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MIT student blogger Karen F. '11

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Physics by Karen F. '11

A short novel.

I’m going to be honest – The first five academic weeks here were not a pleasant experience. You all smile about this whole firehose analogy, thinking that it sounds fantastic and you’d love it and you can’t wait to try it.

But actually, the transition can be pretty painful.

I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be.

That’s right. You don’t have to be an academic masochist.

Wait, what’s that? You like doing all that work for classes you’ll never need and don’t even like instead of spending your time doing things you love? No you don’t.

Admission officers and bloggers have spent a lot of time and effort preaching to you about your high school activities and life: Spend your time with things you’re passionate about. Don’t join twenty extra-curriculars because you think you have to in order to have a chance a college. In the end, it’s what you did for the love of the game that’ll shine through anyway.

We’re not kidding.

I got pretty good at this in high school (doing what I love, not working for The Man), and this mentality is what landed me in Taiwan instead of MIT three months after I graduated.

So when that fateful time came to register for classes, I tried really hard to keep this in mind. But the pressure to take those pesky – I mean really fun – GIRs your freshman year is pretty strong, and ultimately, I broke a little. I ended up with two classes I wanted and two GIRs. Most people do not call this breaking. This is because most people are taking pretty much all GIRs and one HASS-D/CW class they may or may not convince themselves they like.

With that, I’d like to devote an entire entry to a class I’m not even in anymore:

Physics. [Insert collective gasp from the audience here]

That’s right. I dropped physics. If you’re wondering why I would do such a thing, and you’re expecting a really interesting answer like an elephant eating my homework, you’re going to be dissapointed. Because the reason I dropped physics is…

I didn’t like the class.

A little about Introductory Physics, henceforth called 8.01, at MIT:

8.01 is your standard introductory physics class taught with your non-standard teaching style: TEAL. (Have you noticed that people here seem to have an overwhelming desire to give everything an acronym?) TEAL, in its extended form, is “Technology-Enabled Active Learning,” and in its true form probably resembles Satan, or whatever evil being it is you believe in (and if you don’t believe in one, you will soon).

Wait, did I just say that? Pretend I didn’t.

Let me be a bit more politically correct.

Completely unofficial studies (read: asking Everyone I Know) have resulted in a heavily-supported hypothesis that No One Likes Teal. In true MIT fashion, we will call this theory NOOLT.

I strongly suspect the NOOLT phenomenon occured because TEAL, as I overheard someone whose name I can’t remember say, “is the perfect example of when too much technology can be a bad thing.”

We sit in tables of nine in groups of three. Each group has a computer to enable the learning process. Most of the time, though, it’s used to watch the power point that’s already projected in four (or more) different places around the room. (Sometimes these computers are used for Facebook. We’re going to ignore that data.) In the beginning of the year, we took a diagnostic test and we were assigned to tables in a fashion that would keep an even distribution of physics background at the tables (meaning that all the people who took AP Physics in high school wouldn’t sit in the same place).

This is all geared towards collaborative learning, which is nice in theory, but what happened in my experience is that the people at the table who knew what they’re doing would work through the problem, and I would be left in the dark in terms of where this equation came from and what that one means. The idea was to learn from eachother, except that I feel that we do plenty of this while working on p-sets. Personally, I’d like classtime to be geared more towards learning from the teacher.

The point is, even though it’s supposedly part of the “freshman experience,” (I don’t like that phrase, but that’s another entry for another day) to be in the same sinking boat and eventually coming out on top by figuring out how to, I don’t know, fix the boat, I’m not entirely convinced that it’d be smooth sailing from then on.

What I mean by that perfectly awful metaphor is that I’m not that great at classical mechanics, and even if I somehow figured out how to get around my feelings towards TEAL, I’d still struggle a lot in the class. I wasn’t looking forward to letting physics continue to feed on my soul for the entire year – it was really cutting into my other classes and my happiness.

