Home > rant > Optimizing for Einstein and other homo-erotic theories

Optimizing for Einstein and other homo-erotic theories

March 20, 2014

Jointly posted with Naked Capitalism.

At 41, I’m a grown woman. I’ve had enough weird and bad experiences as a woman in the mathematics part of “STEM,” inside and outside of academia, that my skin is relatively thick, a fact I’m proud of. Most of the time I let stuff roll off of me.

Even so, there are certain things that really get under my skin. Examples include terrible advice to young anxious women, and anything having to do with Princeton, New Jersey.

The recent appearance of the “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton (more about her below) has created a perfect storm inside me and I feel I have to comment, at the risk of giving her book more buzz. Note this post is not at all quantitative or even nerdy, except for some free market chit-chat which doesn’t really count. Instead it is much more straight-up ranting that I allow myself from time to time on mathbabe. If you want a more scientific and polite takedown, please see this Huffington Post article.

Princeton, New Jersey

There are two kinds of people in the world: people who hate Princeton, New Jersey, and people who are über successful white men (and sometimes Asian men). And I guess there’s a third kind, the people who have never visited Princeton.

I know that sounds histrionic, and I’ll make some caveats later on, but bear with me, it’s coming from personal experience.

I spent one horrific year (the academic year 1997-1998) as a visiting graduate student in the Princeton math department. Coming from the Harvard math department, I’d been socialized to think that spending all night in the library reading musty old French mathematical manuscripts was cool, and the very least one could do to impress one’s advisor.

In other words, I knew from male-dominated macho nerd culture. I girded myself for more of the same when I got to Princeton. But Princeton turned that up quite a few notches, and it wasn’t pretty. And it might have had something to do with being newly married, but that kind of makes my point stronger, not weaker, as you will see.

The first thing I noticed was that there were no other women in the math department. Well, that’s not quite true, since there were secretaries, and there was one female professor, who I never once spotted, and there was one other female graduate student, at least in theory, but it took me weeks and weeks to run into her.

But even so, I was kind used to that, being an experienced math nerd. I would normally just make do with hanging out with the social nerd boys. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any. It seemed like a department that either selected for anti-social people or efficiently turned them into anti-social people after they arrived.

As an illustration, let me tell you about the most social experience among graduate students I ever witnessed. It started out as a joyous scene: an enthusiastic young man bounded into the common room (which was almost always empty and didn’t really deserve the name “common room” at all) holding a book. He was showing off his newly bound thesis to an unusually large crowd of fellow graduate students – maybe 7 other men.

Instead of congratulating him, someone from the crowd grabbed the thesis and immediately and loudly proclaimed he’d found a typo. Everyone laughed. Long pause. The guy took his thesis and walked out of the room.

As you might imagine, I didn’t spend too much time in the math department. Instead, naïf that I was, I gave myself the task of finding friendly people I could truly connect with in the cultural wasteland that was Princeton Township.

The problem was, it felt like a village frozen in time. Of the perhaps 7 people I got to the point of trusting enough to share my desire for connection, no fewer than 3 of them suggested I join a church (that always made me wonder, what do Jewish people do in Princeton?), and the other 4 suggested I have a child in order to have company and something to do with myself. No shit. Human being as hobby.

I could go on – I could describe the pathetic attempt to attend a female graduate student mixer (“canceled for lack of attendants”) or the desperate time I sought counseling from the sole campus Mental Health Professional. Her exact words: “If it helps, I think I eventually see every female graduate student at Princeton.” Me: “Yes, it helps! I’m getting the FUCK out of here.” And I did.

I’ve been back once or twice, mostly to see the one person I became fond of in my year-long visit, and I am always amazed to see how little has changed. The last time I went, I attended a conference at the Institute for Advanced Study, and after lunch one afternoon I was in the cafeteria there, looking for coffee, when someone (a man! an oldish white man!) asked me to “find more plates, please” because there were no more clean ones. I looked down at my clothes: was I wearing a kitchen staff uniform like other people working the kitchen? Not at all, but I did suspiciously have my boobs with me. I must be kitchen staff.

