These interviews have been edited lightly for clarity and concision.
In his narrow, high-ceilinged, book-clogged office, Jeff Nunokawa threw back his head and laughed: “The hardest major at Princeton? English. The easiest major at Princeton? English.”
“You’re an English professor.”
“Funny coincidence, yes?”
This week, I conducted interviews with Princeton faculty on a variety of Princeton topics—ranging from late meal and Lawnparties to mental health and the intergenerational gap. Here’s what I learned.
Princeton Faculty Have Some Lukewarm Takes (Introducing the Cast)
Who’s your most controversial colleague?
“Robbie George.” -Peter Singer, of the University Center for Human Values.
Why do students love late meal?
“Impossibly full lives that make it hard to eat on schedule.” -Emily Greenwood, of the Classics Department.
What’s your perspective on Lawnparties?
“I know they’re highly tempting for students, but I also know that they sometimes choose to come to [my] Star Parties instead, or maybe following the Lawnparties.” -Gaspar Bakos, of the Astrophysics Department.
What’s the easiest major at Princeton?
“So who should I cast aspersions on? I don’t think there are any that are easy. But things like anthropology or sociology have fewer pre-reqs.” -Brian Kernighan, of the Computer Science Department.
How do you feel about the term “McCoshed”?
“It’s really difficult to teach there. The air conditioner system does not work—if you’re in the basement, you’re kind of in the dungeon. It’s an exile. Actually, if you’re sent to teach in McCosh, students suffer, being the hostages of McCosh.” -Ilya Vinitsky, of the Slavic Department.
How objective is your grading?
“That depends on the person. Well, it depends on my mood.” -Jeff Nunokawa, of the English Department.
What’s your perspective on scooters?
“I almost crashed into a scooter—or it almost crashed into me. It didn’t happen. But I was a little bit scared.” -Ying Ou, of the Chinese Department.
Is Princeton in North Jersey, South Jersey, or Central Jersey?
“Central Jersey.” -Paul Muldoon, of the Creative Writing Department.
Faculty Are a Little Confused About Eating Clubs
“Terrestrials?” Muldoon supplied. “Terrariums?” We were discussing what makes Terrace Club unique. Muldoon identified Terrace as the club “associated with the artsy types,” and discussed in detail his experiences performing music at Terrace. But beyond this, mystery—and disinterest. “I’m an astronomer,” Bakos said. “So I typically think about things a couple of light years away, and these are just too close.”
Nevertheless, faculty are cognizant of eating clubs’ social significance and other draws. Vinitsky referenced the experiences of his daughter, a recent alumna. “Eating clubs meant a lot for [my daughter] before the pandemic, because it’s socializing in a small town. It’s not New York City, it’s not Chicago. It’s not even Berkeley.” Ou cited her experiences running Chinese Table at Colonial, where she observed “a great community” and “close relationships” among members. Vinitsky noted that “if students want that as a part of their memories and communities in the future, it’s up to them.” Or, as Bakos concluded, “I can smell the tasty burgers—but I am not allowed to enter.”
At the same time, Nunokawa described the bicker process as “a more or less organized ritual of social stratification and cruelty,” while Muldoon joked that “[this process by which] people would deem their fellow humans to be right for them… [is] something akin to satanic rites.” Greenwood elaborated on this theme: “My impression is that they foster intensive kinds of exclusive community—so for those who are there and co-opted, it’s a very important part of the Princeton experience. But is it divisive? I know there’s a lot of controversy.” Ou offered a suggestion: “If [the eating clubs] could be more transparent about their criteria, or their standards of admitting a new member, that would be better.”
Faculty Like Ambitious Mottos
Princeton’s unofficial motto is “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity”; Princeton’s official motto is “Dei sub Numine Viget,” or “Under God’s Power She Flourishes.” Do students embody these mottos? According to Nunokawa, “Not enough. And that’s why it’s important. Many students here want to be in the service of humanity… whether they can be so is another question.” Kernighan agreed: “I think people tend to be interested in the welfare of other people. You can’t do that all the time, with all the people, and a lot of the world is too far away… [but] it’s an admirable ethos.”
Singer expressed the desire to improve upon these mottos and make them even more ambitious. “That’s still too narrow for me. I would like to say ‘in the service of all sentient beings,’ because I think it’s appropriate to consider that non-human animals have lives that matter, and that we should be trying to protect them from suffering. But it’s better than just ‘in the service of the nation.’” Greenwood provided another critique. “All elite universities have variations on this theme. It makes us the presumptive leaders of the nation, and humanity, and… we constantly need to offset that with reminders of humility.”