Luckily, there are answers for people in this situation! MIT very rarely leaves you with no choice. Many NOOLT-sympathizers have switched from 8.01 to 8.01L, which is another introductory physics class. It’s geared towards people with little-to-no physics or calculus background and I’ve heard great things about it. For example, there’s a lot more support available for it. They have lecture and recitation. In recitation they can ask their TAs questions and even though the class runs an extra month (through IAP), they can take the time to actually learn and understand the material.

I didn’t switch into 8.01L for several reasons. The main one was that there was a scheduling conflict with my Favorite Class (ooh, a mystery). But looking back, I’m glad that scheduling conflict was there. Now I’m taking three classes I like and one GIR, and I’m perfectly happy.

Now, Before bringing this insanely long entry to a close, I’d like to note a few things.

The first is that even though I have yet to meet anyone that likes TEAL, that doesn’t mean that everyone hates it. First of all, I haven’t met Everyone. And even if someone doesn’t like TEAL, it doesn’t mean that they dislike it as much as I do. They may not care either way. It works for some people (I don’t know who, but I’m trying to be optomistic); it didn’t work for me. This is in no way trying to convince you that TEAL is bad – you may have no problem – I wrote about it mostly to show you all that if something is making you terribly unhappy, there are very often ways to change that.

The second thing is that I spent a lot of time complaining that I hated physics my first month here. But after listening to a lot of people’s points of view, I’ve decided that I do not, in fact, hate physics. I mean, there are hundreds of people here that love physics. There must be something good about it. And I hope that one day, when I finally take a class that’s not 8.01 TEAL, I’ll appreciate the subject matter more. The point is, if you ever find yourself in a class you hate, consider the fact that it may be the environment and not the subject matter that you are discontent with. Your life will be significantly happier if you give everything a second thought and chance instead of dwelling on how much you hate or can’t do something.

The THIRD (and last, I promise) thing is that even though I plan on spreading my GIRs out instead of taking them all at once, there are a couple arguments that go the other way. First of all, your first semester is Pass/No Record, so it’s nice to be able to take classes you may not particularly enjoy with that safety net. Also, I know a few people who are taking as many GIRs as possible their freshman year so they can focus more on what they enjoy in the coming years. Finally, you have to remember that I am fairly certain about what I want to do with my life. Many people do not know what they’re interested in, and that’s okay, and in this case, the GIRs can be a nice way to explore subjects before committing to a major your sophomore year.

In conclusion, be rational and do what’s best for you. I hope those of you working through your senior year can keep this and your own happiness in mind.

28 responses to “How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Physics”

  1. Isshak says:

    Hmmm, I love long posts !
    Mysterious class eh ? I think I have my idea on this which one it is… ^^
    You’re right. I think the reason I don’t like [I won’t tell you what subject it is] right now is because of the environment too. At least it’s a good thing you are truly enjoying all of your classes ! Good luck with them ! (I’m off to ask Alice if she likes physics ^^)

  2. Jess says:


    (I can’t believe I just said power to you. I probably could have said “you go, girlfriend” and been just as cool.)

  3. azad says:

    They will kill you girl!
    but anyways, I liked NOOLT and the SECOND thing…

    You should meet my adviser,he hates TEAL as much as you and he has great reasons for it.

  4. Keri says:

    I hated 8.01 TEAL. I used to just flat-out despise TEAL, but it ended up being exactly what I needed when I took 8.02.

    But Mastering Physics just needs to be set on fire. I wrote this in a survey my 8.02 professor gave the class mid-term, and he actually listened – he changed its point value and the type of problems.

  5. Snively says:

    I’m a subscriber to the “I hate TEAL” club, most definitely! After failing just about everything they gave me I decided it was time to go down a level into 8.01L, which is the best decision I’ve made all year. A heads up to future freshmen: MIT is hard, not impossible. When you realize that a class is impossible (you start out without the required background, can’t catch up, get progressively more behind, and fail everything) you should re-evaluate your options and perhaps move to a class that will actually teach you instead of throwing knowledge like rocks at your face.

