Wu Hall’s Matthew T. Mellon Library is one of the quaintest and most secluded study spaces on the Princeton campus. The “library” in its name is slightly misleading, given that Mellon does not actually hold any books, only a printer, a few tables, and a series of back-to-back wooden cubicles for high-power cramming. Despite the room’s no-nonsense atmosphere, Mellon’s carrels also offer the most extensive display of student graffiti that I’ve come in contact with. The interior of nearly every cubicle presents a montage of students doodles and late-night musings. Some of the graffiti is playful, not unlike what one would find in a stereotypical high school bathroom: hearts, “YOLO”s, the occasional expletive. Nevertheless, the majority of the writing is, without a doubt, the work of students studying.
“Goodbye, Princeton,” one student has scrawled into a partition, “After this exam, I’ll have failed out.” Similar predictions of failure, along with more general academic complaints, line the cubicles. Such dryly self-deprecating remarks are a marked departure from one’s standard bathroom or locker room graffiti, and I was struck by just how distinctly they seemed to belong to Mellon. Reading students’ graffiti, I felt as though I was listening to a conversation between two students studying for a particularly difficult exam. In their hyperbolic cynicism, these statements reflect what I’ve found to be a general attitude towards Princeton’s often overwhelming workload.
For many incoming students, myself included, Princeton’s classes are more competitive and demanding than any we have faced before. At times, moving from one paper or problem set to the next feels like treading water. All too aware of our mediocrity, we learn that optimism, particularly with regard to grades, is risky. Terrified of letting ourselves down, we adopt a melodramatic pessimism, predicting failure on such a grand scale that it ceases to be threatening and becomes laughable. While doing poorly on an exam might be an unwelcome blow to our GPA, the likelihood of it making our breaking our Princeton career is negligible. For many students, myself included, I feel that claiming to hold such absurdly low expectations is ultimately a way of coping with the knowledge that high standards are no longer viable.
Similarly theatrical cries of despair can be found throughout Mellon. Someone has scrawled “Save me” in small letters on one of the partitions, another has penciled, “HELP,” in capital letters. One particularly angst-ridden individual has left only a rather ominous, “You have no idea.” Taken seriously, the helplessness implied by these statements would be disconcerting. Over the past few months, however, I’ve noticed that similarly over-dramatic pleas have become a part of my everyday vocabulary, as well as those of students around me. Rather than being legitimate calls for help, such expressions serve a similar purpose to our hyperbolic predictions of failure. Claiming to be in more academic distress than we actually feel, we downplay our own ability to remain on top of our coursework, tempering our anxiety with self-deprecating humor.
The fact that these over-the-top predictions of failure are littering a study space grants them a certain irony. Even as they prophesize their failure and claim total hopelessness, these students are in cubicles to study. Moreover, they have come to one of the most isolated and intense places for work on campus. It seems highly unlikely, then, that these students are committed slackers at legitimate risk of failing out of school. Their frantic, despondent graffiti reads like a somewhat ironic attempt at stress relief rather than a call for concern.
Mellon’s graffiti has the air of feigned honesty. In a sense, the library’s cubicles are one of Princeton’s anonymous forums, much like Tiger Admirers or PrincetonFML. As a result of this, one might expect student graffiti to be a place for confession, the sorts of scandalous truths we are afraid to divulge with out names attached. On the contrary, Mellon’s cubicles are full of almost-truths—statements we pretend to believe, but don’t quite.