This week we were repeatedly informed about the “unprecedented personal freedom” that we would have at Stanford. Apologies, but I don’t see it. First, I stay in a three-room system with four other people (two two-person bedrooms on either side and a shared office in the middle). Our only bathroom is down the hall, where there are five stalls shared with the whole hall. This means practically everything I do — sleeping, waking up, alarm clocks, working, showering, etc. — must be coordinated so as not to interfere with those other people. Stupid other people…

Of course, this is not an accident. The whole thing is a giant privately-owned community, like some sort of Disney World. The run the government, the police, the restaurants, the bookstores, the shopping center, the transportation, the entertainment, etc. Worse yet, they track you while you use it all. Everyone gets an ID card which must be swiped to eat, visit the library, use a computer terminal, check your mail. It even has a RFID transmitter in it, so they can track us while we walk. (They didn’t bother to tell us this and we wouldn’t notice because it looks just like a regular card. I just found out because I happened to walk by a reader.) They register your computer’s MAC address so they can track you if you take your laptop anywhere.

It’s like I’ve woken up in some sort of libertarian nightmare world, where one company has bought up everything and now tells everyone what to do. Obviously there’s no freedom, but the ardent libertarians still say “Look at how free you are! There’s no government telling you what to do!” If this is freedom, I think I might prefer tyranny.

All this by way of saying, I get to take a shower for the first time today. Honestly, with all the money they seem to have around here, it wouldn’t kill them to just build a few hotels. But I guess removing self-dignity and privacy is part of building conformity and obedience. I don’t know the history, but I might venture to guess they borrowed the whole thing from the military.

After my shower, I head over for breakfast, but apparently the cafeteria decided to close half an hour early. I run all over campus looking for a bagel. Eventually, I am about to go to the library to try Googling for a bagel, but I am spared from this indignity by a bagel shop just outside the library.

When I’m back at the cafeteria for lunch, I notice a bizarre note placed at each table. It’s a letter from the head of Stanford Dining, praising their great work: “extremely excited…cuisine experiences…enthusiastically prepare…passionately serving…36 years…chefs trained at world-renowned schools…recruited from top industry performers…nationally recognized, award winning”. I try and think about the process that put this bizarre note here. Who are they trying to impress? Certainly not the students, who are required to buy the food and, in any event, are going to end up eating it, propaganda or not. (I can tell you, it doesn’t taste award-winningly good.) The whole thing is bizarre.

Today’s afternoon event is “Faces”, a collection of student speeches and arts performers meant to highlight diversity at Stanford. The upperclassman who leads our hall insists we all dress weirdly for the event. I get to wear a wig. As the leader note, the end effect is to make all the boys look gay (or, in one case where breasts were worn, lesbian). When we get to the auditorium and mix with the other kids, it’s hard to tell who’s dressing weird and who just dresses like that.

Inside, it’s a beautiful, touching show, that would likely make even the most staunch opponent of equality reconsider, but it contains puzzles nonetheless. One boy tells us he had bipolar disorder — he pushed himself too hard, failed miserably, and was put on academic probation and is suspended for a year. Sent home to sit and be depressed alone, things just get worse for him. He eventually comes back and manages to make a recovery when the stakes are high (if he screws up again, he gets suspended for three years!) and begins to take on more work and succeed. It’s a touching story, but there’s some sort of a breakdown somewhere.

Why did Stanford torture this poor, sick boy, doing his best to succeed? What sense does it make to suspend him because he tried too hard? Where was the care for this poster boy of the diversity they claim to champion? How can they expect anyone to push themselves if they threaten to suspend them for years if they fail? It makes no sense.

Afterwards, we break into small groups for discussion. Ours ends up becoming a debate about affirmative action. (Perhaps partially my fault, because I remember what I read in The Language War and suggest that the event had the implict message that “We, the straight upper middle class white people, are the normal ones”.) Stanford has “theme houses” for blacks, hispanics, etc. Anyone can apply and apparently they try to make it half racial group, half others, but apparently it’s still controvertial here. Isn’t just another form of segregation? one Asian girl asks.

I respond that Stanford is comically segregated. Our dorms are segregated by what classes we’re taking, our peer advisor groups are segregated by engineering/humanities, why, we even have separate libraries for engineering students. Why, I ask, are we arguing about the one form of segregation that might actually be beneficial? The answer, of course, is because we’re still so self-conscious about race.

