Q&A: Josh Kornbluth, comic math monologist
On Thursday night, Josh Kornbluth, who came to the University in 1976 but is still waiting to receive his degree upon finishing his politics thesis this year, gave a presentation entitled “The Mathematics of Change: A Comic Monologue about Failure at Princeton.” Kornbluth reenacted the most disappointing moments of his freshman year at Princeton, failing to grasp introductory calculus or to pass the required undergraduate swim test.
Q: Could you give an overview of your presentation tonight, and address how much was true, and how much was fictionalized?
A: The basic story is something that did happen to me. I came to Princeton in 1976. My father told me that I was going to be the greatest mathematician that ever lived. I was great at math all through high school, and then I took my first calculus course here at Princeton, and I hit the wall. I couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t figure it out. It was devastating to me because I had no alternative in my mind to being a brilliant mathematician. And yet, I wasn’t at all brilliant, as it turned out. In a way it’s a comic monologue, but it comes from experiences I had facing my own limitations at Princeton, and it also addresses a question that comes up in our lives: How do we deal with failure? How do we deal with things that are impossible to get through, and how do we get through them?
Q: How would you describe your experience as a Princeton student as a whole?
A: I was a lousy student. I would describe myself as a lousy student. Grades will back me up. I occasionally did well in some classes, but I was so freaked out by how I couldn’t do calculus — and physics and chemistry and biology — that I sort of froze. I stayed here all four years, and then I was actually allowed to walk because I did everything except my senior thesis. I was a politics major. I did a monologue, and now that the math department’s sponsored me here, doing my math show at Princeton, I want to do my politics show at Princeton, which is called "Citizen Josh," and it is also doubling as my submitted senior thesis.
Q: So, you don’t currently have a degree?
A: I don’t. I’m waiting. I actually have an advisor now at Princeton. He’s been very nice, and I need to send him an abstract. Basically, what he wants is some thesis-like stuff appended to the play, and then my understanding is that he and one other person will grade it, and if I pass, I’ll get my degree. Although, at no time have I not received the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Ever. They’ve treated me as an alumnus from the moment that I left.
Q: What math classes did you take as a Princeton student?
A: It was MAT 101 in my memory, and it was introductory calculus. That was the last class of math that I ever took in my life. Although when I was working on this piece, I got to work with mathematicians, so I’ve gotten to meet some mathematicians and learn math, but no, I haven’t taken any math classes since then.
Q: Did you yourself want to pursue a career in math, or was it just your father’s idea?
A: I don’t know what relationship you have with your father, but for me, what my father wanted for me was indistinguishable from what I wanted, and so what I wanted to do was what my father wanted to do. And it wasn’t because he was domineering — he was the opposite of that. He was just really lovely and thought I was brilliant and thought I was going to be great, and so I wanted to be great. Also, I liked everything about math. I really enjoyed math. I just couldn’t do this calculus class. I had to abandon my dream, and I had to call my dad and tell him, “I don’t think I’m going to be a mathematician.” It was such a hard call to make, and there was a pause at the other end of the phone, and he said, “So what do you want to do?” And then I moved on.
Q: How did you go about exploring new interests?
A: I was desperate to see if there was any science that I could be good at, but there wasn’t. I took organic chemistry for two weeks. I took biology — couldn’t memorize stuff — all this phila stuff — doesn’t add up at all. And physics, I also didn’t finish or do well in. I basically went through all the major sciences and mathematics and was ruled out. And then the question was, “What was I going to do?” And there was this really cool professor teaching political theory, Sheldon Wolin, and I started taking his classes and getting really excited and ended up being a politics major.
Q: What did you do after you left Princeton?
A: After I left Princeton, I had no idea what I was going to do. I worked as an intern at a newspaper in Chicago, and I was sitting in Spelman, and the phone rang from the editor of this newspaper, and he said, “Do you want a job?” and I was like, “Sure!” I was a copy editor there and in Boston, and at a going-away party for an editor in Boston I performed in a sketch with some friends of mine, and I found out that I enjoyed performing. That was the first time I had ever performed, and it planted the seed of becoming a performer. I wanted to be a prose writer, but I could never make the deadline. But I found out that I could talk to a deadline, not write to a deadline.
Q: You said you worked for some newspapers after you graduated. Did you have any publication experience on campus?
A: I wrote two or three articles for The Daily Princetonian, but that’s about it. There was a lefty newspaper called the Forerunner. I wrote a photo-essay for that paper of people looking to their right, and it was just that, a bunch of photos of people looking to their right. It wasn’t very high quality.
Q: Did you enjoy your experiences after Princeton copy editing?
A: I actually did. I liked correcting people and finding errors. It’s a lot easier than actually writing. But it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I wanted to do something where I could generate stories and be creative. So it was just a wonderful release for me when I realized that I could perform onstage. I hadn’t ever performed before. I had auditioned for one play on campus, but I remember the woman, who I knew, coming up to me afterward and asking me, “Why did you ever think you could do this?” and it was a very disappointing experience.
Q: What message did you want to come across tonight in your performance?
