Mar 2, 2007
Advice you’ve heard before and a story you haven’t
There are going to be a lot of people eager to give you advice on how to survive college and maybe even leave with a degree and some shreds of self respect. At least that's the way it was with me. Something that I heard over and over again from mouths of all shapes and sizes was "Go to class. Go to class. Go to class."
But that's for dumb kids who couldn't figure things out on their own. By second semester freshman year I attended at most one class per subject per week. I skipped all 18.03 (Differential Equations) lectures except the first, went to no recitations other than the ones immediately preceding exams. 8.022 (E+M) had lecture notes online by a previous lecturer, and it was not long after I discovered them that I stopped going to 8.022 as well. 6.001 (computer science) lectures were optional through an online lecture experiment so that was excusable. The only class to which I dragged myself on a semi-regular basis was my mandatory-attendance HASS class. The advantages? I got to sleep in later. I got to "save time" that would otherwise have been spent in class. I got to stay warm and cozy in my (over)heated room while it whistled and roared in wintry fury outside. I got to brag about not going to class and still doing fine.
How did I go about this? Homework. Everything I learned that semester came from doing homework assignments. I would read the lecture notes from that week as I went along problem by problem, learning only the parts of the material necessary to hand in a completed assignment the next day. When the tests rolled around, I would attend the review sessions held immediately preceding to fill in the gaps between the problems. Of course, this schedule meant that I slept until noon every day and had to stay up until 6 or 7am on many occasions to not only finish a whole problem set the night before but also learn the material beforehand. But that's okay, since that extra time would have been spent in class anyways. And since I can learn faster than the lecturer talks, I'm still saving time, right? It made sense, of course, until you tried to account for the 'extra time' I should have saved. Where did that go? In a single week, I would end up sleeping 4 hours or less on at least 2 or 3 occasions. I would skip meals reasoning that I'd got up late, so I didn't need breakfast, reasoning that I'm hungry, but it's 4am already and I'm going to bed soon, anyways, as soon as I finish this last problem... This wasn't a big deal for me, then. I was still healthy.
It's at this point in the tale that the wise and weathered story-teller would learn his lesson. "And I failed all my classes and got put on academic probation and then I shaped up and never missed another lecture and made straight A's from then on." Well, correct me if I'm wrong but life doesn't usually work like that. Truth is, I did just fine. I got A's in 8.022 and 18.03 and B's in 6.001 and 4.301. I even passed my astronomy seminar (P/F) 12.409 (which I highly recommend by the way). Another piece of universal advice came into mind at that point, "If it works, stick with it." This one I followed.
I sleepwalked through first semester sophomore year. Unified (engineering) started at 9am which made it easy to skip on a daily basis. Not to mention all equations and little theory which made it easy to pick up the night before a test or Monday night before the problem sets were due. Out of the 10 hours of lectures and recitations every week, I was present for maybe 2 or 3. My other classes didn't fare too much better (2 physics and a HASS class). Once you start skipping one class it's hard to bring yourself to go to the others. I fell into the same pattern as the semester before. But there was one big difference. I was taking five classes, not four. It's easy to say that you'll read the lecture notes for the class you just skipped, it's even easy to believe that you will, and sometimes I would. But more often, I put it off.
I fell behind. And it's an awful feeling, being behind in a class. An awful pattern even, because, it requires you to correct for it all at once. I can't go to lecture if I haven't learned any of the material of the past 2 weeks, it would be a waste of time, I wouldn't have any idea what was being said. I guess I'll just stay home and try to start from the beginning. And now I'm missing yet another class. I'm even farther behind. To be able to keep up with problem sets in all your MIT classes, eventually, you will have to fall into a pattern. Math on monday nights, maybe physics tuesdays and wednesdays, bio on thursdays, essays on sundays... and you will feel like every minute of every day is filled. Where is the time to catch up on material that you've missed? Well, I'm not a slow worker and I'm not a fast worker. I'm not brilliant and I'm not dumb. And with 5 classes I didn't have much. Psets started taking me longer to do, and I found myself playing catchup into the wee hours of the morning. The sun came up over my unfinished work, and I hadn't slept. And it was the 3rd time this week. So my schedule was a little hectic, so what? I was still pulling A's.
Red flag #1. I overslept the second Fluid dynamics test in Unified. By 45 minutes. With only 15 minutes left in the test, I staggered into 33-225, my heart still racing from the shock. Professor Drela gave me the full hour to take it.
This was less than halfway through the semester. A little after this, I started getting sick. I lost weight. Which, for me, a 105 pound girl, was a pretty big deal. One day, while we were getting chinese food at Kendall food court, my friend Jesse noticed that I wasn't eating much.
