Three days, three alarm clocks. Sometime about nine thirty I realize I ought to wake up and check the time. I realize this alarm clock didn’t go off either and I’m an hour late. I rush and bike over to the classroom but it’s raining and it takes me a couple of minutes to find a dry parking spot. When I get in I go in on a side where there’s no seats without climbing over lots of people, so to avoid a scene I walk out and walk in another door. But the professor’s said something while I was outside and the whole class laughed and now they stare at me until I find a seat. I frown until after lunch.

I have a half an hour before the next class and biking usually cheers me up so I bike to the bookstore to pick up a textbook (Ben Hamper’s Rivethead, with a foreword by Michael Moore). Then I bike back and begin reading. It looks good.

In the next class the professor wants critiques of a theory, but apparently the critiques can’t be too radical because she dismisses mine with a totally uncompelling argument. The frown cements.

At lunch I’m puzzling over the question left unanswered by the previous class (Why do doctors make more money than grape-pickers?) and making some progress when a friend who I will call E stops by and tells me I should come check out his frat rush tonight for my blog.

After lunch is IHUM section, which is surprisingly good this term. We’re discussing Marx (it’s really Marx-mania around here — we’re also reading Marx in my social stratification class — I’m surprised) and the teacher asks for examples of jobs kids have had to apply Marx’s ideas about alienation. All the kids (save one, who mowed lawns) have had stereotypical middle-class jobs (the worst is data entry, but most were things like camp counselor or barrista) from which they’ve drawn the conclusion that work really isn’t so bad. ‘I think it really depends on your personality,’ one even says. ‘If you have the right attitude you can make any job express your individuality.’ The section leader, who spent three days affixing handles to cups in a factory outside her college (SUNY-Buffalo) before being fired, says there might be some exceptions.

I try to point out that these are stereotypical middle-class jobs, not a single working-class or capitalist job, and suggest some implications about who gets into Stanford, but the section leader shuts me down.

We then watch an excerpt from the beginning of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Grimy workers flip switches in unison deep underground, while the children of the capitalists cavort and make out around the fountain in a sunny pleasure garden, while the capitalists converse in window-covered offices at the top of a skyscraper. An accident deep underground causes some of the workers to be killed.

Afterwards, we discuss the film. ‘Obviously it was a big metaphor,’ one says. ‘You know, the workers at the bottom, the capitalists at the top — the physical structure representing the social structure.’ ‘Well, miners really do work underground,’ I point out, ‘and CEOs do work on the top floors of office buildings. And just look outside’ — I point to the window — ‘there’s a sun shining on a green garden with a fountain for us kids. Things really do work that way.’

‘German expressionist films are really concerned about light and dark. That’s why the workers were all grayish brown in a gray workplace while the capitalists were bright white in offices with the sun streaming in,’ another says. ‘Well,’ I’m tempted to point out, ‘it really is dark and grimy underground and workers are generally covered in soot. And CEO offices really do have large windows. Not to mention the fact that workers are often people of color while CEOs are almost always pasty-white.’

‘I think it was a bit extreme to show that the workers were sacrificing their lives by actually killing them off.’ ‘People really die in industrial accidents!’ I want to shout. ‘In the 1930s, Union Carbide had 5000 workers, mostly black, drill three miles through a mountain. The mountain was made of silica and the silica dust filled up their lungs, suffocating and killing the workers in just a year. Doctors had known about the condition for 15 years and the managers clearly knew as well, since they always wore masks when they visited the tunnel. But the workers were left to die, maskless.’ (details) But our time is up.

This IHUM is an anthropology IHUM and the section leader is an anthropologist. She inquires about the Stanford ritual known as “Assassins”. Assassins is a game where you’re assigned another player and you have to hunt them down, get them alone with you, and shoot them with a squirt gun. They die and you get another assignment. Whoever’s left standing or gets the most kills or something wins.

“Why do you have to kill each other?” she asks. “Teen violence ritual!” I want to scream.

I’ve organized it so that I have all my classes on Thursday so that Friday is free. I have time before my next class so I decide to catch up on my errands. I heft three large boxes and walk to the center of campus. I mail two and return one (despite claiming a 7-day return policy, they really put me through the wringer when I try to return a broken keyboard to the bookstore). Then I fill up my Stanford card bank account. On the way back to the dorm I pass by a friend from Chomsky class and we talk for while until we have to go. He has to teach a section and I have to get dinner so I can go to my section. I run straight to dinner, down a bowl of noodles, and then run straight to section.