  6. Isshak says:

    Er, what do you hate so much about it ? The way you interact with the TEAL teachers ? By the way, this is an idea for a facebook group ^^’

  7. Oasis says:

    How are the TEAL computers able to be used for facebook? The last time I checked, they blocked off all websites that do not end in

    Or maybe ya’ll techies are just way better at this than I am. =p

  8. Meagan says:

    I am participating in a year long research project @ MIT with the Kavli Space Institute. It started with a five-week summer program, which took place in the TEAL room of building 26. Although that course was ridiculously easy, the AC in the room was so low that we were literally bringing sweatshirts and winter jackets in July.(The instructor couldn’t figure out how to turn down the ac down.)

    That experience alone makes me never, EVER want to go into the TEAL rooms again. Especially if I get into MIT…

  9. Hunter '11 says:

    The TEAL computers ARE regular computers. They’re essentially the Athena computers, but you use them to access the stuff you need for TEAL.

    I, too, dislike TEAL, as Karen already knows =P. But there are actually people who like it – two on my hall, actually. I think it depends a lot on your group.

  10. Nihar says:

    Hey Karen! Dont ever worry about how long the post gets. We’re obsessed with learning more about MIT, so just write on! wink
    Though I could never answer to my happiness if I ever dropped a Physics class(that too at MIT!!), Im glad to see that there are options suited for everyonez interests.
    Mystery class huh?…I wonder..wink

  11. Ginger says:

    Haha, good for you in purusuing what you enjoy! I wonder what your favorite class is…Do spiel.

  12. Kate says:

    My physics teachers are actually surprised that I’m interested in the subject. Wish they’d actually have a conversation with me as opposed to fob me off.

    I know what you mean about wanting class time to be about learning from the teacher and homework etc. to be about collaboration (to some extent). This is a growing concern in my history class where we have been assigned to make wikis as groups and stuff instead of learning from the teacher. It’s a learning style thing. Still, noone likes the wiki thing. smile

  13. milena '11 says:

    I FREAKIN LOOOOOOOVE TEAL! So there, you know someone that, not only likes it, but loves it. I used to suck really really really bad at physics (I’m talking about not even understanding why gravity was a force or whatever) but after a good dose of Mastering Physics, hard-as-hell p-sets, office hours and The Great Dourmashkin, I’m doing waaaay better than I expected.

    So yes, prefroshies, a lot of people hate TEAL, but a lot of people love it too. My closest friends think that, although it’s a pain in the ass because it’s a lot of work, it does help you learn. Use all your resources: go to lecture, office hours and sunday tutoring, and do the MP! And if something is not right, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to drop the class or switch down, it means that you need to evaluate your work/study habits and see if there are more resources you can use or if you need to devote extra time to studying (that is, of course, assuming that it will not harm your social life too much), and then if everything fails, drop/switch down. For example, I was assigned to a professor I didn’t really like (he was too hyped up for me) so I switched into Dourmashkin’s and now I feel comfortable in class.

    Oh, and did I mention 8.01L has clickers and stuff too? As my dearest friend said, “It’s TEAL but a month longer.”

  14. Anonymous says:

    How were you able to add a new class so late in the semester? Don’t you have to make up 5 weeks of work?

  15. Anon9 says:

    I haven’t read the 2nd half of the intro part yet so I may not be entitled at all to my opinion…

    I’m only on:
    “With that, I’d like to devote an entire entry to a class I’m not even in anymore:

    Physics. [Insert collective gasp from the audience here INCLUDING ME!!]

    That’s right. I dropped physics. {GASP!!} If you’re wondering why I would do such a thing, and you’re expecting a really interesting answer like an elephant eating my homework, you’re going to be dissapointed. Because the reason I dropped physics is…

    I didn’t like the class.”

