Skip to content ↓

Pigeonholing by Paige B. '24

boxes = semesters, pigeons = classes

Alan and I have been taking a class together this semester: 21W.740: Writing Autobiography and Biography. I really thought I would enjoy the class. This is due to a few reasons:

Firstly, I have never had a semester at MIT where I didn’t want to be taking the classes I was taking. This is a somewhat privileged position to be in (and given some of those classes are GIRs, this may be somewhat shocking), and I had naively hoped that this streak would continue.

Furthermore, I enjoyed the introductory version of this class, 21W.022.01 Writing and Experience: Reading and Writing Autobiography In fact, I loved this class. It was my introduction to writing that wasn’t the five paragraph + thesis form. Sure, before this class I was blogging here and there, but I had never learned about this form of writing structurally, and man was this class a fun way to do so.

Finally, this class seemed like the perfect opportunity to simply write more. Writing while at MIT has been exactly the right outlet to contemplate on my experiences here. I sit down, go to (the most useful website shortcut frankly), and put thought to (digital) paper. Before this semester, I was finding it very difficult to find the time to write though. This isn’t an anomaly, it’s hard to find time to do anything  extra02 i.e. non-academic, unpaid, etc. while at MIT, but it was still rather frustrating. So why not take a class that requires me to write– why not take a class that lets me write in one of my favorite genres?

And yet,03 as you may have gathered by the use of past tense so far I’ve decided to drop the class. This decision came after days of debating whether or not I should, and it wasn’t an easy decision for a few more reasons:

Firstly, Alan and I are currently the only ones taking the class. Alan is taking the class “tO gRaDUaTe”, so they can’t exactly just drop the class (nor do they particularly want to from what I gather), but for me it’s just a HASS-A,04 arts graduation requirement and there are plenty of cool HASS-A’s available to take here. This might’ve been what the other students who started in the class thought too, because the class started with about ten people on the first day, then immediately became five by the next, then three, and now the class is just us two. Alan, Professor Ken Manning, and me. I didn’t particularly want to abandon them.

Furthermore, I have already written about twenty pages for this class. In reality, this isn’t an insane amount, but other classes I’ve taken at MIT have had at most 20 pages of writing, and those were for communication-intensive classes (CI-H’s). I’ve enjoyed writing these pages, but it feels like so much for (in my opinion) so little in return. I was hoping for a more personal writing workshop. 

Finally, taking classes outside of your major/that don’t have problemsets due every week is a good way to help prevent burnout and introduces some variation in your life. Though in general, it’s a good idea to keep taking HASS classes, at least one per semester (though self-indulging in numerous HASSes can also be a fun time). This is as, to graduate, you need to take eight humanities courses. If you do the math, that’s at least one per semester of the traditional eight semesters in undergrad, so regularly taking at one isn’t the worst idea.

This last point has been making me think about the mathematical proof strategy known as The Pigeonhole Principle. The concept via an example: suppose you have thirteen friends. You would then know that at least two of them share the same birth month, as there are only twelve months in the year. Similarly, if you have 53 friends, you know that at least two of them share the same birth week. Or, if you have 367 friends (accounting for the leap year), then perhaps you have too many friends. You get the point: if you have more boxes (i.e. months/weeks) then you have pigeons to stuff into those boxes (i.e. friends), then at least two of those pigeons must share a box. Hence the phrase, pigeonholing.05 was putting pigeons into holes really so important that it needed its own phrase in the English language? I digress.

I have four semesters (including this one) left here at MIT, and I still have four HASS classes I need to take to graduate. If I don’t take one this semester, then at least two classes must happen during the same semester.

This isn’t the worst thing– I don’t mean to imply that it is. There are plenty of fun, interesting HASS classes to take here, and plenty I want to take before I graduate. My point is: oh my god I’m running out of semesters to take classes at MIT. Soon, I will need a job, and an apartment, and to pay bills (though frankly every email I get from student financial services gives me a minor heart attack so that won’t be terribly new).

Does this mean I should take a million classes so I don’t miss out on some cool class/opportunity? No, I don’t think so. If this was the case, then perhaps I wouldn’t have decided to drop the autobiographies class. But I did drop the class, for a few more reasons:

Firstly, I just wasn’t enjoying it. Yes, it is a somewhat privileged position to be able to only take classes that you want to while at MIT, but this position is (for the most part) due to my own creation. I have actively scouted for classes with good evaluations and ones with material that sounds interesting to me, and have dropped a few classes early on which didn’t seem worth the effort. The autobiographies class was different in this regard. With math, unless it’s a seminar/topics class, most often classes will follow a specific book or will start from the ground up. The subject matter interested me immensely, but there are so many ways to teach a class like this, and as much as I liked Ken I didn’t like this approach to the class.

Furthermore, I have plenty of reasons to write now. On the one hand, being a blogger pays off (literally and figuratively), and this was just enough incentive to start writing more regularly. In fact, I think since the semester started I’ve written a blogpost nearly weekly and my mental health has drastically improved. I’ve also been needing to spend more time reflecting on my time at MIT so far, and how I want to spend the upcoming time, and this sort of contemplation (for me) works best through writing things down.

Finally, this semester more than ever before I have found myself with more extracurriculars than classes. I’m an undergraduate assistant for a class, I’m in the process of starting a math club, I’m blogging, I’m talking with professors more– I’m getting more out of MIT than classes. Sure classes at MIT are pigeonholing themselves into the (very few) semesters I have left here, but the real pigeonholing that is going on is activities. There are only so many hours in the day (boxes), and there are so many activities I can be doing (pigeons).

I look forward to seeing which pigeons I’m able to shove into boxes.

P.S. Sorry for dropping the class Alan.

  1. Writing and Experience: Reading and Writing Autobiography back to text
  2. i.e. non-academic, unpaid, etc. back to text
  3. as you may have gathered by the use of past tense so far back to text
  4. arts graduation requirement back to text
  5. was putting pigeons into holes really so important that it needed its own phrase in the English language? I digress. back to text