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Me and the Firehose by Amber V. '24

on balancing classes, and choosing next year’s schedule

alternate titles include: on taking too many damn classes; should we take less than 60 units?

As of writing this, I’m finished with my sophomore year, halfway through MIT. I’m choosing classes for next semester. My mom once told me about an experiment where lemmings learned to swim through mazes.01 I asked her about it now and apparently the story is entirely apocryphal, alas They would find complex, convoluted routes to the center. Every time they were returned to the maze, they’d stick with the first route they’d found, never looking for quicker or easier paths. 

So anyway, I think a smart idea would be to take six classes, bitch about it, have no time… 

Steppe lemming - Wikipedia

for reference, a lemming

My usual method for choosing classes is to sign up for 12 of them, the maximum, and then treat the first two weeks as ‘reading period.’ This works, in that I am currently alive and well, but those two weeks are fairly sleepless, as I try to keep up with all of the readings and do all of the psets for those 12 classes. I choose which classes to stick with based on which classes have psets due which I do not want to finish.

I also have a tendency to try and take as many classes as I can, then promise to drop some of them. But I’m extremely averse to dropping classes later on in the semester — sunk-cost fallacy — so instead I suffer. And end up with a lot of credits! 

As a history double major, I take a lot of HASS02 humanities, arts, & social science classes — like, three per semester ever since MIT allowed me03 freshmen have a credit limit boo :( to — and I’m trying to weigh the cost and benefit of that, too. 

I’m trying to define my learning goals for the upcoming semester — academic, professional, social. Maybe taking six classes again would be the best option; but maybe it wouldn’t be. So I’m looking at how I stumbled through this maze before.

A Brief Overview of Past Semesters (there is a tl;dr below)

Freshman fall:
  1. 8.012, Classical Mechanics (physics I)
  2. 5.112, Intro to Chemistry
  3. 21W.755, Reading and Writing Short Stories
  4. 21H.131, History of Ancient Greece
  5. [3-unit discovery class] Physics of Energy

Units: 48 + 3

I also worked a UROP with the Rapid Response Group. I remember cooking a lot, running every day, and hanging out with my roommates without feeling dread about psets the next day. I understood a lot more of my psets. I read the entirety of the textbook for Greek History, did not miss a reading for the short stories class. 

I started a new novel. For the last month or so of term, I’d go out and write for a few days a week. These were good, solid writing sessions. I sometimes felt bad about taking only two technicals, but I know that I wouldn’t have had time to write otherwise.

Freshman spring:
  1. 8.02, electricity and magnetism (physics II)
  2. 5.351, 5.352. chemistry labs [4 + 5 units]
  3. 5.12, organic chemistry
  4. 18.02, multivariable calculus
  5. 21H.242, The Enlightenment and the French Revolution

Units: 57

I tried writing during this period and quickly realized I didn’t have time. I hung out with my pod a few times per week. I remember pausing one time, reflecting that I was working harder than I’d probably ever worked, and that I did not ever want to do so again. 

I started a UROP. I doubled down on working out. 

I didn’t enjoy my classes all that much — most of them were GIRs which I felt I should have taken earlier, or tried to ASE out of. Organic chemistry was cool, though.

I did all of the readings for my HASS class. I have detailed notes wherein I am fighting with Montesquieu, deriding Rousseau, engaging with Robespierre. I wrote an essay about the development of racism during the Enlightenment which informed how I see the world today.

Sophomore fall:
  1. 21H.270, Latinx in the Age of Empire
  2. 21W.757, Fiction Workshop
  3. STS.S20, East Campus History [9 units]
  4. 18.03, Differential Equations
  5. 2.001, Materials and Mechanics
  6. 2.678, Circuit Lab [6 units]

Units: 63

I moved to East Campus and developed an active social life! Campus was opening up again, and I found that I enjoy hanging out with people.

