It is another fascinating semester here at the Institute, and I would like to share it with you.
I'd also like to connect my experience to MIT academics in general. In the descriptions of 6.00 and 17.803, I talk about MIT problem sets. The 17.803 section also discusses why MIT right now is the best place to study social science. 24.03 and 24.191 illustrate how classes can be directly applicable to important current issues. WGS.151 and WGS.229 show that MIT's Women's and Gender Studies courses can be about rigorous clinical research, unlike anything you’d imagine WGS to be.
General summary: I am taking 6 classes for a total of 69 units of credit (courses are usually 12 units, but the poli sci lab is 15, and 24.191 is 6). Note that 6 = Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, 17 = Political Science, 24 = Philosophy and Linguistics, and WGS = Women's and Gender Studies (but the latter will also be counted towards my Political Science and Philosophy majors).
6.00 INTRODUCTION TO COMPUTER SCIENCE AND PROGRAMMING
6.00 is known as an introduction to Python, but the professors are adamant about not making that the purpose of the course. 6.00 teaches you to think like a computer scientist. Here is a sampling of topics from first quarter to demonstrate what that entails:
-- data structures,
-- iteration and recursion as computational metaphors,
-- abstraction of procedures and data types, organizing and modularizing systems using object classes and methods,
-- different classes and complexity of algorithms,
-- searching and sorting.
6.00 is huge. It fills the largest lecture hall on campus, 26-100, with a capacity of 566. But it isn’t even the largest Course 6 class: some fill 26-100 and have to be live-streamed in additional rooms!
Also, some of you may be familiar with this class by a different number. 6.00 is the sum of 6.0001 (Introduction to Computer Science Programming in Python, first quarter of 6.00) and 6.0002 (Introduction to Computational Thinking and Data Science, second quarter).
6.00 requires a lot of effort. In general, problem sets take me 8+ hours, with a max of ~20. The lengths of psets demonstrate the Lecture-Pset Divergence phenomenon, which is common at MIT: 6.00 lectures introduce basic concepts (e.g. "what a function looks like”) and the psets require the students to, say, program a whole game of Scrabble right after that.
While I may complain about the hours, I recognize that the problem sets contribute greatly to my learning. And, the most recent pset was about space cows—how cool is that? We've also had to program hangman and Scrabble. Making a working computer game on the 3rd week of class was quite empowering!
17.803 POLITICAL SCIENCE LABORATORY
Class Info and Benefits:
17.803, a required class for Political Science majors, truly prepares you for future research. It is also a class best taken at MIT, as the Institute is on the forefront of quantitative social science research. Because of this, 17.803 not only teaches the classical Regression method, but also four others. This isn’t common, as the four methods have only become popular in the past ten years or so (the downside of new methods: much of the older social science research is now considered kind of wrong).
17.803 is a class about political science research design, statistics, and R, the computer language of social scientists. It is not a humanities course, but rather a social science statistical lab. The past problems sets for the class have been about re-creating other political scientists’ work: justifying their assumptions, pointing out potential issues, and using their data to reconstruct figures and tables from the papers. I couldn’t think of a better way to practice the new material. And, at the end of the semester, we get to write our own research papers! I am currently working on mine, analyzing large data sets like the U.S. Census.
17.803 has made me appreciate my major (Political Science) even more by highlighting the complexities of causal inference (which are unfortunately ignored in media discussions of scientific studies). We have also read some fascinating papers, many by MIT political scientists, that answer questions like:
-- Do UN interventions cause peace? (only post-civil-conflict interventions, more here)
-- Does grassroots participation in corruption monitoring reduce corruption? (not really, as seen in Indonesia, more here)
-- Do charter schools improve students’ test scores? (the Massachusetts urban charter school do, but the non-urban charter schools actually reduce achievement from the baseline, more here)
-- Can foreign media reduce people's support for totalitarian regimes? (for East German residents, West German TV actually increased support for the regime, more here)
24.03 GOOD FOOD: THE ETHICS AND POLITICS OF FOOD
Here’s a sampling of class topics from the syllabus:
“In considering our food choices, we will discuss several specific moral issues:
-- What sorts of moral obligations, if any, do we have toward non-human animals?
-- How are our personal choices, e.g., about what to eat, related to global justice?
-- What is the state’s responsibility to provide reliable information to consumers?
-- Are we each individually morally required to take action to reduce global warming?”
If these questions sound interesting, 24.03 is the class is for you! It will change how you approach ethical dilemmas. Bonus links to two of the earlier readings for the class: "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" by Peter Singer and "Consider the Lobster" by David Foster Wallace.
Class Info and Workload:
The lectures are wonderful, taught by my role model Professor Sally Haslanger (in fact, I took the class because she was teaching it). The discussions are also great. The readings are in philosophy, but mostly political philosophy, so the class doesn’t get too abstract and is directly applicable to real life. Also, the readings are neither difficult nor partcularly time consuming—24.03 is an introductory Philosophy course.
Fair warning: the essays are great for practicing making philosophical arguments, but they do get abstract. Note to future freshmen: 24.03 is designated as communication intensive (CI-H), but is one of the larger CI-H classes, so, if you still need CI-H credit, you should definitely consider taking 24.03 in the spring. It doesn't fill up as fast as the smaller CI-H courses.