Hey, I might be wrong

Other people have been to Princeton in the past 15 years, and some of them tell me it’s gotten somewhat better, and there are sightings of more than one woman at a time in the math department, and so on. I mean, the standards are super low, so “better” doesn’t necessarily mean much, but then again I don’t want to make it seem impossibly fixed. I’m glad the President of Princeton is was a woman.

On the other hand, another friend of mine had this to say about a very recent visit (less than 3 months ago):

I was a job candidate there. Put up at that Inn. Eating by myself, and there was a long table in the center of the room  – all white men, many in bow ties, I swear. They were talking loudly about curriculum changes in the humanities over time, and what a shame it was that they couldn’t teach the classics anymore, laughing about having to teach world literature, etc. And everyone serving them was black. It was disgusting.

My theory of Princeton

I have a kind of fun theory of why Princeton is like this. The short version is that the culture has optimized to producing “geniuses,” which started with Einstein. In fact, Einstein’s success story also pinpoints the moment that time froze there. It was like the lesson learned for the town was that, if they could only keep the place exactly like it was the moment Einstein entered Princeton, then maybe it would be a breeding ground for many many more geniuses to make the town proud.

So that’s what’s happened: everything that is done there is done in the hope that more Einsteins will pop up among the population. Would-be geniuses are worshipped in weird ways, and anyone who is not themselves a genius candidate has to tailor themselves to those who are.

And since by definition geniuses are not women – and nor are minority men – we know what their roles turn out to be. Women, at least white women, are seen as useful in as much as they can have man-children who may grow up to be geniuses. Everyone else is even less crucial.

Do you think I’m being too harsh? Perhaps. To be honest, there is a space for white men to be tagged as successful without being full-blown geniuses, especially if they’re undergraduates. Namely, if they are potentially super rich, preferably by working in finance. In any case it’s all about the successful male narrative. There is no room for any other narrative.

Why am I talking shit about Princeton?

Here’s the thing. I have come to appreciate Princeton, in a wry way (“If you’re suicidal,” one character says, “and you don’t actually kill yourself, you become known as ‘wry.’ ”), and only as long as I’m not actually there. It is such a perfect example of old-fashioned, fucked up shit. You can’t make that stuff up.

But you can point to it and say, I will never live like that. It’s become a convenient counterfactual for me personally.

But not everyone has my perspective. My biggest fear nowadays about Princeton is that people are not sufficiently up front about how awful it is, and because of that people are sometimes tricked into visiting or even moving there.

It is this fear that I’m writing this essay, that I might be able to warn people away from that place, and possibly other places like it, although I don’t know of any. I’m a one-person anti-PR machine, but there’s only so much I can do.

Susan Patton to the rescue

It turns out my job is getting easier, thanks to Susan Patton, self-proclaimed “Princeton Mom”.

As if to amplify my complaints about Princeton, Patton has come out with yet more advice for girls who are aspiring to be Princeton wives. Her new advice to young women is to get fake boobs and whatever other plastic surgery deemed necessary in high school so you can attract a man in college.

Let’s back up for just a moment, though. Who is this woman?

You have heard of Susan Patton. She’s the confused bitch that wrote a now-famous letter to undergraduate women telling them to stop thinking about careers and start getting engaged whilst in college.

Oh, and she also suggested in a recent Valentine’s Day column (subtitle: “Young women in college need to smarten up and start husband-hunting.”) in the Wall Street Journal (where else!?) that, if you want men to marry you, you shouldn’t fuck them too soon, because, in her words, “men won’t buy the cow if the milk is free.”

Yes, she said that. I’ve got two responses to that tidbit. First, this:

mooooooo, motherfucker, moooooooooooo!!

Next, Aunt Pythia mentioned this but it bears repeating: Patton is objectifying women by calling them cows.

She’s doing the same when she tells young women to get boob jobs in high school. That’s in fact the name of her game. She is insisting that women abandon any hope of intellectual curiosity, goals or ambitions while they are still teenagers and start in on a desperate competition to be a Princeton wife.

Why is Patton so nuts?

By her own account, Susan Patton married the wrong guy – a non-Princeton guy – and later got divorced. She’s bitter about her lack of foresight. In some sense this is just a pathetic story about one sad person.

But in another way it’s not. I’ve been reading a super interesting book called Why Love Hurts: a Sociological Explanation that explains why Susan Patton has some things right. In fact she’s kind of brilliant, but for obviously weird reasons, and her plan to deal with the issues she rightly raises is completely fucked up.

