Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


Thursday, 29 March 2012

The curse of liberal arts

Published in the Daily Princetonian on 29 March 2012.

They say college is a time to find yourself. I feel like I’ve done the exact opposite. Almost three years in at Princeton, and I seem to have slowly lost strands of what I once thought defined me. Everything I believe has been laid open by the challenges, ideas and thoughts of this great institution.

Not long after I got here I realized that I would have to question everything I believed myself to be, everything I thought I had concluded to be true. Slowly but surely all that we stand for becomes open to question. Our goals, our belief in ourselves, others, the education system, the economy, even our belief in religion and God — everything is challenged.

Perhaps that is the beauty of being around some of the best minds in the world and their eager pupils: the vulnerability of asking questions about yourself and trying to find answers and accepting that many times the answer is simply, “I don’t know.”

That’s the point, isn’t it? To let go of what we came here with and slowly begin to answer the questions that our parents, our teachers and our communities once answered for us. The first step in letting yourself go, leaving your mind bare and impressionable, is to accept that we don’t have answers to everything. It is from there that we truly begin to look.

In that process we begin to lose our old selves, losing the clarity that we so doggedly believed we had. I was talking to a friend when we were abroad last year, and both of us realized that in some ways we now had more connections with this campus than we did with our homes. Old friends and old memories become exactly that: old. We work and try to search for the new: the paths we might take and the turns that might present themselves.

In a fearfully real sense, our identities have a whole new context. Suddenly I’m studying things that I never thought I’d study and working on projects I had never envisioned. Why? I’m not quite sure. Where will they lead me? Not a clue. In the grand image of Steve Jobs’ famous Stanford address, I’m trying to find what I love to do. I have ideas, but I’m not sure, so I plan to continue looking. I expect to come to conclusions, rethink them and change my mind repeatedly until I’m content.

The freedom of being able to doubt and rethink everything myself is often what I relish most about my time here. It seems right, almost, to not settle, but to keep moving and looking for better answers. But the ‘real’ world beyond Fitz-Randolph seems to think otherwise, and it bugs me.

I stroll on to the job fair and try to get a couple of interviews. “Why are you studying what you’re studying?” they’d ask. Honestly, I really don’t know. But as the gods of technical interviews have taught me, “I don’t know” seems to be the dreaded answer. I don’t want to tell them I have no idea what I’m doing. But I don’t. But I need to show I can think well. But that doesn’t imply I have answers, it should only mean that I ask the right questions. Right?

To be fair, I’m not as stumped as I seem, but I wish everything were clearer. I wish it were acceptable that I do not consider myself smart enough to have the correct answers and that I might, faced with something that is obviously an improvement over what I doing, change my mind.

I hope to learn — by getting as many different experiences as possible — to grow as a person and to contribute to whatever group I am a part of. Sometimes this just seems impossible. At every stage of this process, there are always people who look better prepared. They came to a decision about what they wanted to do and stuck to it.

And that’s great. Quite frankly, I understand why companies or graduate schools may choose someone with a sense of direction as opposed to someone without one. But in the spirit of a liberal arts education, what of those who change their minds? Is that the death sentence of a well-defined path to a great career?

One of my closest friends decided to change majors in the middle of his fourth semester here. It was a great decision, but it was much harder than, in all fairness, it seems like it should have been. It is almost as if choices like these are between giving up all you have worked for and the chance to find something new.

Should it be that hard? Should we have to decide that we will in all likelihood never want to return to what we originally thought was right for us just to see if something else makes more sense? The freedom to question yourself that this great institution presents, and the demand of direction at so many stages after, just does not add up.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Pequod is still too damn high

Originally Published in the Daily Princetonian on 1 March, 2012.

Three years ago, the USG and its Undergraduate Life Committee began to look at ways to reduce costs for students. The Pequod became an important subject, one which students then indicated was high on the list of issues they wanted addressed. As part of the USG’s push in 2009-10, Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel and Deputy Dean of the College Peter Quimby wrote to the faculty to encourage a push toward e-reserves in the face of rising textbook costs. Today, the Pequod is still alive and kicking, however, albeit in the face of some movement toward e-reserves.

The question that still  seems to be perplexing is why Pequod packets must exist in the first place. Some professors still prefer to teach with Pequods, as the ULC report highlights. In the case of language classes, having a bound packet that the class can work on together can be useful to ensure that progress is smooth. The Pequod is then a premium distribution network for photocopied readings.

There is then the issue of getting around copyright strangleholds when readings cannot be posted online. There is some confusion as to what these copyright limitations are exactly. The library is allowed to publish excerpts of works for educational use as long as they are within ‘fair-use’ guidelines, i.e., shorter than a certain length in most cases.

How the Pequod addresses this issue is not quite clear. There is likely some duplication of fair-use content that could have just as easily been put up as an e-reserve. Even when readings exceed fair-use guidelines, the library has the option to seek permission from publishers. With some classes that have both Pequods and e-reserves, it seems that Pequods can get around copyright issues when the library cannot.

There is also the possibility that documents in packets simply have not been scanned and Pequod provides a convenient service to turn documents into class readings.

The placement of Pequod in the University’s distribution system is also puzzling. Pequod printing is an independent for-profit business that does not maintain regular contact with the University, unlike Labyrinth Books. This was true at least until the time of the last USG study. The Pequod retains monopoly control over the distribution of photocopied readings in Princeton. The ULC’s study has indicated that packet’s are ‘vastly’ overpriced, but in another communication also notes that the monopoly is maintained via low profit margins. So there is some lack of clarity there. But interestingly, the Pequod enterprise caters only to a select group of schools around the area. Other major schools do seem to offer a mix of e-reserves and free photocopied readings where possible.

All this leaves us with the conclusion that an overpriced paper distribution mechanism presents an antiquated mechanism to distribute readings. E-reserves, on the other hand, presents a fast, flexible, sustainable solution compared to mounds of Pequods. If most readings are made available online under fair-use guidelines, or with explicit permission of publishers, the University community is saving on paper and profits paid to middlemen and getting the added benefit of choosing which readings to selectively print out if students or faculty members choose to do so. Despite OIT’s introduction of print quotas, there is little to suggest that a large number of students require extensions on their quotas, giving room for readings to be printed on student accounts.

There is room, however, to make e-reserves more useful and easier to adapt. Professors should not be expected to let go of inertia and swiftly shift to e-reserves. The library’s reserve request system is helpful but not the most intuitive at this point, perhaps prompting the need for bettering the system and reaching out to specific teachers directly.

From the students’ point of view, many scanned readings do not undergo Optical Character Recognition, meaning that students without expensive OCR software will not be able to highlight or annotate text conveniently electronically, in which case they must print the readings out and annotate by hand.

Changes, such as improving the interface to get reserves and using smarter OCR before putting up readings, can vastly improve student and faculty experiences. These may not even be recurring expenses. Other initiatives can include targeting classes with high Pequod prices, say over $250, and helping professors move as much material online as possible instead of waiting for them to catch on voluntarily. This effort can double as training so that professors are familiar with the system in the future as well.

But on a larger scale, moving toward free, easily distributed readings is an opportunity for the University to become a leader in promoting free knowledge and information as far as possible. An effort toward increasing sustainability has led to print quotas and even experimenting with Kindles in class. We can take all of that further by pushing for freer, easier and faster access to information when and where possible. There is no shortage of material generated on this campus, and leading the drive toward making research and readings more accessible can position Princeton to be one of the pioneers of accessible information in education.