A: That’s a hard one since the whole show is basically me trying to grapple with a message. Well, people could just buy my book, which contains the text. And also, there’s a DVD of this piece available in the next month. But I guess I don’t have a particular message — but being back at Princeton for the first time since graduation — but my feeling is that the way that we find ourselves can be challenged tremendously, but we can still find ourselves.
Q: If you could go to Princeton again, what would you do differently?
A: Well, I wouldn’t do math or science because I suck at those things. I probably would take English and history and politics. I would study better. But I’m still a really slow reader. I don’t know if they do this now, but in these classes they would give us huge amounts of stuff to read, and I could look at this stuff with my eyes, but my mind didn’t actually retain it. That probably hasn’t changed. So I’d be miserable again, probably. I would just try to find the best professors in the humanities and apply myself. And I’m already married, so I wouldn’t be trying to get a girlfriend as I was then.
Q: What’s your visceral response today when you see Fine Hall?
A: I haven’t actually gotten a chance to go over and look at Fine Hall.
Q: How could you miss it?
A: Well, it genuinely was a painful experience of my life, so I’m not that eager to relive it. It’s weird how much Princeton looks the same as when I was here. Nassau Hall was old when I was here, so now it’s just — old.
Q: What similarities or differences did you notice about Princeton?
A: I was amazed that there are still eating clubs. I thought that they would have been abolished like slavery. No, but not only are there eating clubs, but there are selective clubs and things like Bicker, and people actually like it? But I find that incredible. That’s like being unfrozen from 1904 and finding out that the Model-T Ford is the main car. Princeton, come on. Where are your communal co-ops? And your vegetarians? And your working for social justice? Everything else looks exactly the same. Though, there wasn’t Starbucks here on Nassau Street.
Q: How would you react to know that the physics building, which you had a tough time in, is now our campus center?
A: What? That’s crazy. Then you might be being irradiated by the remnants of the cyclotron, if it’s the same building. It might be dangerous. I don’t mean to cause a panic, but I think people should be seriously worried that the social center is where the physics building was. I personally was involved with some radioactive material.
Q: What is one of your favorite Princeton stories?
A: I was involved in an anti-, or I guess you could call it a pro-divestment group. We literally tried to take over Nassau Hall, and the chief of police came out with a bullhorn and told us to stop. And we did. We had to be polite because, after all, we’re Princeton students. It was, overall, a terrible protest. You shouldn’t walk out of an administration building when they tell you to.
Q: Are you glad to have left the New Jersey weather?
A: I remember it being cold. And there used to be a heat vent outside Nassau Hall — that was such a source of relief during the cold weather. It’s such a shame to hear that the current generation of Princetonians doesn’t get the vent. It was a great vent. I think the most nurturing experience I got as a Princeton student was from that vent.
Q: Now, your lecture is about “failure at Princeton.” Would you say that it’s just as easy to fail today as it was then?
A: I would imagine so. It seems like it’s still really hard. But if you do fail, you could end up being a bald, neurotic monologuist. So you could think of it that way, but it’s probably scary for women to think of it that way. But there was so much pressure. I’ve never had pressure like that. I’ve opened up in theaters in New York, but that’s nothing like Princeton and their tests. And the pressure to be brilliant. And to think you have to be brilliant. And then you’re not brilliant, if you’re me. I hope that everyone who’s reading this is brilliant and very self-confident and is just breezing through.
Q: What would you say that you like the most about mathematics?
A: It was like this other world that existed, somewhat like "The Matrix," although it’s not all 0s and 1s, of course. But it existed above and beyond our world, and it made sense. I loved how in algebra and geometry things would add up and make sense. It was such a beautiful feeling to follow a train of thought or a proof. I’m still entranced by the idea, and I think it would be great if I could do that.
Q: Could you explain why there are some math professors that might try to prove that 1 + 1 = 0?
A: I think possibly that the instructor is under the sway of Satan — it’s just a theory. But it’s possible that the underworld just wants to take over the forces of light. That’s all I can think of, really. How can they prove that? Or, alternatively, it’s true. That’s my other theory about it.
Q: What is the derivative of secx?
A: That would be the differential of secx. I don’t really remember how to do derivatives, and that’s an ambush. That’s a gotcha kind of question. That’s like asking Sarah Palin, “Who is the president?” That’s a really hard question. But I can tell you that the derivative of x^2 is 2x.
Q: What about the derivative x^3?
A: Is that 3x^2?
A: I nailed it! I nailed it! I want that in the article.
Q: Any last comments?
A: I’m really hoping that I can graduate. My son’s 14 now. He’s a freshman in high school. My thinking is that I’d like to graduate before he graduates from college because dads should do that. But then I was thinking, what if he goes to Princeton? If he graduated, I could be a legacy student. It could work backwards like that. But my thing is, I’m really grateful of the good teachers that I had, and I’m really resentful of the scary teachers that I had. But mostly, I was just incredibly traumatized by Princeton, since it was just so hard. I ended up spending most of my time at the student center, which isn’t here anymore, and I would spend all my time drinking coffee in Styrofoam cups. And I would finish the coffee and try to make spirals out of the cups. That occupied me for most of my junior and senior years.