Multiple faculty also expressed discomfort with the—presumably Judeo-Christian—God appearing in our official motto. After discussing the Presbyterian origins of the University, and the historical background of “numine,” Muldoon sighed. “I’m not sure how many people really believe in an Almighty God—I don’t mean God, quote, unquote.” He added, “These are our own constructions, of course.” Nunokawa provided a different kind of insight: “I wouldn’t be able to say that I have an organized and specific sense of God—to say that God does anything in particular—and I worry when people do. There is a Weberian-Protestant Ethic of the Spirit of Capitalism-feeling among many successful people in our society. What this sense says is that if we do well by social standards, God must be on our side. This attitude might suggest to us that if we are at Princeton, God must have written us a letter of rec. That’s not a good attitude, ‘moving forward,’ as they say.” Singer agreed. “I don’t think [a motto] that has a reference to God is appropriate anymore. I think Princeton should welcome atheists and agnostics, just as much as welcoming deists.”
Grades: The Wide Curve of Faculty Perspectives
Princeton’s GPA is the lowest in the Ivy League—old news to most students, but not to the professors I interviewed. Nevertheless, all had strong stances regarding the removal of the grade deflation policy five years ago. “I was actually on the committee that rescinded [the grade deflation policy],” Kernighan told me. Why? “The perception—and perhaps the reality—was that [grade deflation] was doing damage to students,” he explained—graduate school admissions and job applications spring to mind. Bakos, however, was doubtful: “If you see someone coming from Princeton, that’s a good sign… if the GPA is reasonable, it’s a secondary thing.”
Singer disagreed with the question’s premise. “We have inflation. To me there’s no dispute about it… it seems to be a pity that we can’t use the full range of grades to show students how well they’re doing.” Singer went on to explain that he feels “pressured to give grades in the best possible value ranges, because students regard anything less than a B+ as a poor grade.” In contrast, Ou, who came to Princeton the year after the grade deflation policy was dropped, described her department as “supportive” of her grading policies, emphasizing, “I don’t have pressure from the program or the department that I should keep the A- or the A to a certain percentage.”
The faculty were united in their discomfort with being told how to grade. Muldoon explained that “one of [the reasons I dislike grading policies] has to do with trusting the faculty to know what they’re doing. I mean, we actually know how to grade, right? And we should not be required to grade on a curve.” Similarly, despite changes in University grading policies, Bakos remarked, “I don’t think my grading changed at all in the past ten years.” Vinitsky kept it simple: “I don’t want to look at the statistics saying, ‘you have to curve no more than this.’”
There’s also the question of objectivity in grading. “I don’t think I would have the heart to fail students, or give very bad grades, but it’s more objective than that. There’s certain percentages, and there’s a curve,” Bakos told me. Nunokawa suggested that the difficulty we have in agreeing on objective standards dwells at the heart of our problems as a society: “Agreeing on the criteria for judgment is a real problem. Our growing failure to do so is why our society is so fucked up, in a nutshell.” Later, he affirmed the value of striving for objectivity: “I believe in the idea of objective criteria. If we lose that, we are truly screwed.” Kernighan was the most diplomatic, restraining himself from passing judgment without further research into the matter: “I don’t have anything other than anec-data, and that’s probably a bad thing for trying to be objective about it.”
Many faculty members expressed that grades don’t capture the nuance of development. “I don’t think of grades as being indicative of somebody’s intellectual worth or potential,” Greenwood told me. “There are so many different kinds of B+’s or A-’s or A’s, and to say that it’s a generic A doesn’t really tell you much about the quality of insights of an individual student’s work.” “That’s very diplomatic,” I replied. She laughed. “Well, it might sound diplomatic, but I suppose it’s just the difference of perspective—how it might look from a faculty member’s perspective, versus a student’s.” She went on to explain that faculty also experience a kind of grading, such as when they send out book manuscripts or undergo peer review. As a result, “the mindset in which we think is formative. What’s wrong with this? How can this be improved? Rather than, ‘this is an A, B, or C.’”
Vinitsky likewise expressed that “what really matters is the progress of an individual student within the class… It’s about development.” Muldoon indicated another kind of insight: “I know when half an hour was spent [on the homework]. I know when two hours were spent, six hours—you know, you know.” Vinitsky furthered this. “If students are thinking only about grades, we immediately feel it as instructors… Grades are important, but grades are secondary to motivation.”
Faculty Agree That At Least Some Students Work Hard
There are a range of students at Princeton with a range of priorities (academic, extracurricular, athletic, and otherwise). I asked the faculty whether they think the Princeton workload is too much, too little, or about right—a question which received numerous sighs and even some laughs. “Students do so much,” Greenwood said. “By its nature, the liberal arts curriculum adds up to multitasking.” Muldoon was especially amused by this question. “I don’t think there are many students that I run into who are sitting around twiddling their thumbs.” Bakos echoed that “it’s very hard to find really laid-back students who don’t overachieve.” Ou offered an evidence-based perspective. “I often ask my students the question, 你累不累？(Are you tired?) and 你忙不忙？(Are you busy?) and always get yes, the answer is always yes.”
