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a few new things by Alan Z. '23

is it too late to talk about the spring semester?

I have a confession to make, which is that I’ve started this post at least five times in the past few months, but never gotten around to finishing it. Every time I’ve started it, I’ve gotten caught up in this overwhelming sense that I need to talk about all the difficulties of spring semester in order to present you an honest picture of life at MIT. There is no real way, however, for me to talk you through exactly how difficult spring semester was without getting into very detailed specifics about my personal life, and I can’t really do that for a whole host of reasons. So, I start the post, I write a few sentences, and then within a day or two, I decide to trash it and delete it permanently, and move on with my life.

The reason I keep coming back to this blog post, however, is that even in the corners of otherwise miserable semesters, there can be spots of joy. I had a lot of new feelings and experiences during my spring semester, and it always feels like a pity that I have all these little stories stocked up on the shelf with nowhere to go. So, although the storm which surrounds them cannot be tamed into a coherent narrative, here are a few of those stories.01 some author's notes: this is probably a combination of every blog I would've written during the semester, if I'd had time, so it's pretty long; feel free to skip to the sections you find interesting. also, because I've already trashed so many drafts of this post, I'm scared that if I spend too much time editing it, I'll trash it again, so it's probably less well-put-together or well-edited than other posts. sorry!

changing majors

I entered MIT intending to be a double major in Course 21W02 writing! and 18C.03 18 is mathematics; 18C is mathematics with computer science. Upon arriving, however, I quickly discovered that I actually liked programming a lot and wanted to do more of it, and so, in freshman spring, I changed my plans to declaring 6-304 computer science and engineering and 21S, a joint program that allows you to combine any humanities field with any sciences field, which I would use to combine 18 and 21W.

This was the plan for two years, starting from freshman spring. Every semester, I would register for some classes in 18, some classes in 21W, and some classes in 6, and slowly, but surely, I was working towards completing my degrees. So, this spring, I registered for a math seminar, one of the higher-level math courses which also happens to satisfy one of MIT’s communication requirements.

This particular class, 18.704, was a seminar in algebra, and our topic for the semester was “Fourier Analysis on Finite Groups.” This set of words probably means very little to you,05 and if it does mean something to you, I am sorry for what I am about to say next. and, to be honest, it still means very little to me. I started out in the class just slightly behind, my memories of 18.70106 (abstract) algebra I still a little rusty from disuse, but, over the course of the first few weeks of the class, I began to fall further and further behind on the content. I tried to catch up over the weekends, but I was busy and tired, and, simultaneously, I found myself becoming more and more disillusioned with the course itself. I mean, what was the point? Why was I there? Who cares about Fourier analysis on finite groups?

I had experienced an inkling of this feeling in previous math courses, but I had always found some attribute to appreciate in those cases, in spite of the abstractness. 18.100B07 real analysis was fascinating in its rigor. 18.701 was entrancing in the way its mathematical structures interacted. 18.704 lacked that same veneer; I was there only because it satisfied a major requirement, and I couldn’t find the energy to care about it as much as my other classes: even 7.05, a biochemistry class which had no relation to what I want to do in the future, took a higher priority.

So, for the first time at MIT, after a particularly long Saturday, I dropped the class. I had gone five semesters without having dropped a class, and I had finally done it, and I didn’t feel happy, but I was, at the very least, relieved. I had created some room for me to breathe.

The question remained whether or not I wanted to continue with the math part of my degree. At the very least, I knew 18.704 was not for me, but part of me wanted to keep going, wanted to stick to this path which I’d been walking for two-and-a-half years. Maybe this class just wasn’t for me; maybe some other class might be better. I had this sneaking suspicion, however, that this motivation to keep going was a sort of stubbornness, borne out of a mistaken belief that CS was “too easy” and that writing was “too impractical,” and math—well, math was right in between these two.

In order to further investigate the answer to this question, I decided to look at the classes which remained in my future, and to pick out the ones I was really excited about. 21W.740, Writing Autobiography and Biography. 6.5900,08 nobody has blogged about this yet, as far as I'm aware, but they're renumbering all the Course 6 classes. this class was formerly known as 6.823. Computer System Architecture. 21W.ThU, the Undergraduate Writing Thesis. 6.5831,09 the class formerly known as 6.814 or 6.830. Database Systems. When I looked through the Course 18 catalog, nothing really piqued my fancy—or, at least, not in quite the same way.

