As a freshman you will probably be taking two sciences, a math, and a humanities class. The sciences and maths are pretty standard fare; you’ll have a couple classes to choose from based on the results of your placement tests, APs, and whether you’d prefer Chem or Bio first semester. On the other hand, you’re given an enormous amount of variety to select your humanities, arts, and social sciences (HASS) class from.
Whereas the science and math classes are arranged after you arrive to MIT, rising freshmen enter a lottery during the summer for their HASS course preferences. There are some really exciting classes that are available for freshmen to take. I had a hard time selecting my top preferences; I was torn between 24.02, Moral Problems and the Good Life, and 21H.001, How to Stage a Revolution. On the one hand, Moral Problems sounded like a really awesome debate class, touching on subjects like objective goods, rational desire, and pleasure. On the other hand, How to Stage a Revolution* has the coolest course name in all of academia.** It’s a history class where students analyze “fundamental questions about the causes and nature of revolutions.”
*An aside: My classmates in senior year voted me most likely to lead a revolution.
**Aside II: It was even submitted to reddit.com, and no, not by me, not even by an MIT person.
In the end the lottery granted me 24.02, but this conflicted with my chemistry lecture. As I mentioned before my advisor was really good about, well, advising me on what to do. I “shopped” around by attending some HASS lectures of classes that fit my schedule. I looked into three courses, but the only one that really stood out to me was 21L.011, The Film Experience. I emailed the professor about signing a form that would officially enter me into the class, and he replied that it wouldn’t be a problem. A couple days later and my online schedule reflected the change—conflict successfully resolved!
The class is amazing. On Tuesdays there are two lectures about the history of film and particular directors’ styles. Professor Thorburn usually throws in some short film clips in his lectures to illustrate the points as he’s making them. On Tuesday evenings after the last lecture the teaching staff screens the week’s movie. We’re not required to stay for the movies since they usually run past 10:30pm, and the staff also makes sure that every movie is available in the Film Office. On Thursdays we have recitation sections in much smaller groups of students. My section has something like 15 people in it, which provides for a great environment to have an open discussion about aspects of the films of the week. My recitation leader is also a published writer of fiction, so it’s not like a bunch of college students talking about random things. The recitations are free-form but directed.
About every month we have a paper due on one of about 30 topics (or you can make your own). The fantastic thing about the papers, though, is that there’s effectively a week-long grace period for turning them in. If you hand in your paper before the grace period starts, you will get your paper back with comments and a preliminary grade before the grace period is over. You can choose to revise your paper with these comments in mind, as long as your turn it in before the week is over. Your preliminary grade disappears and is replaced with the grade of the revision. This really helped me on the first essay, since I had a big decision to make about the direction of my paper. I talked to my recitation leader and she was very helpful with my revision. Unfortunately, this revision policy isn’t uniform across HASS classes, and it would be pretty difficult to identify the courses that offer it (it’s not in the syllabi or course descriptions).
Overall, though, the best thing about the class has to be the movies. I mean, we get to watch great films by legendary directors like Chaplin, Keaton, Capra, and Hitchcock for credit. And the way Prof. Thorburn puts each movie in context truly makes it an experience, more than just entertainment. We get the stories behind the films, the “inside scoop” on the way they utilized new film technology or the camera techniques and plot devices the legends used to turn Hollywood on its head. And in the end, if you can really savor a film (or a book for that matter), writing a paper about it isn’t as much a chore as it is a reconfirmation of your bond with the work. That sounds sappy, but it’s true. It’s so easy for me to write about Buster Keaton where I had trouble in high school writing about, say, The English Patient. All in all, 21L.011 is turning out to be an awesome experience, and I look forward to the movies we’ll watch throughout the remainder of the semester.