Here’s what she’s understood: there has been a revolution in mating rituals and partnering, and it has become a competition, and it has become increasingly important to be sexually attractive to win this competition. And although it’s not the only competition young women are enduring in college, it’s the one she’s fixated on.

In fact to a large extent we’ve gone from a social contract partnering society to a kind of pseudo-free market partnering society. The results of that transition include various things like how men and women see themselves, and specifically how they (women, not men) blame themselves for failed relationships, and moreover how they are incentivized (or not) to get married, or have kids, or importantly, to keep their word.

One of the most interesting points, at least as it pertains to Susan Patton, is that whereas men used to need to get married and have children to assert their masculinity, this is no longer true.

Nowadays, according to this theory, men in question increasingly assert their masculinity to each other through the sexual attractiveness of their girlfriends, and they don’t care very much whether they get married and have kids, or at least they don’t feel any urgency (which gives rise to both “the noncommittal man” and “the woman who loves too much”).

So when Patton tells women to get boob jobs, she’s essentially telling them to improve their odds in that existing free market. It’s not about sexual gratification, or even “self confidence” for the women. It’s really a homo-erotic, all-male issue: be something that other men will be jealous of.  And what is the measure of their jealousy? That other men are responding sexually to “my” woman. So this means men are focusing on signs of sexual responses in other men and deriving gratification from them.

Here’s what Patton has tragically wrong, though. Given that you’re willing to toss out your personal and intellectual growth for the sake of winning this competition, even given that, which is a sad way to approach life, it still doesn’t have a chance of working.

Because, once we’ve acknowledged and entered this free market for sexual and romantic partnership, it’s simply not going to work in this day and age to expect the men to want to get married when they’re 20 years old, and it’s also certainly not going to work to withhold sex from 20-year-old men and expect them to marry you. It’s just not where 20-year-old men are at in this system. In fact by doing those things a woman is signaling desperation, which – as is explained in this book – works against a given woman, not for them.

Patton and my theory

I’d like to square her advice with my optimized-for-geniuses theory of Princeton.

The main point of my theory is that it’s all about the men, and specifically, it’s all about the successful male narrative. Whereas before it was enough for women to subjugate their personality, personal ambitions, and long-term goals for the purpose of potential geniuses and/or rich finance guys, Patton is now calling for women to also mutilate their bodies for the cause.

As a signaling device, it indicates real hunger for the role. As some guy said:

Fake boobs say, ‘I objectify myself, therefore I have no problem with you doing the same.’

But as I mentioned above, it is a failed signaling device. It’s an indication that the cultural worship of men has gone too far in Princeton, New Jersey. I’m hopeful that the smell of desperation will be so obvious that people will have to take a closer look and scrutinize the culture.

I’d also like to start a petition to demand that the Wall Street Journal make up for the publishing Patton’s column by also printing this excellent essay on getting laid really well when you’re a divorced fat woman. We need an antidote.

Categories: rant
  1. Thomas
    March 20, 2014 at 9:07 am

    Super-hilarious, brilliant, acid-tinged rant…


  2. Deane
    March 20, 2014 at 9:21 am

    I’m less willing to make any blanket judgments about Princeton, especially since I haven’t spent more than a day there since I was 4. But here are some anecdotes:
    1) I spent a year in Institute housing and the local nursery school when I was 4, because my father was on sabbatical at IAS. I have fond memories of that, except for losing a toy fire truck that I had been given during a holiday party at the school. I can still, for some reason, remember crying while walking home. I also remember, together with a friend, stuffing leaves into the mailbox. This, I believe, was the highlight of my memories of Princeton.
    2) When I was young, for some reason I used to stumble regularly onto copies of the Princeton alumni magazine. I have fond memories of reading with horrified fascination the letters from alumni, especially those from before 1950. These were people who still unashamedly expressed quite explicitly and publicly (if you consider this publication to be public) their misogynist and racist views. Only the Main Line Chronicle and letters from Brits in the Hong Kong English language newspaper (maybe the South China Morning Post?) were competitors in this area back then.
    3) When I was deciding which graduate schools to go to, at least one reason I chose Harvard over Princeton was the fact that I didn’t see a single graduate student smile during my visit to Princeton. I did meet Thurston, but I don’t recall meeting any other faculty. At Harvard, I met several faculty at tea. The graduate students simply said, “Do you want to live in Boston or Princeton?” That settled it for me.


