Goin’ Backstory

In the first episode with our new monthly format, we talk with April Armstrong *14 of Mudd Library about a Princeton history game on Twitter (interview starts at 11:33), recap the Pre-rade from the perspective of this year’s grandparent class, and highlight a few history connections in the Sept. 14 issue of the magazine.

The Goin’ Backstory podcast is also available on iTunes — click here to subscribe [6]


BT: I’m Brett Tomlinson, the digital editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

GL: And I’m Gregg Lange from the Great Class of ’70, who really should know better.

BT: And this is Goin’ Backstory, a monthly podcast about Princeton history. With the new school year and the new publication year, we are changing the format of what used to be the Rally ’Round the Cannon podcast. We’ll still talk about Princeton history as it relates to the present day. We also aim to bring in some other voices on history-related topics. Later in the show, I’ll be talking with April Armstrong from Mudd Library about a project that combines Princeton history and social media.

The podcast will be posted on the 15th of every month, September through July. And as always, we invite you, the listener, to share feedback and suggestions of topics for future episodes.

Now Gregg, I mentioned the start of the academic year. It’s a big year for the Great Class of 1970: You’re now “grandparents,” with the Class of 2020 officially beginning its undergraduate years. What did you do to celebrate?

GL: The Class of 20— boy, I tell ya, you live to be in something like the Class of 2020. The marketing writes itself. I’m very jealous. Anyway, the Class of 2020 began its Princeton career formally on Sunday, Sept. 11, with their Pre-rade, which is a tradition of not incredibly long standing — Pre-rades began in 2004 at the behest of the Princetoniana committee, who felt the freshmen I think needed to be indoctrinated with a little more Princeton history and spirit before they knew what hit them.

Anyway, coming out of Opening Exercises, the freshmen marched, very much in P-rade style, in through the FitzRandolph Gate to enter the campus symbolically for their college careers, and they’re actually joined there by their parent class, which in this case is the Class of 1995, 25 years ahead of them, and their grandparent class, which is a testy group of my compatriots from the Class of 1970 who marched in the Pre-rade to great cheers from the other old-timers out there and the undergrads who didn’t believe anyone our age could still stand up. This was followed by a picnic and the Freshman Step Sing, which is a tradition started at the same time to teach the freshmen some of the Princeton songs, especially “Old Nassau,” to teach them the Locomotive [7], which is the proud province of Tom Meeker of the Great Class of 1956, who follows the late Bob Rodgers ’56, who initiated that practice, and also to introduce us, the grandparent class, to the freshmen. We were listed as the “grandfather” class, which was of course a great insult to the eight women members of our class, the first eight women to get undergraduate degrees from Princeton, and we introduced the three of them who were there to the freshmen, to a standing ovation from 1,300 18-year-olds, and that was quite impressive and a great deal of fun.

BT: It sounds like a great event and the pictures tell part of the story, but it’s great to see the interaction that the alumni are able to have with the incoming students.

On this podcast, we’ve always tried to highlight mentions of history in the print magazine and at PAW Online. We have a sister podcast of sorts, PAW Tracks, which focuses on oral history. The Sept. 14 version featured Tony Zee [8], Class of 1966, and tangentially, one of your favorite Princetonians, the physicist John Wheeler.

GL: Absolutely, and I should mention that the Tony Zee podcast is just absolutely fascinating. By coincidence, through physics stumbling around, I’ve heard of him before, although I’ve never met him. And his story, between the Maoist China of the time, Brazil, and Princeton, is absolutely fascinating and I urge people to listen.

He was a student as an undergraduate of John Wheeler, who gloried in teaching undergrads, which I think is one of the fascinating points of the podcast. You’re picturing John Wheeler here, at that point at the age of what, 55 or 60, experimenting with how he’s teaching his undergraduate course, which is absolutely fascinating. This is when most physicists are in their dotage.

Wheeler, who died at the age of 96, really went through four or five distinct careers as one of the world’s great physicists, and embarrassing to the community never won the Nobel Prize for reasons that I don’t understand. But at any rate, it’s a fascinating story of John Wheeler as well. In the graduate world, of course, he was the teacher of both Richard Feynman *42 and Kip Thorne *65, which in and of itself is a complete legacy, and also mentored 44 other doctoral students at Princeton alone.

BT: In the magazine, we have another new occasional feature called Class Close-Up, where we’ll be looking at some of the undergraduate courses. The first one is a documentary film course [9] that focuses on the 1968 Trenton riots in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and specifically a case of a young man who was killed by police in those riots. It’s really a fascinating story and it will be interesting to see the work that students produce as they pursue this moment in history. Gregg, this was your time on campus. What were your thoughts as you read about this course?

GL: Teaching people to do documentaries — mini-docs in this case, under deadline — is very tough and very exacting. Making them do it on historical subjects, as distinct from contemporary, is much, much more challenging.

By coincidence of the topic chosen, Princeton’s relationship with Trenton in the ’60s, especially the student body directly, with the communities in Trenton, was just really developing. The Trenton Tutorial Project began in 1963, the Student Volunteers Council was completely reorganized and renamed in 1967. All of these things dealt directly with volunteer projects in Trenton and the Civil Rights movement of the time.

All of the events surrounding the death of Martin Luther King in April of ’68 were a gigantic tragedy. Anyone who was on campus at the time probably ended up in the Chapel with the rest of the campus, at an impromptu colloquium headed by Dean Ernest Gordon. There are very moving pictures of that occasion through all of Princeton’s history books.