In the section for my social stratification class I am disheartened to discover that far from being good, skeptical sociologists like the professor, all the kids seem to be right-wing “functionalists”, claiming that social stratification is justified or good. (Social stratification, in this context, being how some professions get more money and prestige.) You’d think that a group of kids who signed up for a sociology class on social stratification would be likely to be against it, but these guys are worse than the kids in IHUM.[^1] Much worse. I blame the teacher.

I thought the teacher was being a confusing muddle that wasn’t really helping things this morning but I wrote it off to my frown. But now I see the disastrous results. These kids are going to come out of a social stratification class with their premises unchallenged. When I talked to her, the professor suggested that there were only so many radical new ideas you could tell kids before they stop listening to you, so she decides how much to challenge based on how receptive the class seems. After considering this, I really don’t agree. When I was in their situation, I’d have wanted my bubbles popped. And if I was a teacher, I’d want to pop bubbles. Even if it hurts at first.

While writing this, I just noticed a rather large dent on the corner of my computer that I never noticed before. I don’t recall dropping my computer recently. Hmmmmmmm….

Immediately after social strat section ends (actually, five minutes before) and down the hall is social research section. The guy sitting next to me, who I believe I saw at social research, the bookstore, and social stratification. He introduces himself and we shake hands. But he keeps his hand there. ‘You call that a handshake?’ he says. ‘What?’ ‘Shake hands again.’ He grips my have firmly. ‘Now that’s a handshake.’ I make some sort of derisive noise. But I like him. ‘I’ve had this TA before,’ he says. ‘He’s good.’

And he’s right — the TA is great. Intelligent, friendly, thorough, and fun, he makes section a joy.

Also in our section is a deaf boy with striking short spiky bright white hair. I’ve seen him in our cafeteria sometimes but I didn’t know he was deaf. In lectures, he brings a team of two interpreters who sign what’s going on in real time (when one interpreter gets tired, the other relieves her — and it is her, they’re all women).

I have little experience being deaf, so take this with a grain of salt, but it seems to me it might be better to hire stenographers to transcribe the class. Then the kid would have a backlog of what’s been said so he’d be able to take time to look at the board or watch the professor or something. Plus, the rest of the class would get transcripts of the lectures. Just in case, you know, your alarm clock doesn’t work or something. (Cough.)

It must be incredibly tough being deaf. It’d be even harder if you were shy but he’s certainly not, jumping in with questions and so on, asking the teacher to re-explain points. (Although his speech seems perfectly understandable, his interpreter translates what he says. (His speech reminds me of the fantastic Marlee Matlin who — yay! — recently got a spot on Desperate Housewives.)

After class is the Sigma Nu rush, which I decide to head to. It seems like your usual college party except with brighter lights, everyone wearing those plastic “Hawaiian necklaces”, and a bunch of girls in bikinis. ‘Isn’t this crazy?’ E asks. ‘Uh, yeah…’ I say. ‘Last year it was even crazier.’ ‘What happened last year?’ ‘The sororities all showed up and started competing with each other to see who could be the sluttiest. Hm, the sororities should be showing up later…’

I try to stick around, looking for things to look at. Pictures of former members in suits line the walls. A basketball court is in back. There’s nothing here — I have to go. [^2]

[^1]: Several of the kids in IHUM have mentioned they discovered this website. So, if you’re still reading, hi kids! That, believe it or not, was a compliment right there. Don’t expect any more.

[^2]: A rather uninteresting subplot about the name Dante:

Someone in social research class said his name was Dante and I thought ‘That’s a great name!’ I’ve always thought my name was pretty good — sorted high alphabetically, had some character to it, sounded friendly — but now I’m starting to reconsider.

The lady at the bookstore returns desk today saw my name and noted her young associate was named Aron. ‘He spells it crazy!’ she exclaimed. Aron said other people spelled it that way too. ‘Yeah,’ the lady snorted, ‘maybe in the midwest! Or Antarctica!’ ‘Yeah, there are tons of Arons in Antarctica,’ Aron said, dripping with sarcasm.

I doubt I’ll change my name but maybe if I have a boy I’ll name him Dante and it will be like a little easter egg for incredibly dedicated fans of mine, sort of like the first names of the Tylers on Wonderfalls. Hm, that might be a little crazy.

