Learning in the (Postmodern) Intellectual Theme Park A LETTER FROM PRINCETON

November 17, 1991|By DIANE WINSTON | DIANE WINSTON,Diane Winston is a former Sun reporter.

Princeton, N.J. -- I choose the nicest-looking boy to help me.

Choosing the nicest-looking boy means something different when all the boys are 20 years younger than you. When the boys are your own age, and your 20s are still within reach, the nicest-looking one is usually the baddest looking one.

But when it's your first day back at school in many years and -- when despite your lofty status as a doctoral student -- you have given up a steady income, high-profile job and the company of colleagues -- the nice-looking boy might look to a girl his own age like, well, a nerd.

Weighted down by an overstuffed book bag, a recalcitrant forelock falling over one eye, he seems benign, even innocuous.

I need this particular nice-looking-boy because the lecture hall for English 377 has been changed, and I am suddenly in the wrong place. I ask him to point me in the right direction. He is so nice he offers to walk with me.

Didn't anybody tell him not to trust anyone over 30?

"My name is Mark," he says. "I'm a sophomore. Are you a freshman?"

I wonder if he is being extraordinarily polite or just mocking me, until I recognize his confusion. Most college students can't count higher than senior year. Someone who doesn't know her way around campus obviously can't be far in her education.

In fact, her education is just beginning.

Mark and I go our separate ways once we find the lecture hall, a standard issue model, with several hundred hard seats locked together on a slippery slope to the podium.

The room may be standard, but it isn't ordinary. It throbs with music. Post Reagan-era party sounds. Synthetic, pulsating, acid house music.

The class syllabus stacked on a table boasts a smudged photocopy of a photograph of Grace Jones (singer/model/performance artist/postmodern icon), right eye a camera lens, wide mouth opened in her trademark gleaming grin, famous fade hairstyle top-lit to form a halo. In a small white box reversed out of the solid black background in the lower left-hand corner, the name of the course is typed in lower case letters and stacked askew.

postmodernism.

postmodernism.

Postmodernism, also known as English 377, is one of the few offerings in the Princeton catalog with pizzazz. There are many interesting alternatives, weighty courses with challenging theses and ponderous reading lists. But I'm looking to round out a staid graduate schedule with something more lively.

Besides, I read newspapers and magazines. And I, too, have found myself stymied by cutting-edge critics who toss out terms like post-structuralism, deconstruction, post-modernism like so many pearls before swine. Here is my chance to study something which will equip me for the New York Review of Books.

A long-haired man in t-shirt and cut-off jeans calls the class to order. Andrew Ross, academe's avatar of the avant garde, faces a couple hundred students who, filling the room to capacity, are spread out on stairs, tables and draped over the banisters. He recites the opening-class litany: This is not a gut; if you want a gut, please go; the readings are on reserve; sign up for a discussion section.

L Then he signals his audio-visual man; "Run the tape please."

Without warning, a segment from Entertainment Tonight fills the large screen in front, as John Tesh and Mary Hart chat amiably. After several minutes, the lights go up. Mr. Ross -- whose long locks, earring and faint whiff of a foreign accent (he is Scottish) set him apart from the students -- asks whether anyone feels a fit coming on?

"No? Then I guess you're in the right place," he says. "Unless, you don't know what I'm talking about. Then maybe you shouldn't be here." It's enough to get a laugh from most of the class who catch his reference to the lawsuit filed against Ms. Hart by a viewer who claims her voice provoked epileptic fits.

No time to think any more about it however, because Mr. Ross has already cut to the next clip, an interview with Charles Watson, member of the notorious Manson Family. Watson is asked about the children he sired during the conjugal visits allowed him since his imprisonment. Next, Charles Manson is asked why he, unlike Watson, has had no conjugal visits.

"He's a college boy," Manson says. "You know how it is with college boys. They always get what they want."

The lights come up. Mr. Ross looks pleased., "That's why you're here."

I assume that is an ironic -- perhaps postmodern -- comment. As if anyone here -- at this classiest of campuses -- would be faced with the problem of conjugal visits, let alone hard time. Here, the most students have to face is a campus-wide ban on beer kegs, an indignity Mr. Ross is quick to confront but which fazes few students since many belong to private eating clubs which are unaffected by the ban.

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