It’s October. Cambridge is cozily snuggled into the cusp of a cold front, the air is crisp like tempura in the cracks of a deep-fried broccoli flower, and the crunchiness of autumn tingles with the sound of freshmen beating themselves up on every sun-swept corner of campus.
Perhaps you were expecting something like “Freshmen baking apple pies” or “Freshmen cavorting in freshly-raked piles of leaves”. In this case, please allow me to redirect you up the river*.
(*I’m kidding! Please don’t take away my website!)
Here at MIT, the Infinite Corridor has been ringing with an unearthly chorus of low self-esteem for the past week. Take a moment’s breath to stop and listen in the 10 minutes between classes, and the MIT Class of 2012 will treat you to a rousing litany of Academic Failure’s Greatest Hits, including “Never Got to Finish Biology Test, Part 5”, “Stupid Computation Error”, “Got Ditched by the Born Exponent”, “Blues in F, Formerly a Key but Now My Math Grade”, “Solid State Chemistry of Fractures (in My Shattered Nerves)” and “8.012 Took My Soul (and Graded It and Gave It Back to Me on Tuesday)”.
You guessed it: MIT just dumped its first round of tests on the undumped-upon freshmen. It’s been a rough week all around. In fact, I couldn’t even tell you the frictional coefficient of this week. Imagine this: Friday night is zipping by like a shiny silver segway after you’ve just trudged through three or four exams . . . except that you’re segwaying yourself straight into a concrete slab of thick, stubborn Problem Sets. Segways don’t have airbags. But, for a few swift hours, you’re blissfully free to cruise along, guarded from the edge of abysmal anxiety by a fence named Pass/ No Record.
That’s right. Technically, none of us can fail a single class this semester. I distinctly remember hearing about Pass/No Record almost exactly one year ago at an MIT info session, and I believe my response was “Cool, I wonder if the students go bowling a lot.”
The answer is yes, but only a very specific version of bowling in which the balls are actually test papers and the scattered pins are our battered, deflated expectations.
So here’s the crux of the issue: If you’re a freshman here, you are most likely accustomed to nesting in the gleaming lofts of the Grading Hotel, in Room 99 or 100 or (dare I say) 105, each with a spectacular view of the bell curve, obscuring the misshapen C’s and F’s far off in the statistical distance. Your class ranking in high school was a one-digit prime number, and scarcely did you meet another student who matched your intellectual caliber (even so, you only saw them at the state math competitions once or twice or twelve times a year, depending on how much you liked math). Sometimes, you wondered if you could affect weather patterns in Singapore merely by thinking about it really hard, just because your astute brainpower is practically a physical force (you consider proving this experimentally next Saturday).
And then you come to MIT, where relativity is not just a theory but a devastating mode of reality. With heartstopping suddenness, you discover that your intelligence is no longer in an inertial frame of reference. Your calculations begin to break down; you try but cannot define a coordinate system in which to evaluate Amount of Work Input vs. Grade Output. There’s only one absolute: by inherent and terrifyingly immutable definition, half the students at MIT must be below average in their class. You start to wonder if you’ve slipped onto the other side of the bell curve.
This, in essence, is my theory of why pass/no record thinly obscures a subtle undercurrent of rampant paranoia. At some level, nearly everyone tries to cling on to the crumbling remnants of their high school success as they’re swept by unforgiving tides headlong into deep unfamiliarity and long integrals.
But hey, I guess that’s enough pedantry. I’ll freely admit to giving an impressive rendition of “(Almost) Never Got to Finish Biology Test, Part Five” last weekend, which segued tunefully into the melody of “Stupid Computation Errors” (it’s infectiously catchy). Here’s the story: I studied. I went to recitations. I took notes while Eric Lander was lecturing. I took notes while Eric Lander was most likely curing cancer. I read the textbook, including the diagram captions and including the imaginary captions that mysteriously appeared for some of the diagrams at 2 AM in the morning*. I went to the office hours of multiple TA’s for 29 hours per day and then lied about it on my blog.
(*I plan to amass a fortune someday by publishing a book of dinosaur comics, except with variously cryptic scientific diagrams instead of dinosaurs.)
Had I oxidized so many of my beloved energy molecules in preparing for a biology test in high school, I would have received a 120% and possibly a card on my birthday. I’m not in high school. I got a B.
It’s been one week since, and never have I cared less about grades. Mistakes or not, I internalized more biology-related data in three weeks than I did in one full year of high school, and I now understand textbook biology thoroughly enough to fool your three best friends into believing my 100%-fabricated explanations for why genetics works, unless your three best friends are named Watson, Crick, and Rosalind Franklin. Somehow, nothing else feels significant.
And the final pedantic message: MIT is hard. Life is hard. A crystal formed from carbon atoms arranged in a single isometric-hexoctahedral lattice is hard. In all three, there’s better properties to focus on.