  3. March 20, 2014 at 9:24 am

    Ouch. So much anger and vitriol. Must be cathartic. Never been to Princeton. But I have worked at the hedge fund where you worked, Cathy, and your description of Princeton math geniuses could apply as well to some (but not all) Harvard math geniuses at the hedge fund. Just saying.


  4. APS
    March 20, 2014 at 9:26 am

    This is an excellent and righteous rant, but unfortunately all I have to add is a totally off-topic request: _please_ don’t link to the Daily Fail. Every click only makes them stronger. (It’s a bit like the dark side of the Force.)


  5. March 20, 2014 at 9:29 am

    You are the best! Wonderfully written powerful insights that women (and MEN!) should read and ponder daily.


  6. Deane
    March 20, 2014 at 9:31 am

    Also, I think blaming Einstein is giving him too much credit. I’m pretty sure that Princeton was a misogynist and racist town well before Einstein got there. I think the big change that IAS and Einstein caused was that intellectual merit started to become a criterion for hiring faculty and recruiting students, if only white male ones.


    • March 20, 2014 at 10:14 am

      And FWIW, AFAIK, Einstein was not a church goer. 😉


      • Deane
        March 20, 2014 at 1:51 pm

        That raises the point that the arrival of Einstein also might have marked the beginning of the decline of antisemitism at Princeton. This in fact probably was before the same happened at Harvard.


        • March 20, 2014 at 3:39 pm

          I think it took another twenty years after Einstein’s arrival in 1933. As for Harvard, MIT was the greatest beneficiary of Harvard’s anti-Semitism, with Norbert Weiner (Harvard PhD) being a prime example.


  7. March 20, 2014 at 9:40 am

    This is brilliant and ties together so many disparate and important things. Love it! I just finished reading Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Banker — that book, satirically written in the first person, also skewers the Princeton atmosphere in hilarious ways.


  8. March 20, 2014 at 10:11 am

    Hear, hear! This is exactly what so many women don’t understand (because we’re pretty much raised not to). When you in-fight about who’s “prettier” or “a better mom” or who “has it all / leans in the hardest,” you are supporting a patriarchal system that benefits from women competing with each other, preferably on fairly useless or petty points. I also have a horror story about a 21-year-old former teammate from the Princeton math department, but I’ll share that with you the next time we’re sitting together over a strong drink.


  9. Mel
    March 20, 2014 at 11:03 am

    Princeton cargo cult. Heehee.

    Re male competition, the financial Masters of the Universe are doing the same thing with the orders of magnitude of their yearly pay. There is no other reason given for that much money. If you want to think about this without going homicidal, get the DVDs of the series _News Radio_, and follow the character Jimmy James (the station owner played by Steven Root.) The whole behavior-of-the-ultra-rich thing is laid out there.


  10. Debbie
    March 20, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    I know it’s anecdotal, but I wanted to mention there is (at least) one terrific person who made it through grad school in the Princeton Math Dept: Ravi R, the number theorist. He was my professor at Cornell and he was a wonderful professor, caring person, and very supportive of women in math. I was once standing at tea with a small group, Ravi included. We were discussing the Putnam Exam. An (old white male) professor made the comment, “Don’t they have a separate exam for women?”. Thankfully I have a thick skin so I wasn’t too upset, but Ravi looked mortified and clearly felt awful that I had to endure such disgusting comments. He was long gone from Princeton by time you arrived though, otherwise maybe your experience would have been a little less crappy. Glad he made it through that place unscathed.


  11. Kuas
    March 20, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    “A quaint and ceremonious village of puny demigods on stilts.” BTW I assume everyone’s read Rebecca Goldstein’s “Mind Body Problem”, which paints a pretty compelling picture of the Princeton culture.