Meanwhile Trenton was in flames, and Harlan Joseph from Lincoln University ended up being killed in a brutal riot. And I recommend that all alumni look at this article. I wish we could all attend the course. I’m very jealous of the students who are involved.

BT: And before we move onto our interview with April Armstrong, I just want to mention that Gregg of course is our regular Rally ’Round the Cannon columnist online, and has been for several years now. The first column of the year [10] is about the freshman Pre-read for the incoming class, Our Declaration by Danielle Allen ’93. Gregg, you enjoyed this book and had a chance to dig into the Declaration of Independence in a way that most of us haven’t thought to do.

GL: I think that’s a fair statement if there ever was one. The book effectively deconstructs it, word by word and punctuation mark by punctuation mark. Very fascinating, very thought-provoking, extremely deep, and a real challenge to 18-year-olds. If you think Chris Eisgruber is going easy on the freshmen, take a look at the first chapter or two and this will disabuse you of that. I think they’re in the deep end of the educational pool right off the bat, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.

BT: Thank you Gregg, for that, and we’ll have much more to talk about next month.

BT: If you follow the University on Twitter, or if you follow Mudd Library and several other departments on campus, you’re going to be seeing the hashtag #Princethen [11] in the next few weeks. It’s a fun game, especially for current students on campus, and rather than try to explain it, I’ve come to the source: April Armstrong *14, the special collections assistant for public services at Mudd Library and the creator of Princethen. April, thank you for talking with us.

AA: Thanks for stopping by. It’s nice to have you here.

BT: I guess the easiest question is, what is Princethen?

AA: Princethen is a game you can play on Twitter, and the way that it works this year is that Mudd Library — @muddlibrary [12] on Twitter — will be tweeting out old photos from our collections of things around Princeton. And that’s a wide variety of things, obviously. There are several different departments that have already agreed to participate, so I have a sense of some of what’s coming. But there are a lot of photos that will be tweeted out that we’re hoping other people will have current photos to share.

The way that it works: I would send out the tweet with the old photo, and then someone would tweet back to us with a new photo of the same thing. So I might show you a building, the way that it looked before another building was next to it or something like that, and then you take a picture of the same place and tweet it back.

But it’s not just places. There will be other kinds of things as well. You know, fashions have changed. It should be pretty fun.

BT: And there’s just so much history and so much imagery here at Mudd that there’s a lot of opportunity to do this type of thing. You did something similar last year as well. How was that different than the current project?

AA: So what we did last year was we had people do this in reverse: They sent me, or tweeted at me with current photos of Princeton, I matched them with things in our collections and tweeted back. But the scavenger hunt is a lot of fun, and you should have that fun, too, I think. So this time we’re going to try it that way, having you guys go and find what matches what I have to show you.

BT: It’s a great idea. For alumni who aren’t necessarily on campus, it’ll be fun to see what students and others around here are coming up with. I gather for you and Mudd Library, this is a really exciting way to engage with students and get them interested in Princeton history and in the archives.

AA: Sure, I’m always looking for ways to engage with our audiences online. Students are of course a primary audience because we want them to know we are here and that we have resources for them to use.

I think the students themselves have been pushing a lot recently, you’ve heard about this in the past year or so, for a connection between the past at Princeton and Princeton’s present. But it all comes together at Mudd, it’s always come together at Mudd. So it’s a way to engage with that audience.

You mention the alumni. The alumni have other ways of connecting with us online if they like. We have several different things that we do, and if you were to go to HistoryPin.org [13] and search the map for Princeton University, you’ll find that we’ve put content there. That’s a collaborative enterprise, so if alumni wanted to share their old photos, then that’s one way that they could do that.

BT: That’s great. I’m sure we have listeners who have photos that would be good additions to that. Looking ahead to the fall and to the entire school year, what’s going to be happening here at Mudd?

AA: We’ve got a lot of different things happening at Mudd. One thing is that Mudd will be 40 years old, coming up in October, so we’re having a birthday party. So Oct. 13, you can mark your calendar — it starts at 4:30, we will be celebrating 40 years of digging in the Mudd. And that includes both the University Archives, which is the focus of Princethen, and also the public policy papers. It should be a lot of fun. We have games, we do have prizes for this game, at the party. We’ve got a lot of things planned for that.

We also have an exhibit that’s going to be going up soon to celebrate Triangle Club and their long history at Princeton. And we have a little mini-exhibit on presidential elections. That’s in the lobby right now. And I’m sure there will be plenty of other things coming down the pike, so you’ll want to follow us on our different platforms and see what’s going to happen. 

BT: So to recap, what are the best ways to follow Mudd?

AA: You can follow us on Twitter, @muddlibrary [12], and we’re on Facebook, the full name of the library is the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library [14], but fair warning, you should make sure that it’s the one at Princeton because there is more than one Seeley Mudd library out there. We’re also on Tumblr, princetonarchives.tumblr.com [15]. On History Pin, the easiest way is to search the map for Princeton University and find our account. We’re also on a regular, ordinary WordPress blog that we’ve had probably as long as any of the rest of those things, and that’s blogs.princeton.edu/mudd [16].

BT: That’s a lot of content to keep track of, and I’m sure there’s a lot going up week in and week out. April, thanks so much for taking a few minutes to speak with us.

AA: Thanks for stopping by. We look forward to seeing as many people as possible coming out to dig in the Mudd.