Nunokawa had a different angle. “I don’t think the workload is too much. I think the load is too much—the idea that it’s always work in an ugly un-fun compulsory sense. Reading Jane Austen is work, not just for a grade, but for a sense of self-worth.” His frustration was tangible. “That’s what sucks. Yeah. That’s capitalism. By making work something you do for a number or a line item on your resume (a GPA, an internship, an annual salary), you diminish or downright destroy its fun part.” Singer was more hesitant to describe the Princeton workload as inherently demanding. “I don’t see [students] as being excessively hard at work. I’m not sure whether [the workload] is about right or too little.” So why do some students appear so overwhelmed? “Some of them are extremely concerned about getting straight A’s. They might have difficulty achieving that.”
Kernighan brought up what he called “the other side of” the conversation, saying that “people do play pretty hard sometimes too, in various forms—not just going to the Street. People are very much involved in athletics, performance, things like orchestra and dance… you only have so many hours.” Bakos agreed: “It’s just non-stop something happening, constant stimulus, and no time… it seems like [students are] trying to max out all the opportunities, and then it leads to this rush.” Ou and Muldoon both lamented students taking more than four classes. “There seems to be some strange merit associated with taking five or six classes… there’s plenty to stress about in the world, without adding extra stress to oneself,” Muldoon said.
So how to achieve what Greenwood termed “the freedom of the University experience”? Bakos had some practical advice: “Sometimes it seems like all [students] would need is a little rest.” Nunokawa sounded especially exasperated: “Damn, I wish we could at least make it possible for kids to have more fun with the books I teach them.”
There’s an Intergenerational Gap About Mental Health
All the faculty I spoke to were aware that at least some students struggle with mental health issues, but many acknowledged a discomfort with the topic, a desire for distance, and the intergenerational gap that intercedes this topic—as well as the emotional burden on faculty when students come to them with questions about mental health. “It was a really strange experience when students came into my office hours and asked me some psychological mental health questions, and shared their experiences. Oh, no. No, I’m not a doctor. I’m a scholar,” Vinitsky told me.
“For better or worse, I don’t see the whole student, I see the part of that student that shows up in my class,” Kernighan said, before referencing Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) as the avenue students should turn to—an avenue which, in reality, many students have found blocked or excessively challenging to navigate. Kernighan acknowledged this too: “[CPS] takes resources, and you can’t just turn a tap and there’s more resources available.” Greenwood distilled the situation, explaining, “Specifically in the last five years, professors have become acutely conscious of student mental health, “[but] sometimes we are sporadic in our attempts to help, or despondent in knowing how to help practically.” Ou elaborated on the challenges faculty face when they encounter students who are struggling: “Professors will contact this office [CPS], or students’ Deans of College, when they find students are falling behind, or when they feel like a student is in a situation that seriously hinders [their] study and [their] normal life. And that’s often too late.”
I posed a follow-up question: do students prioritize their mental health—and should they? “We should be thinking about [mental health] every second of every minute,” Nunokawa declared. Singer disagreed. “There is actually a problem with the way you’ve asked that question. I don’t think students should focus on their own mental health. I think the way to good mental health is to focus on the activities that you want to do, and that you see as enjoyable and worthwhile. The idea that you should prioritize your own mental health is too much navel-gazing for me.” Singer went on to emphasize that students who are truly struggling should seek the help they need, but “if we’re talking about the average student who has no particular reasons to think that they’re having some kind of mental health crisis, they shouldn’t be thinking about their own mental health very much. They should just be getting on with things that they enjoy doing.”
It’s clear that there is an intergenerational gap, perhaps specifically in terms of mental health issues, between students and faculty—but where that gap lies, and how to overcome it, is perhaps best managed through intergenerational dialogue. Greenwood had practical suggestions, describing her own thought process as saying, “Okay, [it] says this on the syllabus, but we’re all flagging, and it’s a stressful point to the semester. Let’s tweak this a little.” She went on to express that “it would be great to have more student-authored guidelines for faculty, things you’d like us to know, and how we can help in even more meaningful ways.” Vinitsky further clarified why student-authored resources might be necessary: “My daughter, several months ago, told me, ‘I don’t want to argue with you, because when you speak with me, you think that I represent my generation, as if you speak with my generation through me—and we are different. There’s something in common there, but I’m not standard for my generation.’ And it was a revelation for me. Implicitly, I did consider her as speaking on behalf of her generation.”