  12. Recovering Banker
    March 20, 2014 at 12:50 pm

    Princeton started my career in banking. I was at the Institute for a year, but only lasted a term. I didn’t notice misogyny, but the atmosphere was a combination of superiority and miserable bitterness. I thought: if this is the top for academia, then I really want to check out Industry…


  13. Min
    March 20, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    When I think Princeton, I think Woodrow Wilson, not Einstein. Besides, Einstein was already famous before he got to Princeton.


  14. glovideoglovideo
    March 20, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    Bravo Cathy. Excellent article.


  15. Fred
    March 20, 2014 at 1:39 pm

    Early post-PhD positions are often painful, and sufferers tend to blame the place rather than the broader system.


  16. March 20, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    Let me get this straight. Are you saying that Princeton is an exclusive institution that caters to the desires, goals, and whims of white males? Are you implying that an Old Boys’ Club exists in the United States which privileges white men and that our educational system is complicit in this skewed power structure? Are you suggesting, in sum, that the elite institutions in our nation are elitist? What a radical notion. I’m glad someone is still outraged about the status quo. Tell it, Mathbabe!

    I propose a Stepford Wife flash mob on the Princeton campus. Now that would be wry. http://www.stepfordwives.org/


  17. March 20, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    I grew up in the area and now live and work around Princeton. Hopefully temporarily. I was surprised to see this post today! The only other place I’ve ever really lived was NYC. You’ve just described a side of Princeton I’ve never really seen. Elitist? Maybe. Racist? Never ran into that. Maybe it’s there; maybe I don’t see it just living around here. It’s pretty interesting to ponder, actually.

    Our school was 60% minority–super privileged minority, of course. But the result is most of the people I went to high school with came out being fairly feminist, pro-social justice and very anti-racist. Even the most conservative guys, though they wouldn’t identify themselves as tolerant or stuff like that. All much more so than many of my college peers from other places. Paradox of privilege?

    I do relate to what you’re talking about. “Cutural wasteland” seems a bit extreme, because the Princeton area is just ordinary rich suburbia as things go. People stay in their houses/boxes. It feels sickening for me sometimes–I’ve never adapted to life here from being a broke ass student walking around NYC.


  18. Ken
    March 20, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    The president of Princeton is a white guy again.


    • March 20, 2014 at 4:26 pm

      Shoot, what happened?


      • Ken
        March 20, 2014 at 4:56 pm

        Shirley retired last year. The provost, Charles Eisgruber, got promoted.


  19. Inez
    March 20, 2014 at 5:25 pm

    Things like this are always more complicated then they appear to be at first. Might her 2006 letter to the Princeton Alumnus weekly shed some light? Nothing like wresting gain from private pain.


  20. March 20, 2014 at 7:17 pm

    I really appreciate your taking the time to skewer this idea that women should be the foils for homo-erotic power plays. I’m sick of feeling like I’m supposed to be some kind of trophy — as opposed to working hard, enjoying my career, and relishing my freedom!


    • March 21, 2014 at 8:54 am

      Hey guys can be trophies too, you know…


  21. Townie
    March 20, 2014 at 9:36 pm

    Your experience was true for you, but not universal. I moved there as a child and stayed into my twenties. In my last years there I was dating a grad student in engineering and through him met plenty of nice women — both grad students and wives of grad students. Now, we have a daughter who has a PhD in engineering and she’d be the first to tell you that there are still issues of inclusion for women in STEM fields; this problem is not specific to Princeton.


  22. Sophie
    March 20, 2014 at 10:27 pm

    Princeton maths department person here. I like it. Sorry. Also don’t feel like I was tricked into moving there.
    (But I agree with the anti-Susan Patton rant, at least the parts that are not “Princeton is totally awful”.)


  23. Princeton STEM Ugrad
    March 20, 2014 at 11:35 pm

    I’m a female undergrad at Princeton (in the engineering school, not math, and this is main campus, not IAS). It has always surprised me that all of the engineering departments at Princeton are more diverse than math (and physics, which seems to have a similar genius-worship culture), at least at the undergrad level. I have not seen this genius-worship culture in my engineering classes, and have honestly found Princeton academics to be a wonderful and encouraging space for learning, with a strong female community in many departments. (Princeton seems to have much larger problems in general with including other types of minorities on campus and I can’t speak to their communities.) Yes, there may be subtle hints that we should all be aiming to go make tons of money on wall street or startups or being famous and inventing great things, but these are hints that we should ALL be going after those things. No, things aren’t a perfect picture of equality in STEM but it’s quite a bit better than the picture painted.