At the Sigma Nu party I decide that if I am forced to be nametagged (as E warned), I will choose Dante. But I sneak past the nametag desk and E blows my cover by introducing me as Aaron. I can’t even think to introduce myself as Dante properly when someone asks. My cover is blown. I need to leave.

posted April 08, 2005 01:27 AM (Education) (11 comments) #


Stanford: Taxonomies of Love
articles: the finest of the short nonfiction form
Giraffes? Giraffes. No, seriously, giraffes!
Stanford: Radiant Garden City Beautiful
SFP: The Story So Far
Stanford: Frown
Get Arrested
What Journalists Don’t: Lessons from the Times


There is something about middle-class blindness that’s vaguely upsetting to me.

I think it’s caused by familiarity. How could the world be any different than the one they live in?

posted by Simon Law at April 8, 2005 02:14 AM #

Assassin isn’t endemic to Stanford, its a college thing. People played Assassin at UCLA as well. A couple of friends and I once considered writing an Assassin Manager website that would hand out unique codes (which you would obtain after shooting your victim) for each assignment to allow for a potentially much larger game. I suppose it could also lead to a variant, lets call it Espionage, that was primary concerned with someone discovering the code.

We never got around to doing it, but it was a fun idea.

posted by Byron at April 8, 2005 02:21 AM #

Reading text isn’t the same as hearing a lecture; a sign translation can be much more expressive.

posted by Ken Gerrard at April 8, 2005 03:23 AM #

“Why do doctors make more money than grape-pickers?”

1) Because doctors have a very effective union in the US:

2) Because doctors are in short supply. Partly because of their union and partly because it takes a long time, and a lot of money, to train to be a doctor. Grape picking doesn’t. Thus there’s a far greater supply of grape pickers.


posted by Adam Langley at April 8, 2005 03:53 AM #

So what classes are you taking? Econ, IHUM, social stratification, … ? What kind of Econ?

This makes me want to go back to school. ;-)

Seriously. But I have to make some money first.

posted by Zooko at April 8, 2005 04:19 AM #

You know, when I was taking an IHUM-style class as an undergrad, I often had incisive contributions to make, and the teacher often shut me down. But my incisive contributions were usually the opposite of yours, politically.

So I suspect that the teacher trying to get you to shut up isn’t because of your politics but because you, like me, talked too much or were too socially deaf — e.g. failing to follow the social protocols of giving other people affirmation etc.



posted by Zooko at April 8, 2005 04:23 AM #

Yeah, so what? We all have difficulties in our lives.

posted by person at April 8, 2005 10:13 AM #

i don’t think such blindness is confined to the middle class at all. people have a strong tendency to overgeneralize their own experiences.

posted by jim winstead at April 8, 2005 11:23 AM #

person, what are you referring to? (and get a hotmail account or something!)

posted by Aaron Swartz at April 8, 2005 02:43 PM #


I completely understand people who are unable to break out of their class-derived subjectivity. I’ve had some classes that are completely filled with upper-class “Trust Fund” kids. It’s frustrating.

But in terms of Metropolis… you may want to consider approaching the film from a more broad-based, English-student perspective. For example, think about the development of artistic theory. Does art need a social function? Does it have to be produced for its own sake?

In English, Drama, or Cultural Studies-type courses, arguements become a lot more fluid. You can argue about why the filmmaker made a choice. You can argue that such a choice wasn’t even a conscious one. Hell, you could even argue that interpretation isn’t even in the realm of the filmmaker at all, but in the individual that consumes said media.

I do acknowledge that yes— miners do work underground and white collar workers do work in skyscrapers. But in terms of media with an aesthetic component— art, essentially— everything becomes significant. I’m sure you’re familiar with semiotics, right?

Composition is an extremely important aspect of art. Take a look at how Hieronymus Bosch represents the world in relation to Heaven and Hell in his paintings. Or how Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale distinctly seperates tragedy from comedy. Even though something in an artistic work is based on reality, it becomes significant in terms of not only the choice of its inclusion in said work, but also how it is included.

Just a first comment from a fellow undergrad at a different university (with a lot less work experience, unfortunately).

posted by Troy Hoshor at April 8, 2005 04:29 PM #

As mentioned above, reading text is not as effective as paying attention to a lecture. There are 1500 deaf students at my university, and when I am in a mainstream (mixed deaf and hearing) class, there is always a notetaker and at least one interpreter (2 for 2hour+ classes). Most deaf students pay attention to the lecture and the notetaker writes furiously.

posted by Julia West at April 14, 2005 10:23 PM #

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