy was quite different from Wang’s. “In my average class, I usually give two A‘s. Most of my students are B‘s, plus some of them are C‘s.” He emphasized that “I’m just trying to put myself in their shoes, right?” He brought up his own experience as someone who works in industry. “I just keep telling them, look, if you come and work for me, I’m not going to accept that. You could easily get fired.”

Although Isazadeh seemed more heated about this topic than some of the other professors, each professor expressed a different kind of consternation about the process of grading. Garth described how the quality of work she sees from Princeton students was such an elevation from the work she saw at her previous institution that “it was very hard for me to not give every Princeton student an A… it’s a really competitive environment.” She also described the administrative perspective on grading policies. “The language is not necessarily to limit the number of A’s, but to really think about the A as being the absolute best stellar work. And to really use the full spectrum of grades.”

Yariv suggested a possible solution: increasing the number of courses students can take on a pass/fail basis. “It would be a shame if we’re in an in-between zone, where students are not taking challenging classes for fear of lowering their GPA.” As a corollary, Wang said, “I don’t think being the easy class is a good reputation for any course.”

Yariv also emphasized the utility of grades for judging whether one is putting enough time into coursework. “Undergraduates are extremely busy—maybe that’s what makes Princeton special for our students. They have so many opportunities both in the classroom and outside the classroom.” She laughed. “You know, when I was an undergraduate all I did was study. That’s all I did. I wasn’t taking part in any extracurriculars, and I was taking eight classes each semester. For our students, that would be unimaginable. In fact, we wouldn’t allow it. But students do need to figure out the right balance. Thankfully, grades provide almost immediate feedback.”

Oates expressed her gratitude that Creative Writing courses are pass/fail-only. “It is inhibiting to arts students to be ‘graded’—one can only imagine the low grades Stravinsky might have received a century ago, or Picasso, or D.H. Lawrence; certainly Faulkner,” she explained. “In fact, I think that William Faulkner earned a grade of D in freshman English—at the U. of Mississippi which he attended briefly.”


Mental Health

Mental health is a huge topic on campus, with some students sensing that faculty are numb to the severity of the problem. But that was not the sense I had in these interviews. Wang described how things have changed. “Since the pandemic, students have been more and more cautious about their mental health.” Garth agreed: “Since 2020, I’ve been getting all kinds of signals from students that they’re having difficulties.” But the newness of the phenomenon—or at least its visibility—has made things challenging for faculty. “We’re educating ourselves on this topic. This is something new to us as well,” Wang said.

Garth provided a broader insight: “I prioritize mental health—I don’t think everyone does. That’s not necessarily nefarious. I just think sometimes people don’t think about it. They forget to think about it.” Because Garth teaches on “topics of race and racism, material about sexual violence, material about eating disorders and obesity”—topics which could potentially trigger students—she explained that it is “important to find ways to learn and teach material that don’t replicate or reproduce violence.”

But Garth’s expertise on these topics is unique among faculty, as Oates noted. “I would not think that world-expert professors in any field, including physics, math, and literature, are hired to focus primarily upon the psychological states of their students.” Likewise, Yariv commented, “This is not something we should dabble in, but we’re facing these issues day-to-day.”

But what about our faculty, and their mental health? Perhaps unsurprisingly, all the faculty were reluctant to comment upon this topic. “Students have enough to contend with without being concerned with the ‘mental health of the faculty’—about which they would know little, I would guess,” Oates said. Wang laughed lightly when I asked this question. “We don’t use that term. My colleagues mention ‘work-life balance.’”

Garth felt that the priorities of the institution, especially in light of the pandemic, were “actually more about physical health,” she said. “Make sure you’re taking care of yourself. Make sure you’re not doing too much. Make sure you’re drinking water and eating well, so that you don’t get sick. So that you don’t have to be absent.”

When I inquired whether there was anything we students could do for our faculty, specifically regarding their mental health, Smith looked surprised. “Just on the general level of being attentive and respectful of your fellow human being.” He paused. “Is this a reference to the advancing age of some faculty members?”

I assured him it was not.


What Do You Really Think of Us?

In conducting these interviews, I not only hoped to get a sense of professors’ personal opinions on student life, but also their opinions on us as people. “My colleagues are always interested in and fascinated by their undergraduates,” Smith said. “It’s always a topic of conversation in meetings. People love sharing stories about their undergraduates. Usually, it’s in terms of how accomplished they are and what great work they’ve done.”

But I was more interested in what they thought we could improve upon. Yariv described the challenges that can arise before declaration day. “It’s very hard to tell students that maybe [their major] is not a good fit, and that this doesn’t mean they’re unable human beings. But rather that they would excel, and be even more spectacular, doing something else.”

Wang described the specific issues students face in her Chinese classes. “I know we criticize 死记硬背 [sǐjìyìngbèi, “rote memorization”] in our class. But for language, there is a memorization component in the learning process.” She said that instructors try to come up with creative ways to make memorization more fun, but students still need to put in the work. “Maybe they don’t want to do it, but they have to do it.”

Isazadeh described his regrets from his own undergraduate days. “I wish I’d been told that safety and new life and people’s lives are much more important than research and the work and the project and anything. And I—for any design—I have to keep that in my mind, and I should not resist that idea.”


Meta: Thoughts on the Job?

Isazadeh stressed that there’s something fundamentally wrong with how universities approach engineering courses: “We do not train for a job. We just train for content. And that is scary, because if you are an engineer, and you graduated without any education on the importance of safety, you are going to create a huge problem in your design, in your behavior—and most engineers are going to be in charge of others’ lives, right?”

He went on, explaining that professors “are normal people. They could have any stupid answer. They don’t always have the answer that you are looking for. So don’t think that your professor knows more than you. There is always some area that you would know more about than your professor because they are busy with other things in their head. They may not even have thought about the problem or solution as you have done. So don’t be scared of expressing your opinion and don’t think that they know everything.”

Moreover, most of the professors felt, like students, that the demands on their time were too great. “The hard thing is the energy and the concentration it takes to really look after undergraduates,” Smith said. Garth added, “We’re expected to be amazing teachers, amazing researchers, amazing people in general. But there’s not enough hours in the day.” Yet she also expressed that “all the work I’m reading is just really excellent and thought-provoking.” Oates agreed. “Being a Princeton professor is a perpetual pleasure… Princeton undergraduates are outstanding. This was true when I first began teaching in 1978 and it continues to be true to the present time.” Or, as Smith simply put it, “Princeton is fantastic.”

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