    I’m not touching the Susan Patton / social criticism of Princeton with an N foot pole because I could not match the existing level of ironic and hilarious skewering. But there are academic spaces at Princeton (even STEM ones!) where much attitude progress has been made, and the women on campus are an active and proud part of that.

    PS: Shirley Tilghman is awesome (even if she’s no longer president as of the beginning of this school year)!
    PPS: First comment, giant fan of this blog!


  24. March 21, 2014 at 9:10 am

    “Nowadays, according to this theory, men in question increasingly assert their masculinity to each other through the sexual attractiveness of their girlfriends.”

    whoah, this encapsulates everything I’ve experienced as a college-aged male when I start dating someone. Some friend (mostly men, sometimes women. the women usually ask me what she’s like) asks me their name, I tell them, and they go on Facebook to give me their approval or disapproval. I’m increasingly creeped out whenever this happens.


  25. March 21, 2014 at 9:35 am

    Cathy, could you explain your title?


  26. RS
    March 21, 2014 at 11:27 am

    I suppose I am part of the people who have never visited Princeton and probably never will. When I read your post it made me want to cry to be honestly. “focusing on signs of sexual responses in other men” : I don’t do that. “Fake boobs say, ‘I objectify myself’” : I am male I have no idea what objectify is supposed to be mean?, my theory is that this is a secret code to allow women to be misandric against men. Having a girl friend because I want to fullfill my own homo-erotic reasons WHAT??? Honestly I wonder why women project their own sexuality desires onto men and claim to be victims? I feel for you when you describe Princeton but please don’t be misandric about it…..


    • March 21, 2014 at 8:02 pm

      Let me help you: “objectify” as in making oneself into a sexual object. There are fine reasons to get boob jobs, but not because Patton said it’ll land a gal a husband. And Cathy isn’t being misandric. She’s outlining Patton’s logic. It’s Patton who seems to think men are looking for prizes.


  27. March 21, 2014 at 11:43 am

    I am 57 and, despite my faded ethnicities, still classified as a white male. As for the Princeton Mom, this is an example of sinusoidal trends in our culture. When I was in my late 20s, I remember a slew of books, opinion, etc, about young women facing their biological clock and much of the advice was similar to the Princeton Mom: Give it up, compete vigorously for your man, and start having a family. Rather than this woman being a disturbing blight on the cultural noise-making radio dial, she’s just an example of a perspective that gets suppressed for a while in the larger media (or crowded out) and is then “magically” discovered and unleashed. As for the plus-size woman and her sexscapades, I would think as a “mathbabe,” you would take exception to the phrase in her article’s first paragraph, “almost precisely.”


  28. dbk
    March 21, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    Thank you for that great, epic rant!
    My son went to Princeton, started in STEM (Molecular Biology), and just felt that the faculty-student and student-student vibes were, well, bad. He ended up doing Early English Lit and got a superb education, but of course his mind was lost to science. It’s not just women that Princeton STEM can be bad for … my son was looking for collegiality and comaraderie, and just didn’t find it in MolBio, where 99% of the undergrads were pre-med (he was in the other 1%). His SOs during his college years were both in STEM fields (Biology, CompSci).
    Two of his best friends were Math majors; one was preternaturally shy, I think he’s a Prof at UChicago now. The other got a PhD and followed your route into Finance after several stints in academia. They were both very nice kids, and have remained friends with my son.
    Patton’s book strikes me as alarmingly “out of its time”; the impression I got from visits to campus (admittedly as a “Mom”) was that Princeton women just really weren’t in to her paradigm at all, and that they couldn’t have cared less that they weren’t, and that they weren’t going to regret it, either. It’s like a book that could have been written in the 1950s – but of course, back then Princeton was all-male, and the husband-hunting was down from the related Seven Sister school. The mentality rather reminds me of that of Sylvia Plath’s generation, updated to a neoliberal context.
    Nonetheless, there is something about the Ivies – I think Harvard, being so large and situated in Boston is a bit of an outlier – that makes each of them parochial in its own fashion. Certainly this is true of Princeton and of Dartmouth, and in my day at least, of Yale, where I did my PhD – it wasn’t welcoming to women in the late seventies-early eighties, and women faculty tended never to get tenure; instead, the best of them were granted a Yale thing called “6 +3″ – the standard six years as assistant, followed by almost automatic rejection for tenure, followed by three years to get another job, normally at tenured associate level. Two women I knew – one as a faculty member, one as a fellow-student who became a faculty member – both ended up in associate tenured positions in California, which they found infinitely more congenial, and where they remained.


