Sunday, January 20, 2008

Stanford Silliness

I've been captivated by the concept of layers lately, particularly as it intersects with principles of design. I just returned from a trip to Stanford, where I gave two presentations to foreign language teachers from the San Francisco Bay area centered on these ideas. One was called The Learning is in the Layers, and another extended ideas from that presentation to address issues of leadership and advocacy.

I stayed at the Stanford Guest House, which is located on the grounds of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. The people watching was quite interesting because a number of visiting scientists were staying there. I chatted with a German PhD student who was visiting the U.S. for the first time. He had just come from Berkeley and was waiting for time in the labs at Stanford to see if he could calibrate the measurements he took at Berkeley. Rather than send him back to Germany and then fly him back to Stanford, they told him to hang out at Stanford for 10 days. Trusting (or desperate) soul that he was, he asked for help with the ATM (that multiples of 20 thing confused me at first too), and when I didn't rob him of the $200 he extracted, I expect he figured it was safe to continue chatting. ;-)

It was interesting to hear his perspectives on the U.S.--everything is so big, there is so much space, and we have so many choices everywhere we go. From my own travels abroad, I thought I knew exactly what he meant with respect to grocery stores, size, and space. However, I quickly discovered that I hadn't thought carefully enough about it. Consider this abbreviated version of his description of a typical restaurant experience in the U.S.:

Meal - "Which meal do you want?" (From a very thick menu of choices)
Appetizers - "Do you want an appetizer with that?"
Soup or Salad - "Do you want soup or salad?"
Salad - "Do you want a caesar salad or the house salad?"
Dressing - "Bleu Cheese, French, Ranch, Thousand Island, or Vinagrette?"
Timing - "Do you want that brought out right away or with the meal?"
Sides - "Beans, rice, or potato?"
Potato - "Baked potato, fries, or mashed potatoes?"
Steak - "Rare, medium, medium well, or well done?"
Drink - "Coffee, juice, milk, pop, tea, or water?"
Pop #1- "Diet Coke, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, etc."
Pop #2 - "Caffeine free, diet, or regular?"

He explained that he was exhausted and overwhelmed before he ever even picked up his fork!
It reminded me of a fabulous book I've been reading called The Paradox of Choice. The author explains how too many choices just make us ambivalent and grumpy. I only got about half-way through it before my work drew me into other things, but I'm looking forward to dipping back into it.

Meanwhile, I came to question how Mr. German Guy ever formed his perspectives on the American restaurant experience because I quickly discovered that Stanford doesn't believe in feeding its visiting scientists! ;-) There is no restaurant in the guest house, and the nearby cafeteria is closed on weekends (and has pretty limited hours during on the weekdays). While my hosts provided meals, my tummy wasn't on CA time, so I ended up walking about 2 miles to a nearby strip mall with a little grocery store and stocking up on midnight snacks.

While I was there, a colleague of mine who was in a doctoral program at MSU and has since transferred to Stanford picked me up and took me to campus town for an exquisite dinner of lamb in yogurt sauce with pomegranate. (I haven't been able to duplicate it yet, although I found that I still make a mean lambchop!)

When he found out I hadn't yet toured the campus and would not have the opportunity to do so before leaving town, he kindly drove me into campus and we walked a good chunk of it at 10:30 at night! It was . . . imposing. It is one place where the photos don't even begin to do it justice (and, unfortunately, I didn't take my camera with me that evening).

Legend has it that the Stanford Family tried to donate money to Harvard, were snubbed, and decided to start their own university. The university's website offers a much longer, and much more sanitized version. It was great fun to be hearing such tales as we walked under the giant columns and admired the grandeur of the buildings that had so many features of Spanish architecture. What struck me most about it is that although every building is large and majestic, the entrances to the buildings are very close to one another--just a short walk across small plazas, and every plaza and every building seemed connected to every other by the stone plazas and covered walkways. So, unlike a large university like MSU where all the buildings seem to proclaim the importance of individual schools within the university, at Stanford, no matter where you are, you feel like you are a part of something larger than any individual college--you are a part of something that has been around for a long time, something important. You feel like you are a part of Stanford. It was a very cool feeling, and interesting to feel how much architecture could play such a strong role in making one feel connected to an existing community.

It is not without its quirks, though. The funniest thing ever were Jim's stories about the new bicycle roundabouts that have been recently installed on campus. Evidently, bicyclists were crashing into each other and pedestrians at various high density areas on campus so regularly that roundabouts have now been installed in an attempt to address the problem. I'll post photos as soon as he sends me some.


Jessie said...

Wow, bicycle roundabouts. Intense. I would love to tour this campus too. And I love the choices. What if I got stuck with the baked potato and thousand island dressing? Yuck. Bring on the layers!

Cherice said...

I thought the bicycle roundabouts were hysterical. I was there at 10:30 at night, so there wasn't that much action, but I could easily imagine how bad it could get during the day. Actually, baked potatoes with Thousand Island on them wouldn't be a bad combination! However, I take it you aren't a Thousand Island fan? ;-)