See, the thing about race is that while it’s usually a liberal/conservative issue, it’s not a corporate one. Corporations don’t care if their employees or managers are white or black, as long as they act the same as the other managers. Indeed, corporations probably benefit from increasing the size of the workforce. So if you get the liberals distracted by arguing about race, maybe they’ll ignore the more important dehumanizing and corporatizing part of all this.

Later that night, The Sexual Health Peer Resource Center (SHPRC) puts on a seminar about sex at Stanford. For unclear reasons, sex is still a tabo topic in America, even among these jaded, elite, attractive teenagers. (Even at our supposedly-hardbitten “The Real World” play, they euphemized about “other things on the menu”.) The SHPRC tries valiantly to overcome this. As I walk in, they’re rattling off statistics about how frequently each set of body parts is combined. They give us cards so we can ask questions anonymously and use laughter as a way of loosening things up (how in the original version, The Prince rapes Sleeping Beauty and leaves before she wakes up, how lesbians sometimes exclude bi people because they’re sleeping with The Man, etc.). They also have an impressive set of portmanteau words — you sexile (sex + exile) your roommate, avoid dormcest (dorm + incest), etc. They also tell us about all the free stuff for students: free condoms and lube, free STD testing, free advice, free classes, etc. It was a valiant effort.

When I’m back in my dorm, no sooner does the Internet come back up (a router had apparently blown up) than a bunch of kids, dressed in naked clothes and bikinis, start running through the halls singsonging “let’s go Roble [clap, clap, clap clap clap] fountain-hopping [clap, clap, clap clap clap]”. I quickly realize that fountain-hopping does not mean travelling to visit the campus’s beautiful fountains, but instead running around campus and jumping into them. I decide to follow and take notes.

We run through the streets (there are no supervising police this time, apparently the thing was one girl’s spontaneous idea that just sort of snowballed) to the nearest fountain, where everyone jumps in and starts splashing each other. There appears to be something of a code of conduct — there is no actual nudity and the group eschews puny sprinklers. Apparently I’ve picked a good one. One kid comments this is “the most fun fountain hopping I’ve ever had” and suggests we do it every thursday night.

The singsonging seems to be some sort of consensus process, when people are all spread out in the fountain it suddenly switches to “everyone together [clap, clap, clap clap clap]” as people move together in the center. One guy carrying a boombox puts on “Baby Got Back”, which seems to be a popular cross-gender choice. The group sings along, even spontaneously splitting up the group in half to take the different parts. The cooperation is incredible.

Later I learn things always weren’t so good, when one girl notes that they’re “trying to say away from tearing curtains down, banging doors down” this year.

Closing out this busy night is a show from the Stanford Improv Society or SImps. Even though they’re performing in a different theater at a different time from our usual meetings, and the crowds are thoroughly mixed, unlike our usual seating by dorm, interdorm cheering still erupts. (Kids across the audience stand up to cheer for their dorm.) I briefly imagine what things would be dorms were numbered, like MIT’s buildings:

What’s the dorm with the perfect num?
E forty-nine minus twenty-one!

That wouldn’t be so bad, I guess.

Improv is one of the most cooperative of games — it’s all give and take between partners, working together to make something funny. It’s really a lot of fun. (Studies with small children have shown competitive games are less enjoyable, less effective, and more demotivating than cooperative games.) But here, even improv is made competitive — people are split into two teams and forced to compete for our applause. They do an applause poll after every two acts; not surprisingly, the team who went second wins every time.

posted September 24, 2004 02:49 PM (Education) (19 comments) #


Published Author
Stanford: Day 1
Stanford: Day 2
Stanford: Night 2
Stanford: Day 3
Stanford: Day 4
Stanford: Day 5
Stanford: Day 8
Stanford: Day 9
Stanford: Day 10


Not to sound like an ass, but why did you even go to Stanford if you were going to be so cynical about it? It’s like you’re actively trying not to have a good time.

Sure, there’s plenty not to like about any college, but every college also has the potential to be really fantastic. If you play it right (i.e., stop following people around taking notes (mentally or literally) while they’re having fun), you’ll make some of the best friends you’ll ever have over the next four years. And, in my mind, that’s much more important than anything academic.