  29. Corinna
    March 22, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    Just to testify that there are COUNTEREXAMPLES.. I was a female graduate student in Fine Hall, I received my PhD in Mathematics in 2007. I had a very good experience and great memories from my Princeton years.

    I was the only female in my year, but there were several other female graduate students as well as female post-docs and assistant professors. We became good friends with many and created a “gang” of women mathematicians.

    During my time there and I got along very well with most of the other Phd students in my year and other years. There were a few “nerds”, but not “nasty” ones, just less social ones. Many of the other Phd Students were lovely and friendly, we studied a lot together when we prepared for our General exams.

    I had many good friends within the Mathematics department and outside. Of course I went to some though times when working towards my Phd, but that I cannot really relate to the Princeton, but I think are normal up and downs that any person who worked though their Phd in Mathematics almost certainly had. I also had a lot of fun and felt that University and town were offering many opportunities of entertainement which I enjoyed and appreciated (from student events, to parties, to restaurants, to cultural events, concerts, meetings). I have lots of good memories and I know many other Phd students, women and non, who could testify the same.

    Concluding, this shows that either Princeton HAD CHANGED after the time you were there or it shows that there are DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES and perceptions!


  30. Kavanna
    March 24, 2014 at 11:35 am

    I never worked at Princeton or the Institute, but I visited a number of times. I do remember something Einstein said about the Institute being an absurd village of demi-gods on stilts. And many in academia have heard the stories. Although it’s an Ivy school and north of the Mason-Dixon line, those small dorms the freshmen used to live in? Originally, slave quarters for the personal slaves Southern students brought with them before that unpleasantness in the 1860s. And Princeton was, I believe, the last Ivy to drop Jewish quotas, in the 1960s, well after Harvard, Yale, and Columbia.

    That said, such a rant (admittedly against a target that probably deserves it), like Susan Patton’s advice, is a little difficult to fully appreciate for those of us from outside the rarefied Princetonian atmosphere, even if you are intimately familiar with elite school cultures of the Ivies and other such places. With Patton, there’s an essential truth she’s communicating — contemporary American college students are developmentally arrested, have a hard time viewing themselves as what they are (adults), and have been infantilized by their Boomer parents — but it’s far too tangled up in this weird elite culture. It will probably keep many from seeing her point.


  31. Roger Lustig
    March 24, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    You were in the *math* department and you “wonder what Jewish people do at Princeton”? The next building up from Fine Hall (math dept.) is the Center for Jewish Life, which was opened 3 years before you got there. And which is and was then used by hundreds and hundreds of students, grad students included.

    Then there’s the Jewish Center on Nassau Street, Chabad a little ways beyond there, and (in your time, at least) *two* Jewish Renewal groups right in town.

    And, no, there wasn’t just one female mental health counselor then. And no, she couldn’t have seen all the female grad students even if she’d seen only women.

    For the record, the cultural worship of women–intelligent, outspoken, achieving, brilliant women, plenty of geniuses among them–is pretty strong here too, as it was in 1997 and, 1987. 1977, not so much, but the female junior prof. who taught us the Incompleteness Theorem back then was as good a teacher as I encountered in the math department.


  32. Roger Lustig
    March 24, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    @Kavanna: The oldest dorm on the campus was built in 1877. True, part of Forbes College was *staff* quarters when the building was the Princeton Inn, and those rooms (“the annex”) generally go to first-year students, but they weren’t built until the 1950s–a few years after slavery had been outlawed in New Jersey. And no, ante-bellum undergraduates didn’t bring slaves north. Horses, yes.

    For that matter, freshmen didn’t even live on campus until the 1920s–they lived in rooming houses along University Place.


  33. March 25, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    Let me guess, is Princeton math one of those places you could build a drinking game around the word “nontrivial”?


