Oct 13, 2007
How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Physics
Posted in: Academics & Research
I'm going to be honest - The first five academic weeks here were not a pleasant experience. You all smile about this whole firehose analogy, thinking that it sounds fantastic and you'd love it and you can't wait to try it.
But actually, the transition can be pretty painful.
I'm here to tell you it doesn't have to be.
That's right. You don't have to be an academic masochist.
Wait, what's that? You like doing all that work for classes you'll never need and don't even like instead of spending your time doing things you love? No you don't.
Admission officers and bloggers have spent a lot of time and effort preaching to you about your high school activities and life: Spend your time with things you're passionate about. Don't join twenty extra-curriculars because you think you have to in order to have a chance a college. In the end, it's what you did for the love of the game that'll shine through anyway.
We're not kidding.
I got pretty good at this in high school (doing what I love, not working for The Man), and this mentality is what landed me in Taiwan instead of MIT three months after I graduated.
So when that fateful time came to register for classes, I tried really hard to keep this in mind. But the pressure to take those pesky - I mean really fun - GIRs your freshman year is pretty strong, and ultimately, I broke a little. I ended up with two classes I wanted and two GIRs. Most people do not call this breaking. This is because most people are taking pretty much all GIRs and one HASS-D/CW class they may or may not convince themselves they like.
With that, I'd like to devote an entire entry to a class I'm not even in anymore:
Physics. [Insert collective gasp from the audience here]
That's right. I dropped physics. If you're wondering why I would do such a thing, and you're expecting a really interesting answer like an elephant eating my homework, you're going to be dissapointed. Because the reason I dropped physics is...
I didn't like the class.
A little about Introductory Physics, henceforth called 8.01, at MIT:
8.01 is your standard introductory physics class taught with your non-standard teaching style: TEAL. (Have you noticed that people here seem to have an overwhelming desire to give everything an acronym?) TEAL, in its extended form, is "Technology-Enabled Active Learning," and in its true form probably resembles Satan, or whatever evil being it is you believe in (and if you don't believe in one, you will soon).
Wait, did I just say that? Pretend I didn't.
Let me be a bit more politically correct.
Completely unofficial studies (read: asking Everyone I Know) have resulted in a heavily-supported hypothesis that No One Likes Teal. In true MIT fashion, we will call this theory NOOLT.
I strongly suspect the NOOLT phenomenon occured because TEAL, as I overheard someone whose name I can't remember say, "is the perfect example of when too much technology can be a bad thing."
We sit in tables of nine in groups of three. Each group has a computer to enable the learning process. Most of the time, though, it's used to watch the power point that's already projected in four (or more) different places around the room. (Sometimes these computers are used for Facebook. We're going to ignore that data.) In the beginning of the year, we took a diagnostic test and we were assigned to tables in a fashion that would keep an even distribution of physics background at the tables (meaning that all the people who took AP Physics in high school wouldn't sit in the same place).
This is all geared towards collaborative learning, which is nice in theory, but what happened in my experience is that the people at the table who knew what they're doing would work through the problem, and I would be left in the dark in terms of where this equation came from and what that one means. The idea was to learn from eachother, except that I feel that we do plenty of this while working on p-sets. Personally, I'd like classtime to be geared more towards learning from the teacher.
The point is, even though it's supposedly part of the "freshman experience," (I don't like that phrase, but that's another entry for another day) to be in the same sinking boat and eventually coming out on top by figuring out how to, I don't know, fix the boat, I'm not entirely convinced that it'd be smooth sailing from then on.
What I mean by that perfectly awful metaphor is that I'm not that great at classical mechanics, and even if I somehow figured out how to get around my feelings towards TEAL, I'd still struggle a lot in the class. I wasn't looking forward to letting physics continue to feed on my soul for the entire year - it was really cutting into my other classes and my happiness.
Luckily, there are answers for people in this situation! MIT very rarely leaves you with no choice. Many NOOLT-sympathizers have switched from 8.01 to 8.01L, which is another introductory physics class. It's geared towards people with little-to-no physics or calculus background and I've heard great things about it. For example, there's a lot more support available for it. They have lecture and recitation. In recitation they can ask their TAs questions and even though the class runs an extra month (through IAP), they can take the time to actually learn and understand the material.
I didn't switch into 8.01L for several reasons. The main one was that there was a scheduling conflict with my Favorite Class (ooh, a mystery). But looking back, I'm glad that scheduling conflict was there. Now I'm taking three classes I like and one GIR, and I'm perfectly happy.
Now, Before bringing this insanely long entry to a close, I'd like to note a few things.
The first is that even though I have yet to meet anyone that likes TEAL, that doesn't mean that everyone hates it. First of all, I haven't met Everyone. And even if someone doesn't like TEAL, it doesn't mean that they dislike it as much as I do. They may not care either way. It works for some people (I don't know who, but I'm trying to be optomistic); it didn't work for me. This is in no way trying to convince you that TEAL is bad - you may have no problem - I wrote about it mostly to show you all that if something is making you terribly unhappy, there are very often ways to change that.
The second thing is that I spent a lot of time complaining that I hated physics my first month here. But after listening to a lot of people's points of view, I've decided that I do not, in fact, hate physics. I mean, there are hundreds of people here that love physics. There must be something good about it. And I hope that one day, when I finally take a class that's not 8.01 TEAL, I'll appreciate the subject matter more. The point is, if you ever find yourself in a class you hate, consider the fact that it may be the environment and not the subject matter that you are discontent with. Your life will be significantly happier if you give everything a second thought and chance instead of dwelling on how much you hate or can't do something.
The THIRD (and last, I promise) thing is that even though I plan on spreading my GIRs out instead of taking them all at once, there are a couple arguments that go the other way. First of all, your first semester is Pass/No Record, so it's nice to be able to take classes you may not particularly enjoy with that safety net. Also, I know a few people who are taking as many GIRs as possible their freshman year so they can focus more on what they enjoy in the coming years. Finally, you have to remember that I am fairly certain about what I want to do with my life. Many people do not know what they're interested in, and that's okay, and in this case, the GIRs can be a nice way to explore subjects before committing to a major your sophomore year.
In conclusion, be rational and do what's best for you. I hope those of you working through your senior year can keep this and your own happiness in mind.