So, finally joining a long tradition of people reconsidering their majors,10 during this process, I did briefly consider switching to 21S with 7 (Biology), which is consistent with everybody else's existential crises about their majors. I dropped the math part of my 21S major, and became a pure 21W major.11 I actually haven't filed the forms for doing this yet because of <em>reasons</em>. I...should get on that.

There are people who love math, and I don’t begrudge them. Doing mathematics for mathematics’ sake is perhaps just as reasonable as doing art for art’s sake. I think I have come to terms, however, with the fact that I am not that kind of person, or, perhaps, I am not the same person I was when I declared 21S, all those semesters ago. Either way, I suppose, that is fine.

next act

Every year,12 except the last two, for the obvious reasons. Next House puts on a musical during CPW! It’s one of the many traditions that drew me to Next House, along with its truly incredible 2019 i3 video,13 I have gone on a mission to watch every Next House i3 video available, and one day I will write a blog post about it—but that day is not today. a parody of “Thank U, Next.” This year’s production was The Drowsy Chaperone, a musical comedy that is essentially an over-developed inside joke about the entire landscape of musical theatre.

Before Next Act, I hadn’t been in a musical since my sixth grade music class, where I played King Arthur in a Boomwhacker-inspired version of the ‘Sword in the Stone’ myth called Joust!,14 I didn’t realize quite how unhinged that description would be until I wrote it, but I promise <a href="https://www.halleonard.com/product/9971409/joust">it’s real</a>. a memory so suppressed that for the first half of the production I could’ve sworn that Next Act was the first musical I’d ever been in. I had initially intended to merely play in the pit orchestra, both because I’ve always really enjoyed playing in pit orchestras and because Jeffery Y. ’22, a close friend of mine,15 and, at this point, a <a href="https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/some-iap-adventures/">recurring</a> <a href="https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/unsubscribe/">character</a> in my blog posts. was conducting. Then, one evening, after spending four consecutive hours in the Next House Dining Hall chatting with friends, I decided to audition on a whim, mostly because having more audition experience is always good. I went in, sang some bars of “Maria” from West Side Story, sight-read some music, read some lines, had some fun, and that was it, right? Fifteen minutes of my life well-spent.

A few days later, I learned that, only thirteen people had auditioned, and there were thirteen named roles in the show.

It turns out that the easiest way to get me to do something is to convince me that I am either somehow needed or that I am the best person to do the job. This is one of those sort of hubristic character traits of mine that probably deserves a little more self-reflection, but, alas, this is not that kind of blog post. I went to callbacks, and I got a part.

Thus began the six-week process16 I did a double-take when I checked my calendar for this. We did this in six weeks? of putting together a whole musical from the ground up, from lines to vocals to choreo to orchestra rehearsals to building the stage to literally everything else you can imagine. I got to play Underling, who is a butler who is always just slightly annoyed, and whose main role in the show is to bring water on and off stage at convenient moments and say “yes, madam,”17 and, in one particularly exciting scene, to stand there and receive four or five spit-takes without reacting. which, in retrospect, was perfect casting. The process was arduous and often frustrating, combining the stresses of MIT with the stresses of trying to put a show together for the first time in three years; our first full run didn’t come until the night before our first performance. It took a lot out of all of us.

Despite—or perhaps because of—this, the actual performances were exhilarating. There were hiccups,18 in particular, during one performance, I managed to shatter a glass on stage, which was utterly mortifying but remarkably recovered by one of the other actors. as there always are, but it was so much fun performing in front of both prefrosh and people we knew, and it was even more fun to be performing with these people I’d been rehearsing with for weeks, some of whom I’d known for a long time, and some of whom I’d just met. Every performance, we’d go on stage, do our best, and we’d celebrate each small victory, each scene completed, each solo sung, and, at the end of the day, we’d take our bows and celebrate. Over the course of those six weeks, we’d managed to make something together.

