Some out-of-town visitors came in a week or two ago to spend a few days. Shortly into the visit, my guests wondered: What’s happening over on the university campus? Since one edge of the campus comes within a football field of my house, it was easy to suggest that we walk over and find out.
At this point I should note that Princeton townies care far less than one might imagine about the “gown” wearers on the other side of those ivy walls. Even as an alumnus, one’s contact with the university is rarely about the present. It’s more about the past, and the future, especially about what will happen to your money when you are gone.
So we embarked on our adventure to the hallowed halls. Turns out that our visit coincided with Princeton Research Day, an annual event in which some undergraduate and graduate students present synopses of their senior theses and other research projects. Some of the exhibits were poster-style — students standing in front of displays and cheerfully elaborating on their work to anyone stopping by. Others took the form of 90-second “elevator speeches” or 10-minute TED-style presentations. A few even staged live performances of their creative work.
I had seen some advance press material on the event. “Princeton Research Day provides a fantastic opportunity to look into the future — to appreciate the work of talented Princetonians who will be at the forefront of research, scholarship, and the arts in the decades to come,” said Deborah Prentice, dean of the faculty and professor of psychology and public affairs. “I would like to encourage post-docs, in particular, to participate. Their time on campus is brief, but their contributions to the intellectual community are great.”
A press release about Research Day quoted Jill Dolan, dean of the college and a professor of theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts: “Princeton is one of the very few universities, really, in the world where undergraduate students are encouraged to do the kind of original research that every single undergraduate on this campus does,” she said. “So taking the opportunity at the end of the year to do a major public event in which students can present that work is groundbreaking.”
As we entered the Frist Student Center (the building that provided the visual backdrop for the opening scenes of the television medical drama, “House”), I braced myself for an onslaught of high-level science and technology.
I was pleasantly surprised to run into Jalisha Braxton, whose poster was titled “Handwriting vs. Typing: Does Writing Mode Affect Learning?” Being an old journalist, who grew up knowing no other way of taking notes than by hand, and who improved any number of articles by arduously “running them through the typewriter” a second or third time, I was drawn to Braxton’s research.
The gist of it, she told us visitors, was that researchers have discovered there is some method in the madness of taking notes with pen or pencil on paper, as opposed to pulling out the iPad or tablet computer and merrily typing away. Good news for old guys like me, I thought. But, Braxton continued, for writing an essay or a term paper there seems to be no advantage to handwriting.
The note taking observation was based on a 2014 study, run by a Princeton graduate student, Pam Mueller, and a Princeton faculty member, Daniel Oppenheimer. Braxton’s thesis investigated the writing of essays that are used as educational exercises, known as “write-to-learn” essays.
More good news, I reasoned, since we journalists know that there is no better way to learn a subject than to write about it. But I wondered if there is any loss when typing becomes full bore word processing, with copying and pasting, macro keys, automatic word completion, and spell checking.
I would hate to go back to the pre-word processor days when cutting and pasting literally meant using a pair of scissors to cut a section out of your work and then paste it into another place in the manuscript. That’s when some condescending editor (is there any other kind?) would dismiss it as “sloppy copy,” and order us to “run it through” the typewriter again.
I always thought that process greatly improved my writing, but maybe the real advantage was that it forced me to read and re-read my stories, word for word, sentence by sentence. Maybe Braxton or one of her colleagues can do some research on this at the post-graduate level. In any case, I am relieved to know that working on the computer today seems to have no other adverse effects.
My guests and I then meandered through the main level of Frist. We stopped to chat with Wesley Cornwell, an anthropology major with an interest in theater set design, whose display was titled “Designing a Story: Exploring the Relationship between Narrative and Theatrical Design.” Then we ran into Julia Peiperl, a junior in the Department of English who is pursuing certificates in theater and musical theater, with a poster titled “Decaying the Feminine: Costume Design for Sophocles’ Elektra.”
The second and third floors were the sites of 90-second and 10-minute presentations. We found a room where four 10-minute talks and a Q&A session were planned for an hour-long session. We had no idea what the subjects of the talks would be but we figured we could sit still for 10 minutes or so and then quietly exit.
The second speaker was Jeremy Borjon, a graduate student in psychology. Borjon, also a Princeton undergraduate alumnus, Class of 2010, began his talk on “What Makes the Marmoset Talk? Interoceptive Influences on Primate Vocalization” with a simple declaration: “I like to talk to monkeys.” With an opening like that, who could leave?
For me the most intriguing presentation came from Zeyu Jin, a graduate student in computer science, spoke on “Text-Based Speech Editing.” With a masters’ from Carnegie Mellon and a bachelors’ from Tsinghua University, Jin seemed right at home in his Ph.D. pursuit at Princeton. Jin described how he and his research group are hoping to make the editing of audio tapes as easy as word processing is today. Cut and paste, he proposed, ought to be as easy in recording work as it is in editing a document. Search and replace also ought to work. With the software the Princeton group is developing, a person who did a voice-over for a client’s video and then discovered that the client’s name was mispronounced could search for the name and replace it with the correct sounding one.
Better yet, Jin continued enthusiastically, the software could create words that had never been recorded and make them sound as if they had been said by the same person.
My out-of-town visitors had a question. With this technology in place how could we trust that any recording was a true copy of what had been originally said?
“I have good news for you,” responded Jin, who explained that the same technology that doctored the original could also be used to detect the doctoring. You could imagine that along with Photoshop for your computer you would also buy Audioshop, and then possibly a pro version that enabled you to identify the points where sound had been pasted in.
Afterward I had what I thought was a pretty bright idea. I asked Jin if he and the other Princeton researchers imagined this as a commercially viable product. Jin gracefully ducked the question by simply saying that Adobe was already participating in the project.
This Princeton campus may just be a hundred yards from my house, but on this visit the researchers seemed light years ahead of us.