"I'm full," I said. 3/4 of the little styrofoam lunch box was still filled with orange chicken and tofu. What he didn't know was at this point, a lunch box could fill me up three times over. But more than that, I was unhappy. I was cranky and skinny and disliked my classes and despised my work. My stomach hurt when it was full, hurt when it was empty, I got headaches that didn't go away like headaches should.
You hear it a lot. College is about learning to take care of yourself. Well, as much as I hate to prove cliches correct, that's where I failed. Mommy and Daddy weren't there to cook dinner for me when I had too much work to go out or do it myself. They weren't there to remind me to take my vitamins. They weren't around to say, "You look overworked, you've gotten skinnier, pay attention to the warning signs." Well, it finally did catch my attention.
I overslept the second exam in 8.033 (Relativity) by 45 minutes. Again, the professor gave me the full allotted time. "I was in college once, too," he said. Now I don't want to give the wrong impression. Compassion isn't a prerequisite to becoming a professor at this school. It'd be a big mistake to confuse luck with law, and assume that I deserved anything but an F on both those two tests. But all that aside it was the jolt I needed I think, and in a way it wrenched me from the nightmare in which I'd been a living character and I took a look around. This was the second time I'd overslept something very important. Something I set 2 alarms for. Also, the exam was at 2pm.
You might be wondering at the moral of this story. Is it grades? Had my gpa plummetted? No, when the dust settled on my science subjects last term, I'd come away with 2 A's and 2 B's. But I was unhappy and the success of a semester is not measured in grades alone. Some people might say that this shows that students are dumb and should listen to their elders when they say "go to class."
But I think that's bull. Everyone learns differently. If you learn best by going to every lecture, taking meticulous notes, and if that makes you feel good, then absolutely that is what you should do. But if you learn better from readings and homework assignments, there's nothing wrong with that either. If it pleases you to lock yourself in your room- except to sneak out late at night in a trenchcoat to turn in your problem sets- and not say a single word of english to anyone, you'll find good company here. Telling students they have to learn a certain way is crappy. Everyone deserves to find out for himself. Instead of saying, "go to class", I think my advice will be as follows: pick classes that you'll want to go to.
And don't fall behind.
I changed my major. I don't believe in the policy that you have to suffer in life before you get to have any fun. Truth is I didn't enjoy my engineering classes. While my other classmates were trudging through the work willingly, I felt like I was being dragged along in something I didn't want to do. Does this mean I'm not interested in Aero/Astro? I don't know, but I don't think so. I think I will simply have to find a different path to reach my career goals. I'm young, there are tons of open doors.
These are the classes I'm taking this semester:
Quantum Physics - 8.04
Statistical Physics - 8.044
Abstract Algebra - 18.703
Biology - 7.013
Writing (Autobiographical) - 21W.731
As of right now, I really like the selection and variety. I have more work than ever (I have an essay due more or less every week in writing class- don't take writing if you don't want to work) but I'm getting 6-8 hours of sleep a night and eating half a pizza again and the pink is coming back into my cheeks. I go to every class. I have generally great lecturers this term and I like to have a face explaining things to me and I like to have the little words in between steps that illuminate everything which, sadly, are often omitted in textbooks and lecture notes. I work on problem sets by myself: I find that I learn best that way. And then I check answers with other students and offer and receive help on difficulties. I go to office hours whenever I can, because sometimes just talking a problem out is enough to offer new insights on it. I cook dinners and lunches and sometimes even a pancake and eggs breakfast with Mike ('08) every day. I go grocery shopping every weekend. Here's another piece of advice, find a cooking buddy. Mutual encouragement and motivation will keep you fed (and cheaply!) every day. If it's a friend, you can snack in the lounges watching tv, if it's a boyfriend/girlfriend, dim the lights and light a couple of candles. Either way, it's a good time and usually a good break from problem sets. I spend maybe $40-50 a week on groceries, eat 2-3 meals every day, fancier on the weekends. It's a good deal, and cooking isn't that hard. Even you can learn.
Here, I will throw in a couple of pictures. Since that is my job.
These are some of the CCD images that I (yes, that's right, me) took (w/ my partner) using a 8" telescope for my freshman year astronomy seminar that I talked about. For 3 hours a week we froze our butts off on the roof of building 37 each at our little telescopes looking at stars, planets, and galaxies. Making LIFESIZE sketches and taking pictures.
Actually, the first is a page from my lab notebook with some sketches of saturn.
These are the images.
This one is saturn. It looked a lot better in the telescope.
Look, we weren't using hubble, you have to lower your expectations a bit.
A globular cluster. (First ever in the class!)
I was still pretty psyched to get these. This is the moon:
And lastly, the orion nebula.
Anyways. It's time to end my big ol' ranting entry. In conclusion, do I think I will get straight A's this year? Hardly. I'm taking much harder classes. But do I think this will be my best semester yet at MIT? You bet.
OKAY THANKS FOR YOUR TIME