Going into the semester, Next Act had never been considered as part of the plan—I’d never acted or danced, and I certainly didn’t have the time to learn.19 to be clear, I still can't really act or dance. it was good enough for the show, though. Looking back at it, I am so, so glad it happened, and to have had something a little different and new as part of my semester.

leadership

I’ve been involved with Asymptones and Next Exec20 the board that governs Next House for most of my MIT career now, but this semester I picked up the helm of co-music director (MD) for Asymptones, as well as the presidency of Next House. This was very daunting—and, to be honest, still kind of is—but it was a challenge I wanted to take on. I had goals I wanted to accomplish, and I felt like, for the most part, I had the necessary skills to do the job.

Going into the semester, I conceptualized both positions as consisting of two distinct tasks: one was to run efficient meetings and rehearsals, while the other was to plan an achievable timeline for what needed to be done when, and by whom. I felt pretty confident about the timelines part of the job, having run nREXt and managed heavy workloads in the past. I also felt like I had the technical skills necessary for each individual position; I had enough singing experience to be an MD, and enough email-writing and delegation experience to run Next Exec. All of this was fine.

The one thing which terrified me was running meetings. I’ve never been a very outspoken person, and being “in charge,” in whatever sense that meant, seemed like a mortifying ordeal. Being able to guide a group through a meeting or a rehearsal while also providing space for people to express their own thoughts and feelings and to have some amount of fun seemed like an extremely difficult task, and not one suited to a socially anxious person like me.

I had to do it, though, and so I did. Every week, we had an Asymptones rehearsal and a Next Exec meeting, and, every week, I would go in terrified and emerge feeling that it had mostly gone okay. Through these okay rehearsals and meetings, the semester itself ended up going pretty well. In both cases, the things that needed to be done got done. The Asymptones performed at the CPW acapella concert and put on a spring concert, complete with skits. Next House had its first CPW since 2019, ran an upperclassmen housing lottery, had some social events, and we made sure the house didn’t fall down, which was great! On the surface, everything went fine. I was satisfied with our performance in a difficult semester and through some serious challenges.21 read: COVID.

Despite this, I am still not sure whether I am doing a good job in either of these positions. In both cases, there were additional tasks that could have been completed, improvements that could have been made, and I wonder whether being more on top of things would’ve allowed us to function more efficiently, or if we are simply constrained by all of our busy schedules. I am still terrified of running meetings, still unsure about how to create an atmosphere where everybody feels welcome to contribute and excited to engage, still scared of making decisions that do not adequately balance people’s interests. How do we make sure people are excited to learn their music? How do I make sure that everybody feels heard at an Exec meeting, and that when I ask a question, it is not greeted by silence?

I’d like to be able to say that I have grown a lot as a leader in the last semester, but I’m not sure that I have. I think that I have gotten better at running things, or that I have gotten slightly more comfortable leading meetings and rehearsals, but I am not sure where those changes have come from, or the extent to which they are significant. And, although I know that the perfect is the enemy of the good, I also can’t help but continue to evaluate whether the small negative parts of this semester could have been resolved by better leadership, and, conversely, whether the successes of this semester had anything to do with my leadership at all. All of these questions are uncertainties wrapped in uncertainties, and I am not sure if they can ever be answered, but part of me also believes that evaluating them is part of the way to become a better leader. That, too, could be wrong.

The only thing which I am confident about is that I am glad to have spent time actively serving these two communities which have meant a lot to me during my time at MIT, and I am glad to feel that I have grown at least a little. I’ll be continuing these positions in the fall, and picking up a new one, in the form of the DormCon22 the student group which governs all dormitory execs! Vice Presidency, and I will be continuing to puzzle out these questions as I go.

barbershop

Of the many new things this semester, this is perhaps the most frivolous one. The exact order of events is hazy, but the following three events happened in some order:

  1. I got really into barbershop.
  2. My roommate, Tong Z. ’22, got really into barbershop.
  3. My roommate, two other members of our wing, and I decided to learn a moderately obscene song that is arranged in the style of a barbershop quartet, as a meme.