  34. March 26, 2014 at 4:52 am

    I was an undergraduate at Princeton between 2008 and 2012. I found it far from perfect, and understand how and why someone might feel alienated there, but the university I attended didn’t resemble the one described here (though granted, I am in the humanities).

    Deane in comment #2 is right about the often-insane things that get published in the alumni magazine. But I think this letter, published in today’s Daily Princetonian, more accurately sums up the current campus climate, and how strenuously the current university population has sought to distance itself from Susan Patton: http://dailyprincetonian.com/opinion/2014/03/letter-to-the-editor-a-faculty-statement-on-sexual-assault/


    • March 27, 2014 at 8:51 pm

      Emily, I guess I would question why it is so important to strenuously distance oneself from an unpopular opinion. Perhaps it’s because I spent some time at Berkeley accumulating a couple of Masters degrees and enjoying arguing with some pretty outlandish opinions of the Berserkeley crowd on Sproul Plaza and Telegraph Avenue, and reading the really weird stuff in the Daily Cal, that I believe that free speech should include unpopular opinions, after all the Free Speech Movement in the 60s was started at Cal.


  35. March 27, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    Princeton was one of the few great research universities whose catalog could truthfully state right up front that it was “primarily an undergraduate institution.” That was pretty true when I was there from 1978-82 in terms of social life and the way things were organized, and the graduate students were universally recognized to be dealing with second-class status issues (many of which the administration promised/pretended/intended to fix). The Graduate College was way out on the edge of things. (The Institute was a completely separate entity that had no relation to campus life. Contrary to the theory of the post, everyone on campus was at great pains to tell newcomers that Einstein really wasn’t at the university and that he’d done his best work before he got to the Institute.) From some of the comments above, it sounds like grad student ennui may have decreased since then, which would be great.

    The other thing about Princeton is that it contains strong built-in tensions. Ideals of the nerdy contemplative life versus the active life of public service exemplified by the slogan “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of all nations” versus a pursuit of moneymaking or political clout. An overwhelmingly “diversity-oriented” public culture whose PR and official programming talks constantly about the achievements and problems of women, minorities and the poor versus pockets of traditional old-boy thinking in some departments and some parts of the social scene. A wide availability of parties and other social events for undergraduates versus a more monastic existence for the scholars on campus. You can have very different experiences of the place depending on what your role is and what kind of people you are looking for.


  36. FormerGradStudent
    April 6, 2014 at 10:59 am

    Yo, dude. So the guy you married (presumably), Nick, and now I guess Ravi are all OK, but the rest of us are a bunch of (old? white? bowtie-wearing?) anti-social nerds?

    I’m not even going to start telling you about all the types I’ve found.


    • FormerGradStudent
      April 6, 2014 at 11:10 am

      Oops. That was “type-o”s


    • April 6, 2014 at 11:19 am

      Hey you weren’t there when I was, Peter O. Please do tell.


    • April 6, 2014 at 11:23 am

      Shit! I’m white (or so I’m told). I’m old. And I wore a bow-tie just once since becoming an adult. Where does that put me?


  37. FormerGradStudent
    April 6, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    I was over at the IAS that year. There was a special program organized by one of the leading figures in my field (a woman). And I’ll add that the dining room staff were a group of just about the toughest men a frail math-guy would ever encounter. (They beat us in a mean game of soccer at the end of the year.)

    Come visit sometime. You wouldn’t have to hang out with the graduate students
    anymore. Due to a demographic shift, the professors have gotten
    younger. (And we got older.) I’m sure Johan would enjoy it greatly. It’s a great place
    for the kids. There are two museums on campus. The town has a movie
    theatre and a real theatre. There’s even a music school in town. There
    are additional concerts at the IAS and in the music department.

    Einstein would have found it very agreeable (and he *never* wore a bow tie); maybe you’d like it, too. I’m confident you’ll find it to be no more of a cultural
    wasteland than your very own Morningside Heights.


  1. March 22, 2014 at 10:08 am
  2. March 23, 2014 at 4:45 pm
  3. March 23, 2014 at 5:56 pm
  4. April 1, 2014 at 7:29 am
  5. April 19, 2014 at 7:44 am
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