Monday, 29 April 2013

Hail, Stanford, Hail

Stanford University seal 2003.svg
Where the rolling foothills rise
Up towards mountains higher,
Where at eve the Coast Range lies, 
In the sunset fire
The opening lyrics of the Stanford alma mater are, unsurprisingly, focused on the geography and natural gifts of the campus situated on the San Francisco peninsula, about 40 miles to the south of the city by the bay. (Note bene: Stanford, despite a common misconception, is not located in the city of Palo Alto - in fact, the school pre-dates the city by three years, is entirely beyond the borders of the city - which I discovered once when trying to enter Foothills Park, a 'private' park that Palo Alto jealously guards lest any undesirables from Mountain View decide to try to sneak in - and in fact, has its own post office and ZIP code, segregated from PA).

When the school was founded in 1891, it was almost quite literally off on the edge of the world, on a horse farm owned by the former Governor of California (Leland Stanford), with practically nothing more than the trees which later gave Palo Alto its name, the foothills in the song, and a couple of meandering creeks in its midst.

Thought of that as I came across this piece, published in the Stanford Review.

Stanford, like many other schools that range from Ivy League universities, Ivy wanabes (e.g., Rice), and Pac-10 party schools (Oregon, U Arizona), has a "confessions" WIKI page, where students can post, anonymously, on various topics.

The Review recently did a back-of the-envelope analysis of what is on the collective minds (pun, partially intended) of the students on The Farm, in comparison to some of their peers.

Stanford students apparently are not terribly concerned about partying (Stanford students talk less about partying than any other schools in the group not having the letters B, Y, and U in them.)  That list is topped by Oregon (who knew?), UCSB, and UVA.  As an aside, Oregon students, seem quite interested in the arts of Bacchus, leading all others in discussions of partying, drinking, and recreational drug use.

Stanford - I suspect largely due to the prominence of its graduate schools - has something of a reputation for nerdiness.  Both Larry Page AND Sergei Brin are alums of the grad programmes in CS, and the University (according to Wikipedia) boasts 30 billionaires as alums. So it's not surprising that partying is not a popular pastime.  Or at least, not something students talk about, even anonymously.

What may strike readers as odd is the relatively low frequency with which classes and schoolwork are discussed - again, Stanford students are towards the bottom of the list.

To my mind's eye, what is the most striking - and to me as a former student, 'aha' - item in the survey is that MONEY is a very, very frequent topic of conversation, as is loneliness.

When I was a graduate student at Stanford (more than 20 years ago; the words "start" and "up" had not yet entered the lexicon as a complex noun), the undergrads in my lecture session were incredibly grade-focused.  Few students I lectured (and graded) would be considered "eggheads" or intellectual grinds.  Many, on the other hand, were quite interested in what they needed to master to score well on the exams, and on more than one occasion, would come to my office hours to try to finagle an extra point or two on their homework or exams.

Now, Stanford at that time had a policy by which students were allowed to drop a course, with no penalty, right up until the hour the final examination sat.  Additionally, letter-grades were assigned as A, B, C, or D.  Students receiving an "F" simply had a "no credit" attached to their records, with no penalty in terms of GPA.  A student failing a course could take the F, have it not count against his record, and simply re-take the course.

In fact, I had a student write on his final paper, "If you are not going to give me an A, please fail me."


Stanford is incredibly competitive as an institution, and is also incredibly expensive.  The students at the time were aware of the value of their golden tickets (if anything, this has gotten even worse), and were, additionally, aware of what came next - in 1992, that meant Yale Law School or Harvard Med - and their grades thus meant more or less everything.

Apparently, nowadays, the top students are equally mercenary, if the data are to be believed.

And I guess that is also why, in addition to money and income driving the conversations, there is a sense of isolation and loneliness.  Hours spent cramming for an exam, where the kid next to you is a competitor, tends to produce such a mindset.

Combine that with the sort of edge of the world, foothills and sunset fires emotions captured in the alma mater, and "die luft der freiheit weht" takes on a bit of a different tone.

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