These three facts resulted in this virtuous cycle where the four of us—especially Tong and I—got ever-increasingly further into this genre of music, occasionally sight-singing easier pieces or tags23 the fancy bit at the end of a barbershop quartet whenever we had the time and wanted to blow off some steam. We weren’t good at it, per se, but we had a lot of fun, and I can now eagerly recommend you a set of barbershop videos to watch.24 my favorites are Instant Classic's 'You've Gotta Change Parts' and 'Route 66/Take the A Train', Vocal Spectrum's 'Good Vibrations' and 'Go the Distance', and The Newfangled Four's 'Bananaphone,' to name a few.

One particularly famous tag is the one at the end of the Ringmasters’ Notre Dame medley, which caps off an already incredible performance. Now, none of us have quite the technical chops25 no, I cannot hold an A4 for twenty seconds; I can barely do nine or ten to pull it off at the level of an internationally-recognized quartet, but that’s not going to stop us from trying to sightread it:

There’s not much more to say about this, except for that I think it’s pretty fantastic to be able to make music together in the middle of your living group, just a few feet away from your room, and I was glad to be doing more of it spontaneously. We’re not perfect—heck, we’re not even good, really—but we’re having a lot of fun, and that is what matters.

being proud of writing

I had a few writing projects come to fruition this semester! In my playwriting class, I wrote a third draft of the play I had spent all of last semester working on, and then, in April, just after CPW, it got a staged reading, with a professional director and professional actors.

This was the first time anything I’d written had been performed in public, and I was terrified, but I was also excited to have it out there, and to be known, in some sense. Perhaps unadvisedly, I sent an invitation to my entire dorm mailing list, hoping that I’d get at least a few people to come and see the thing I’d made. The director, stage manager, actors, and I went through just three hours of rehearsal in the afternoon, from 4 PM to 7 PM, and then, after a quick dinner, the public performance began at 8 PM. For fifty-five minutes, we sat in the dark, and watched a story that I had written unfold.

Hold Me (But Not Too Close) is not an easy play to watch. The characters are realistic, but awkward, and they are incredibly good at making bad decisions. It is an especially difficult play to watch when you are not quite sure if the people in the room are cringing because of the characters’ choices, or if they are cringing because the writing is bad. By the time my nerves died down and I was finally able to just sit and enjoy the play, it had already gotten to the most gut-wrenching part, which proceeded to emotionally destroy me, as usual.

I felt very uncertain up until the very last line of the play. I knew that I had put together a story which had made me feel a lot of things, but I was completely unsure if it had the same effect on the audience. After the play ended, however, lots of people—from close friends to distant acquaintances—came down and told me that they’d enjoyed the play, or that they’d cried watching it, or, in one case, that it had felt like a “personal attack.” There were hugs, and flowers, and, for the first time, I felt happy about a piece of fiction I had written. There were still changes to be made—pacing to be altered, scenes to be re-written—but, at the core, I had produced a piece of work that was worth something, and that was a new and rare feeling.

I also took 21W.771, Advanced Poetry Workshop, this semester, which was a little bit of a different endeavor, although no less enjoyable. Every week, everyone would bring in a poem, and, in turn, each person would read their poem aloud, and we would all respond to the poems aloud. We went through forms in turn—the aubade, the pantoum,26 a form I struggled with so much I wrote five and still liked none of them the sonnet, the sestina, so on and so forth—and as we went, I could feel my poetry getting better, could see the ways I was starting to use more inventive language and to weave together more complex wholes. Every time someone picked out something I had snuck into a poem during workshop—an allusion, perhaps, or a particular word or meaning—I felt vindicated, ever more certain that I was on the right path.

I have always liked poetry and the way it can take a reader by the hand and twirl them around, and this semester, I finally started to feel like I could do that too.27 in order to capitalize on this feeling, I ran a twelve-week ten-poem poetry workshop this summer with some MIT friends, and, although we had our ups and downs, I am very glad it happened, and I have some good poems to show for it—but maybe more on that later. When it came time to read through our final portfolios, I was happy and surprised to see how complex and coherent it felt, and I was happy and surprised about how happy I felt.

