A Princeton Undergrad Examines Graduate Students: These Were the Worlds

Adedoyin Teriba, Princeton graduate student

by Aaron C. Robertson '17

Adedoyin Teriba’s carrel on one of the subterranean levels of Marquand Library, which houses Princeton University’s massive collection of art-related texts, is outfitted like some kind of arsenal. It is past the tall book stacks and their dank manuscripts from old worlds, beneath a tile mural that resembles some embroidered, thrift shop rugs. Among the fragile instruments of war are a book by Amos Tutuola and Plotinus’ The Enneads. Like most people, Doyin has not read everything that he owns. Probably not even close. He has been reading and studying there for the last three years. For him it has become ritual. The books will continue to accumulate until the floor beneath his desk is inundated. They are gathered at the base of Doyin’s chair. They are in his hands, and then in mine. Few people in the paradise above care about this exchange. Some have not learned to care whether one of Doyin’s books had been recommended to him or serendipitously chosen. Maroon book is big book is child’s book is all books.

When Doyin fears he is speaking loudly, he stands to peek over the desk lamp. There are two or three others at their own carrels, their tiny tailored offices. This is benevolent detachment. It is not only empathy and not exactly disengagement. Doyin is dual and made of at least two concurrent souls. One of them he gives to me, as we chitchat about nice things. Here is the soul that gives him laughter and verve. The other soul is presidential; it prepares for damage control. Its director is necessity, which causes him to stand and tell another student, “I hope we’re not disturbing you. Are we disturbing you?” Doyin is ready to uproot us if he must. He would smile and put his hand on my back if it came to that. Unnecessary speculation. The student was leaving anyways. Doyin nods and turns to me again. Two souls united. 

In the late nineteenth century, a wave of Brazilian ex-slaves migrated en masse to southwestern Nigeria. The architects among them erected grand cathedrals and hollowed out piazzas in urban centers. They were commissioned to design architecture for other African diasporic groups, including Sierra Leoneans. Brazilian culture became entangled with quotidian life in places like Lagos. As a young boy, Doyin quickly recognized the breadth of foreign influence. His friends had surnames like Da Silva and Da Rocha. Television programs like Fantástico made Doyin think of the intersection of Nigerian and Brazilian history. Moreover, he  read an article where a Nigerian architect lamented the loss of a Brazilian architectural heritage in Lagos. It was no longer the city of his youth. Doyin was so moved by what he read that he decided he would get a Master’s degree in historic preservation. Architecture was a language that could engender dialogue between the past and present.

When he entered the United States in his twenties to attend a Master’s program at the University of Oklahoma, Doyin began to imagine himself as an architect. He could construct tourist developments in Nigeria, building restaurants and hotels. Yet the more he considered this option, it became clear that he wanted to take the time to become a student of architectural history before initiating ambitious projects. Although he worked for three years in various New York-based construction and architectural firms, somewhere between then and now, educating others became more important than working as a practitioner. If given the opportunity, Doyin would like to work at a well-funded school of architecture where he can teach classes about architectural history and design. It would be nice to utilize the Cloud to create virtual design studios. A triangular correspondence between American, Nigerian, and Brazilian students could yield succulent fruits.

As Doyin says these things, his eyes wander around the café that we’re in. The tang of coffee beans is more distracting than the garbled, simultaneous conversations happening around us. Doyin is a man of the people. I have seen only one other person on campus greet almost everyone in which he comes into contact. Throughout our conversation, he waves at an assortment of people.

“Hi, how are you?” is the refrain, though it accrues more significance than the meaningless salutation that it typically is. For Doyin, “How are you?” is a question, not a greeting.

When he is asked about the way his faith has shaped his work, he says that Orthodox Christianity’s appraisal of the most mundane objects as essentially good has infiltrated his own approach to architecture.

“I do not like scholarship that emphasizes some factors and pays no attention to [the commonplace],” he said.

Regardless of scholarly consensus, the spiritual urge to create must be accounted for, even in historiography. In Doyin’s favorite essay about art, Sir Kenneth Clark describes the moment of vision as the point at which an object of focus “seems to detach itself from the habitual flux of impressions and becomes intensely clear and important to us.” Children are more prone to experience these moments insofar as the things of this world are new to them. The faculty is dulled in most adults, whose frequent interactions with their environment cause them to conflate distinct features into a monolith. Doyin tries to resist the laziness of the mind’s eye. To find worth in minuscule objects is to honor holism.

“Everything is teeming with things to discover.”

Back in the carrel, Doyin grabs a program from the top shelf of his desk. It announces the 60th birthday of the woman on its cover. She wears a golden gele, a head scarf. There are women in Lagos who earn their living making these headties. Amusingly, Doyin calls them “architectural icons.” If worn incorrectly, it can easily seem as though the wearer had folded her hair in glossy holiday wrap. The woman Doyin indicates –  his mother – did not have this problem. The folds of her gele flared like amber petals. I called her beautiful.

“Thank you,” Doyin said.

I had not meant to compliment him, but he would, as proxy, accept blessings for this woman who had always cooked frijon, a black bean pudding served with fish stew, on Easter and who had made Doyin change his clothes if he ever stepped outside their house appearing less than dignified. Doyin has imbibed her wisdom. His plaid, grey ensemble – the blazer and slacks – contain his form and leave room for a little more, but it is not oversized. His shirt has a tint of ivory and around the collar is traced a light filigree of sweet design. He received the getup as a present. He acquired his bowtie, a colorful accompaniment, from an older woman who said he reminded her of her father. The woman’s charity served Doyin well. When he does purchase clothes, he often goes through an online retailer. Amazon (for which he has recorded his own head measurements) or UNIQLO. His attentiveness to fine attire was refined during the years he spent in England as a child.

"There was a sense that people dressed up well,” Doyin said. “Men wore ties and suits, and they looked serious. These were the worlds. Lagos: vivid colors, urban wear, and the desire to look one’s best. Coupled with this British seriousness, the Savile Row, the tailoredness, the look of dignity, this manly look.”

Doyin’s aesthetic has only recently shifted. When he came to Princeton in the fall of 2008, one might have caught him in a long-sleeve shirt and trousers. This image is difficult to parse from the long-standing notion of Doyin as one whose very bearing exalts the items he happens to wear.

“As time went on,” he explains, “I [saw] myself as a professor-in-training…I treat this as a job.”

“I find that the dining hall is my classroom. And my conversations…are like seminars with food on the table,” Doyin smiles. Wherever he decides to teach, he would like to propose a class that takes place in a dining hall. Breaking bread creates civil and equal subjects.

He does not believe the formal wall that rises between professor and student can crumble entirely. When he held an “informal precept” with a group of his advisees, the students’ demeanors changed.

“They gave me a respect, and that surprised me.”

Doyin will have his Ph.D soon. For now, he is a teacher without the title. I use his first name. I do not perform for him. I hope his childlike glee will not be radically tempered by academe. I hope he will be unspoiled and consistent. His employers ought not rob him of the joie de vivre. We ought, in theory, to be able to commune many decades from now beneath white tents in the summer.

I will call him Dr. Teriba because it sounds good, like a radio show my grandmother would listen to. Dr. Teriba not because it is demanded, but because I have the liberty to call him Doyin.