Important to note is that some faculty interact with students over the course of decades. Kernighan, who has been teaching for over twenty years, described how “every year in September, we have this great collection of brand new people, and they’re all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and it’s fun. You can beat that out of them over a semester or a year.” Nunokawa mentioned how in 1988, when he started teaching at Princeton, another professor loudly declared to him that worrying about student mental health “is not the university’s business.” Today, however, “We are very far from that. Could [the administration] be doing more? I guess so, sure. We should always be doing more—I mean, yeah, a lot more. Always. All of us should.”
There was also a sense that professors feel exceptionally responsible, both for students and their futures. Singer said, “What should I be doing for my students? And what should I be doing for the world? That kind of question comes up for me all the time.” Nunokawa pinpointed this feeling as “a sense of shame” regarding his inability to make a greater difference in the world. “Since the election of the former president, [I’ve been] thinking, what the fuck have we been doing that this came about? Why couldn’t I, and people like me, have predicted this and done more to stop it? What kind of namby-pamby bullshit have I been doing instead?”
Greenwood identified these questions as arising from the intergenerational gap. “We’ve seen a lot in the last ten years—some students quite explicitly saying, ‘respect and everything, but you guys have messed things up. You’ve messed up the climate, you have outmoded attitudes on gender and sexuality and race… the sooner we get into positions of power, the better.’” Vinitsky maintained an optimistic perspective on intergenerational communication, referencing Tolstoy, the topic of his most well-known course. “[Tolstoy] believed that there are certain stages we go through, but we can still understand each other.”
Faculty Do Not Want Students Worrying About Them (And Their Mental Health)
After delving deeply into issues of student mental health, I turned the question around: should students be worrying about faculty mental health? After all, as Muldoon put it, “[Being a professor is] like being a student for sixty years.” Yet responses were notably brief. “No,” said Kernighan. “And I conjecture that the average student doesn’t think of faculty mental health problems because they’ve got enough of their own.” Greenwood disagreed with this conjecture, but not the overall point: “It isn’t students’ job to carry the burden of worrying about all the faculty… I think students are compassionate and considerate, but why should you have to worry about that institutional piece of the pie?” Singer echoed these sentiments: “The faculty can be looking after their own mental health.”
Or as Nunokawa put it, “This is not our show. I mean, it is our show, but I don’t think [students] have to worry about my mental health.” Laughing, he went on to joke, “I think they enjoy [my sanity’s] presence, or absence, or possible presence. I do think so. I’ve been called crazy a lot by students. And I’ve always taken it as a compliment.”
The Hardest Part of Being a Princeton Professor Is the Students… But It’s Not Too Hard?
Princeton faculty seem to see students as intense individuals. Much in the same way that we students may feel impostor syndrome when we observe our classmates appearing to achieve and succeed at so much, so may faculty. “One of the jokes about Princeton is that most of the people who teach here would never get in,” Muldoon said. Bakos elaborated: “I have many students who wake up at 5 every morning to go to the swim team, and then they come into class, and I feel a bit embarrassed that I didn’t do anything between 5 and 7 AM. I was just sleeping.” Modestly, Bakos then compared himself to Zero, the lobby boy in the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel: “Why did I come to the Grand Hotel Budapest? Well, who wouldn’t? It is an institution.”
Most inspiringly, the faculty seem to love their jobs, with Kernighan calling professorship “actually quite good” and “a lot of fun.” Muldoon explained, “I don’t think of [being a Princeton professor] as being hard. I don’t say that it’s easy, but there is so much joy for me involved… and it’s so much fun to work with young people.” Nunokawa agreed. “I don’t know very many hard parts. That’s how much I love this job.”
Nevertheless, many of the faculty also expressed a desire for more connection with students. “I would like to have more conversations,” Ou said. “And I hope my students could have more time to come to cultural events… so that faculty members and students could have more opportunities to interact outside class, and to share some more personal things that we cannot talk about in class.” Greenwood similarly emphasized “making sure that we faculty learn from students and vice versa.”
Nunokawa finished our conversation with an idea that, although somewhat contradicting his earlier agnostic stance, seemed reflected among all the faculty I spoke with: “I believe very strongly in the pastoral work of teaching. I’m ashamed to believe in it so much. It’s a practically religious faith.” Speaking with these professors reaffirmed this sense of faith for me as well, as well as of “forces beyond us,” as Muldoon put it, which may inspire us to write poetry and live rich lives. I believe I’ve grown this week, more than I have in any one lecture, even though conducting these interviews amounted to only a few hours of my time. I hope you’re also inspired to have conversations with your faculty—you may find yourself learning about a professor’s dream course, covert observations of student parties, or their anti-vaxxer personal trainer—or you may discover you’re only a Terrestrial or Terrarium after all.