24.191 BEING, THINKING, DOING (OR NOT): ETHICS IN YOUR LIFE
Class Info and (sort of) Workload:
I call 24.191 the “dinner seminar.” As 6-unit elective graded on Pass/D/Fail, It doesn’t contribute much to my academic record. Still, I am taking it for the second time.
The basic structure of 24.191 is: come to class every Tuesday evening, eat fancy dinner, and listen to a cool speaker. The only assignments are: go to three events and write 300-word reflections about them. The events could be anything from a lecture by Noam Chomsky to an arts exhibition—the class actually encourages you to have cultured fun (and proves that not every MIT class is a challenge)!
Topics and Benefits:
Why even take 24.191? Well, beyond the free food and the fun requirements, it provides an overview of essential current topics. We get some pretty remarkable speakers every week, like:
-- Sally Haslanger: Ethics Boot camp (as noted earlier, Sally is an amazing person and a prominent professor; despite this, she communicates with students on a first-name basis)
-- Seth Mnookin: The Responsibility of the Media (Seth is the head of the Science Writing program at MIT, one of about 4 Science Writing programs in the country; he has published pieces in outlets like Wired, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, and won the American Medical Writers Association Award for Excellence in Medical Writing for this piece in The New Yorker, which is my favorite ever example of longform journalism)
-- Chris Robichaud, Harvard Kennedy School: Post-Truth Politics (Chris had a popular MOOC about truth and bullshit, the latter of which he considers an appropriate and important scientific term; he is also first recipient of the Innovations in Teaching Award at the Harvard Kennedy School)
-- Myisha Cherry, Harvard University Dept of Philosophy: Political Anger (Myisha is the creator of the UnMute Podcast about using philosophy to address real-world issues; she has written for The Huffington Post, Enterpreneur.com, and Salon.com; she is also a former music reviewer and has appeared on BET).
-- Juergen Scheffran, Hamburg University, Germany: Military Research and Nuclear Disarmament (Professor Scheffran is the head of the Research Group on Climate Change and Security at the Cluster of Excellence CliSAP, Universität Hamburg)
WGS.151 GENDER, HEALTH, AND SOCIETY
WGS.151 is perfect for pre-med students interested in epidemiological research, or medical research in general. Although the first word in the course title is "gender," the class is focused more on how to do epidemiological research overall, with gender as a theme. We read and discuss papers on topics like cardiovascular disease and hormone therapy, pregnancy and birth, gender identity and expression, and abortion. We then learn how to conduct similarly good epidemiological studies. The final project for the class is a proposal for your own original study.
Another awesome point about the class: the professor is also an instructor at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital. After all that, she comes to teach at MIT 7-10pm every Monday!
After taking WGS.151, I highly recommend everyone to check out WGS courses, especially if you are pre-med. WGS.151 (and WGS.229, which is discussed next) have piqued my interest in the medical field, and I plan to explore it more through summer UROPs. MIT proves WGS classes do not have to be abstract and useless; they can be based on good quantitative research with important implications for, say, public health—this is a technical school, after all.
WGS.229 RACE, CULTURE, AND GENDER IN THE US AND BEYOND: A PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE
The instructor for this class is amazing (as are all my instructors, really). She works at the VA (Veterans’ Administration) during the day and then travels 1+ hours to MIT for a 7-10pm class (half of my classes this semester are in the evening, which means that most people I schedule day meetings with probably think I’m a slacker).
The class itself is amazing too. Like 24.03 and 24.191, it helps you rethink life. However, unlike the philosophy courses, it backs its life lessons with rigorous clinical research on human development and interactions.
In WGS.229, you will learn how to communicate with anyone about complex topics like race, culture, gender, and politics in general. You will learn to interpret your own identity and development. And you will learn to understand people and organizations better. Bonus: you will also start your path towards becoming a psychologist or other healthcare professional.
All of these are soft skills that, as research shows, are more likely to lead to promotion than technical skills. Thus, even if you aren’t passionate about issues of race and gender, or about the field of psychology, this class is worth taking in order to thrive in an increasingly multicultural workplace. I have been changed by WGS.229—not many classes can do that for a student!
Another bonus: for our first WGS.229 essay, we had to take and analyze several Implicit Association Tests (IATs), which you can also take and read about here.
Note: if you can't take WGS.229 in the spring, you can take WGS.228 Psychology of Sex and Gender with the same professor in the fall, where you will learn many of the same essential skills.
Other bloggers have written about their classes this year as well! Check out the linked posts by Joonho K. '20 (on freshman spring), Anelise N. '19 (on costume design class), Fiona M. '20 (on glassblowing class), Erick P. '17 (42!), Anelise N. '19 (on studying Spanish in Madrid), Alexa J. '20 (on freshman IAP and spring), Ben O. '19 (on studying Chinese), Abby H. '20 (on studying history in Greece), Joonho K. '20 (on IAP), Allan K. '17 (on senior fall), Krystal L. '17 (also on senior fall), Joonho K. '20 (on freshman fall, yay PNR!), Phoebe C. '18 (on junior fall), and Allan K. '17 (notes from senior fall). Links arranged chronologically.