Frats aren’t your thing? Fine, go find a club or organization that deals with something that interests you. Too brilliant to associate with 90% of the lowly undergrads? Fine, go find a professor who studies something that interests you and have him hook you up with some grad students doing related research. Just, please, don’t spend the next four years walking around picking apart every non-optimal situation you encounter.

posted by Rachel at September 24, 2004 03:33 PM #

The key difference between Stanford and the government is that you can choose to enroll at a different school. Picking a new government to live under is not quite as simple.

Similarly the reason why racial segregation is so different from, say, dividing students between humanities and engineering, is that you can choose your major. (Yes, I’m aware that doing so can be a hassle, but it’s a lot more feasible than changing from a black student to an Asian one, no?)

It [libertarianism or college, take your pick] is about choice.

P.S. I agree with Rachel — stop taking your college life so freaking seriously. Go to some parties, smoke some pot, hook up, have fun. If you’re a human being, it’s not beneath you, man. Loosen up.

posted by Joe Grossberg at September 24, 2004 03:46 PM #

I’ve been reading your daily updates, and I have to agree with Rachel. Observing the popular kids through the thick goggles of a sociologist is going to make you miserable, and it certainly won’t make you any friends. Plus, it’s boring to read!

Have you visited the Stanford Game Lab yet? Hell, I could spend four years just making my way through the History of Microcomputing collection. Or how about the Human Computer Interaction Studio?

The CS department’s calendar is a good source of neat upcoming events. (Next week’s lectures alone are pretty neat.)

posted by Andy Baio at September 24, 2004 03:56 PM #

You followed them to take notes? You are so lucky to be where you are! I wish I could have gone to a prestigious school like this, in a more “traditional atmosphere.” I went to commuter schools, where I was the youngest one in all my classes-people just drove to school for class and went home. There was no fountain playing, oh my, I hope you soon realize how lucky you are to be there! Next time, I hope you join in-so fountain frolicking may not be your thing, but hopefully you’ll stop with the note-taking and LIVE. Maybe soon you’ll find your niche there-that’s what a lot of college is about (“finding yourself” as lots of people call it). Oh, I am so jealous at the opportunities you have here-both educational and FUN!

posted by ACortez at September 24, 2004 04:01 PM #

I also agree with Rachel. I mean have some fun. You should cherish your roommates, they will help you during the next 4 years. Have some fun. With so many people there, there has to be someone who has the same intrests as you, as long as you loosen up and try to get to know people.

posted by Jake Lasau at September 24, 2004 04:05 PM #

There are several totally disorienting episodes in life: First Grade, College, First Job.

You’re doing fine. Everyone (including me) that’s telling you to loosen up is giving you the advice that they wish they’d taken earlier.

You’ll get used to college. But probably not during the first week.

posted by skeeter at September 24, 2004 04:07 PM #

Going along with what Andy said, there are other cool knooks and crannies at Stanford. The outdoor art exhibits are incredible. They’ve got Rodin’s bronze sculptures and Andy Goldsworthy’s environmental art. There’s a wacky supercollider just off campus that is worth a tour. I visited an amazing group funded by Reuters that uses technology to literally save the world — folks figuring out how to deploy VoIP and wifi in flooded valleys of India and east Asian, people using GIS software to double agriculture production in developing nations, and even using blogging to improve communication from village to village in parts of Africa. I’d see what it would take to score an internship there.

Also - I’ve never lived in a dorm, so I never had to roll my eyes too much about student life, I could basically do my own thing in my apartment and be much happier. I know a jaded, cynical someone that lived in the dorms at Stanford and even became an RA at the end, and he would tell tales of all the stupid crap he would have to do. He was never happier until the day he got his own apartment right after graduation.

posted by Matt Haughey at September 24, 2004 04:12 PM #

I would agree with Rachel. The following story describes two coincidental phenomena, determine correlation or causality at your own risk.

I was a self hating freshman at a university most people who are into college would thank their lucky stars to attend. Crushed on a girl. She wanted nothing to do with me. Then I stopped being such an asshole. Eight years later we run into each other and love is mutual nine years later. I got lucky.

Yes all you mention is annoying, and as a teenager seething with sensitivity towards anything and everything amiss it’s going to be a chorus of fingernails against a blackboard. But hear this: These four years are the among the dwindling, if not final four, years that you will be clustered with people your own age.