I suppose that it should not be surprising that someone studying writing would slowly get better at it, or that they might get happier with their writing over time. I am, however, still surprised and overjoyed that it has happened to me in particular, and that it seems to be well-received by others as well—not because that is the primary goal, but rather because part of writing is being able to precisely communicate a feeling to someone else, and I am glad that I am finally starting to achieve that. There is still much work to be done, and much to be learned, but, at the very least, this feels like a big step in the right direction.


what’s next?

I think one of the most important things about MIT is that there are genuinely so many ways to be happy, but if you try to do all of them at once, you will probably be very sad. I did a lot of new things in the spring, and they were all good for me in different ways, but I do sometimes wonder if I could’ve been better off doing less. After all, I’ve found a lot of joy in the relaxed freedom of this summer.

On the other hand, while working on this post, I found a note in a journal entry from Next Act tech week, a few days before the first performance of the show and a week before the staged reading of my play. It read:

The question occurs: is this what you want to be doing with your one wild and precious life? Somehow, it seems, the answer is yes. Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised by the lack of regret, but it is an interesting belief to note. I am so tired, and everything is so stressful, but at least I’m happy enough.

I’m still not entirely sure where the balance lies; I am always pulled towards the option of doing more things, taking on more responsibilities, getting busier and busier and busier. Maybe it will be okay, regardless; maybe, as long as I genuinely care about the things I am doing, and I am not so overwhelmed that I am losing sleep or losing friends, I will be happy. Only time will tell. In the meantime, I’ll make sure to keep trying new things.

  1. some author's notes: this is probably a combination of every blog I would've written during the semester, if I'd had time, so it's pretty long; feel free to skip to the sections you find interesting. also, because I've already trashed so many drafts of this post, I'm scared that if I spend too much time editing it, I'll trash it again, so it's probably less well-put-together or well-edited than other posts. sorry! back to text
  2. writing! back to text
  3. 18 is mathematics; 18C is mathematics with computer science. back to text
  4. computer science and engineering back to text
  5. and if it does mean something to you, I am sorry for what I am about to say next. back to text
  6. (abstract) algebra I back to text
  7. real analysis back to text
  8. nobody has blogged about this yet, as far as I'm aware, but they're renumbering all the Course 6 classes. this class was formerly known as 6.823. back to text
  9. the class formerly known as 6.814 or 6.830. back to text
  10. during this process, I did briefly consider switching to 21S with 7 (Biology), which is consistent with everybody else's existential crises about their majors. back to text
  11. I actually haven't filed the forms for doing this yet because of reasons. I...should get on that. back to text
  12. except the last two, for the obvious reasons. back to text
  13. I have gone on a mission to watch every Next House i3 video available, and one day I will write a blog post about it—but that day is not today. back to text
  14. I didn’t realize quite how unhinged that description would be until I wrote it, but I promise it’s real. back to text
  15. and, at this point, a recurring character in my blog posts. back to text
  16. I did a double-take when I checked my calendar for this. We did this in six weeks? back to text
  17. and, in one particularly exciting scene, to stand there and receive four or five spit-takes without reacting. back to text
  18. in particular, during one performance, I managed to shatter a glass on stage, which was utterly mortifying but remarkably recovered by one of the other actors. back to text
  19. to be clear, I still can't really act or dance. it was good enough for the show, though. back to text
  20. the board that governs Next House back to text
  21. read: COVID. back to text
  22. the student group which governs all dormitory execs! back to text
  23. the fancy bit at the end of a barbershop quartet back to text
  24. my favorites are Instant Classic's 'You've Gotta Change Parts' and 'Route 66/Take the A Train', Vocal Spectrum's 'Good Vibrations' and 'Go the Distance', and The Newfangled Four's 'Bananaphone,' to name a few. back to text
  25. no, I cannot hold an A4 for twenty seconds; I can barely do nine or ten back to text
  26. a form I struggled with so much I wrote five and still liked none of them back to text
  27. in order to capitalize on this feeling, I ran a twelve-week ten-poem poetry workshop this summer with some MIT friends, and, although we had our ups and downs, I am very glad it happened, and I have some good poems to show for it—but maybe more on that later. back to text