    But having just read that, I must really say/SHOUT:


    And I must really twitch madly having read just that part as quoted above…

    …now back to reading all these blogs…


  16. EV says:

    Mmmm, physics. I come from a school that actually doesn’t have enough resources to scramble a physics teacher for me, simply because I’m the only person ever on this island, in this cold, dark, damn country, to study advanced physics in high school (kind of an AP, maybe harder, I don’t know..)

    Right now, I’m working my way through astrophysics entirely on my own, only knowing that I have a very important exam coming up in May. If I fail it, I won’t get a High School diploma.


    Bah, did I mention that I also do this in Chemistry?

  17. Mary says:

    Thanks for blogging about this! Very sound advice that I plan on taking (too late to save me this year!)–I’m definitely having second thoughts about taking classes based on the fact that they would look on my transcript. It’s not as horrible as it might be, but I don’t plan on doing it again.

  18. JR says:

    I dropped 8.01 as well, but it was after add date…so I’ve got 3 classes. It’s nervewrecking because I’m not taking 42 credits, but I’m going to pass the 36 I do have, including 2 GIRs.

  19. Hunter '11 says:

    That may be where I end up, JR – but I hear that if you pass 3 subjects, you’re doing fine =) I guess that’d depend on the subject, though, but since physics isn’t a prereq for stuff in my major, I think I’m good.

  20. Ray says:

    Ah…sarcasm and a little bit of humor, just what I love

  21. Ay says:

    what happened to 8.012?

  22. Hank R. says:

    “Man, this pset blows.”

    “Hey, let’s drop 8.01.”

    “What are you doing?”

    “E-mailing my advisor.”

    Good times, good times.

  23. Colin says:

    8.012 sucks if you don’t already know mechanics like the back of your hand. Even then, it still sucks; people who say it doesn’t just really like physics, so what they mean is, physics is cool, and 8.012 is the hardest intro physics class, so it’s definitely challenging, but not in a good way unless you are TOTALLY prepared for it to ruin your life. In other words, it sucks.

    TEAL is definitely evil (two . . . hours . . .), but since I have no 8.01T experience with which to compare my 8.02T experience, the latter was one of my best classes at MIT. Then, I also had Dourmashkin, who is a) brilliant, b) understanding, and c) a co-creator of TEAL, meaning he actually knows why it can be a good idea and how to teach it well. And I do really like physics, so I guess that helped. A lot of it has to do with the professor and your own mindset about the material.

  24. Hunter '11 says:


    This isn’t high school. You have LIMITS, and you must understand this. Now, do you want to take 8.012 and dedicate all your time and energy to that when you could get a UROP in your field of interest? Now, if you’re interested in being a physics major, 8.012 makes sense – but really, take the hard courses or do the UROPs in things that interest you. You have no one to impress, you need to do what is best for you. Where do you want to put your learning power?

    On the other hand, 8.012 DOES get you out of TEAL..

  25. syahril says:

    i think you have to try to love physics
    I really sure you can love it, if you now function of physics then you can do it.

  26. Ty says:


    Physics Physics Physics raspberry


  27. Amanda '11 says:

    To quote Hunter:

    Amen. Take me for instance: Current freshman at MIT. No calculus background and very, very little physics. However, I LOVE chemistry. I’m taking 18.01, 8.01L, and 5.112.

    BTW, 8.01L is awesome. REALLY helps you learn concepts. Yes, yes it does.

    I’ve managed to take 54 credits this semester (concert choir is 6 credits. what can I say). Having tons of fun with it. smilesmile:)

  28. Jean says:

    You don’t have to take 8.01TEAL, 8.012, or 8.01L. The Concourse program has 8.01 without TEAL. Concourse offers small (60 people or fewer) classes in 8.01, 3.091, 18.02, and Psychology in the fall and 8.02, 18.03, and one or two HASS classes in the spring. For more information about concourse, see