If you’re not sure of the worth of that, these four years have been given to you to be as selfish, self-involved, and self-centered as you need to be with little or no repercussions. Community service/social justice clubs included, these are very, very selfish years. In fact, your accurate yet seething musings of your University-Daddy-Warden display this.

So fall in love, do all the stupid things you may have thought about doing and for god’s sake have fun. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep blogging away, just make sure you’re not sacrificing a good time for the sake of righteousness (advice given from experience).

posted by Dan at September 24, 2004 05:27 PM #

Boring, my arse. I am thoroughly enjoying therse updates from the wild west.

Also: what’s with the pot and sex obsessions, America?

posted by Sean Neakums at September 24, 2004 05:50 PM #

Small correction: MIT’s main buildings and classes are all numbered. However, in common usage, the dorms are not numbered, but named.

posted by Seth Finkelstein at September 24, 2004 07:07 PM #

The great thing about these posts is the quality of the comments. This really is the stuff everyone should know before they start college, but don’t figure out until about six months after leaving.

Which brings me to my point. College ends. Suddenly, and all too soon, you’re saying goodbye and leaving campus for good. It is a fleeting moment in your life.

As others have said - this is the advice they give because they wish they had followed it themselves.

Learning, observing, and absorbing knowledge will never end in your life. In fact, I think I learn more on a daily basis now than I did at college. But the social education and atmosphere available to you during the four years you spend in college come and go.

Every time I think about college I think of a dozen things I could have done differently. Most people probably do. But you’re lucky - we’re writing it all down here for you, and in your first week! You haven’t even started classes yet, have you? Unless you count this one - and this thread is probably the most important orientation activity you’re going to get this week!

posted by Andrew at September 24, 2004 07:08 PM #

Joe, that’s exactly what the libertarians say: “you can choose which company to work for”. The point is that on most things, all the companies are the same.

SethF, fixed.

posted by Aaron Swartz at September 24, 2004 09:44 PM #

Um… Rachel et al: I’m thinking that Aaron is writing this with a healthy dose of satire.

He’s a geek — not a dweeb.

(If you’re not writing this with a healthy dose of satire, Aaron, you really need to un-pucker a bit.)

posted by Silus Grok at September 24, 2004 09:52 PM #

Aaron, I for one am glad you haven’t arrived at Stanford and suddenly turned into a fountain-hopping drone. I’d be real concerned they’d drugged you or something ;-)

The updates are very entertaining, so keep ‘em coming!

posted by Meri at September 25, 2004 02:52 PM #

This was my favourite yet.

(The comments on these entries seem to be split between people who relate pretty strongly, and people who not only don’t relate but feel that it’s important to say patronizing things like, “lighten up, you miserable fool” and “stop trying to act older than you are”. (By this skewed portrayal you may perhaps gather where my own sympathies lie.) These latter keep surprising me, because it sounds like he /is/ having fun; these pieces sure read to me as though they were entertaining to write. Is there really such a belief in college matters that it’s impossible to find joy outside of the mainstream?)

posted by Andy H. at September 26, 2004 04:49 PM #

you know i read rachel’s comments, and I’m left with only one thought. It’s not so much your fault aaron. It’s really stanFUrds. If the school didn’t suck so much, you wouldn’t have nearly so many complaints. Unfortunately, it is what it is.

oh well. write on. i’m enjoying it.

posted by njg at September 27, 2004 08:54 PM #

Interesting what you say about the impro - firstly, any well-run theatresports event should /not/ result in the second team winning every time, unless the teams are evenly matched or the audience just don’t give a damn (which is unlikely, even with all those feel-good pro-dorm hormones :-). Or, I guess, if the second team is much better than the first, but that’s also rare :-)

Competitive impro is generally considered less satisfying than cooperative impro by people who have experience of both. Cooperative impro teaches you a lot about how to deal with people - it should probably be on the curriculum of any university serious about giving its students ‘every possible opportunity’.

(And if someone wants to pay me to run impro groups for a university … ;-)

posted by James Aylett at September 28, 2004 05:34 AM #

You should’ve stayed where you were for school, there probably would’ve been less fountain hopping and naked people.

Get with the program (it’ll be over before you know it).

posted by at September 30, 2004 03:33 AM #

god damn american college sounds so awesome.

posted by Jacob Tracey at October 2, 2004 02:59 AM #

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