This weekend, prospective students will stroll across campus in droves, trailing a real live Princeton student doing the trademark Orange Key backwards walk. The articulate, personable and finally-paid guide will punctuate his or her description of social and academic opportunities on campus with engaging anecdotes about the architecture. That high school junior in the tour group will ask questions about volunteering opportunities with the feeble hope that the tour guide will remember his name and exert some imaginary influence in their favor on the admission system. Those already accepted will space out, half-listening to the guide, watching Princeton students pass and checking their watches.
I remember my own tour as a prospective student; specifically, I remember leaving early. The only portion of the tour I can still clearly recall was when a member of Fuzzy Dice interrupted us with a megaphone to advertise his next show. After heckling the group for a few minutes, he mockingly wished us “good luck getting into Princeton” while our Orange Key guide hovered around looking distressed.
The information given on these tours is important. Guides cover all the main bases of the undergraduate experience at Princeton, excluding eating clubs; they give relatively meager coverage to this particular footnote of campus life. Street avoidance aside, however, the tours present a comprehensive picture of campus and academic life at Princeton. Unfortunately, from comparing my own experience to that of my friends, I am convinced that a very small amount of this information overdose actually sinks in. Prospective students need to hear about housing options, extracurriculars and so forth, but there’s a limited amount they can really understand about all these campus life details until they get here. Guides usually punctuate their explanations of the senior thesis and study abroad opportunities with interesting historical facts in order to add some variety to the admission-heavy content. That appeals to a certain caliber of audience (usually, an older one) but doesn’t quite provide the engaging spark a tour needs to grab a typical prospective student’s attention.
Guides are articulate and passionately enthusiastic about Princeton, but there’s a critical element missing from the tours that could make the heavy dose of information much more palatable. The tours glaringly lack any sense of humor about the University. Guides can be funny in a self-deprecating sort of way, and there are a few cute stories about college rivalries that tease out polite chuckles from the audience. But in my own prefrosh experience and throughout the numerous tours I observed for my unfinished guide training last year, never once did a guide poke fun at the University. Throughout the Orange Key training process, future guides are discouraged from making any reflection upon the school that could be understood in an unflattering light.
A classic example of this is the warning Orange Key trainees receive about offering their opinion on the aesthetic faults of the architecture building. Guides used to point out the irony of housing the architecture school in the ugliest building on campus. Their joke was clearly an exaggeration: Whether we’re discussing aesthetic value or structure, the math building’s hideous brown walls and endless staircases are second to none. But the comment gave a human aspect to our school. We proved that we know how to laugh at ourselves. Now, in guide training, trainees are warned away from the joke. Unadulterated positivity rules the day.
This attitude is absurd. No one is going to take Princeton less seriously if a tour guide gently mocks a prestigious department. Our current representation of the University as perfect is only fooling prospective students for as long as the unmitigated praise can hold their attention. Is this approach of unvaried positivity really the best way to sell ourselves? No one believes that Princeton, or any school for that matter, is a flawless institution. We choose to hide our weaknesses through a forced sheen of positivity, when we could recommend ourselves so much more strongly by owning our flaws with a laugh.
I’m not saying Orange Key should mercilessly rip into the ridiculous or unsavory aspects of University traditions and campus culture, but a little affectionate humor would go a long way. Why not make a joke about the architecture building? Or, if you happen to think architecture gets a bum rap, what about the Woody Woo fountain, so ugly it’s almost beautiful? Why not poke fun at the Orange Bubble mentality? Our ability to laugh at ourselves is guaranteed to make more of an impression than uniform positivity. It’s the joke about the Street, rather than the student-teacher ratio, that prospective students will remember from their campus visit.
Tehila Wenger is a sophomore from Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2013/04/12/32935/