I did maybe half of the readings for the Latinx class, read all of my classmates’ stories but few of the assigned published works for Fiction Workshop, and finished each assignment for EC History a few days late. My takeaways from EC History felt solid, and the class renewed my interest in historical research. Fiction Workshop is a great class, but I was too hosed to write new content for it; instead I submitted chapters of the novel I’d written in summer and received good feedback. I learned a lot from the Latinx history class. In hindsight, however, I wish I had devoted more time to the class, because it offered a lot of great readings that I could have gleaned more from had I, y’know, actually read them.

My technical classes were all lecture- and pset-based, though 2.678 also has weekly labs. I learned a lot of new content and really enjoyed working with the meche community.

I went to makerspaces about once per week. I picked up new skills, and began to develop an understanding of materials, but could have put more time toward refining those skills.

At the end of this semester I was exhausted. I was proud of myself for getting through all those classes — it was only 63 units, but it felt like more — but I also wished I’d had more time to learn fabrication techniques and eat food and sleep. 

Sophomore spring:
  1. 21L.434, Science Fiction
  2. 21H.132, History of Rome
  3. WGS.275, Race, Gender, and the Environment
  4. 2.005, Thermo-fluid Engineering
  5. 2.007, Robotics

Untis: 60

Notice that I took fewer units this semester! I was quite proud of myself.

I had more time — I joined the forge; I performed in MIT Monologues; I actually wrote some blogs. I could not figure out, all semester, if one pset-based class (2.005), one lab-based class (2.007, which took 15 hours per week by the end of the semester), and three HASS classes was ‘a lot’ or ‘a little.’ I felt like I was doing a lot, in that my schedule was always full, and there was always more to do. At the same time, I only had one04 for the first half of term, 2.007 had three weekly assignments, which took quite a bit of time and resembled 1-1.5 psets pset! Per week! I felt like I was cheating the system.

I spent a lot more time in makerspaces, in and out of 2.007. I grew comfortable on many machines and began to feel at home in the shop.

I was in less pain than the previous two semesters. Apparently most kinds of machining are easier on my hands than writing out psets. Who’d’a thunk.

I did some readings for my HASS classes. ‘Half’ sounds somewhat generous, but surely more than one out of every three. While studying for the final for the History of Rome, I read over all of my notes for the semester. Every single notes doc included some variation of “imagine if you actually. read. the textbook.” 

Spoiler alert: I never did.

so uhh tl;dr; 

freshman fall: took fewer classes, was able to write, ran a lot, absorbed my HASS classes

freshman spring: took more classes, worked out a lot, absorbed my one HASS class

soph fall: took a fuckton of classes, spent more time being social, ran, everything else fell by the wayside

soph spring: took a smaller fuckton of classes, more social time, ran, went to makerspaces

What did we learn here (other than how beams bend and get hot)

Looking at these patterns, I have some takeaways:

  • Taking a lot of HASS classes is lovely and fun, but may not be something I have space for next semester. Also, taking fewer of them may mean I can absorb the content to a greater degree. (I think I have taken enough HASSes that I could simply not take any more for the rest of my time here. But I do not want to do that.)
  • Taking a lot of pset-based technicals you don’t particularly care for is annoying, but do-able. 
  • There is no arrangement of classes where you can both graduate on time and also write fiction. It’s kinda lame! But c’est la vie.

I want to learn how to Make Things. I have taken a lot of steps in this direction, and I know a big factor is just spending time in shop and picking up skills from mentors and peers. However, I keep trying to define where and how I learn the best — is it by taking classes with big fabrication components, like 2.007? Leaving space in your schedule to pursue personal projects, such as through ProjX? Joining clubs to build things with other people?

I have tried all methods save the last, and Solar Car people are scarily competent. Of course, Solar Car people devote a lot of time, sweat, and blood to the team, and I don’t know if I can commit that much time. However, joining an engineering club in general sounds like a good idea. I’ve not worked on a group engineering project since high school, and I think that would be a good skillset to develop. Plus, I love learning from people and suffering in solidarity.


So, this brings me to:

1-2 HASS classes

1-2 fabrication MechE classes

2ish normal MechE classes

and an engineering club!


Right, good job, kiddo, you made a plan. Now let’s pick some classes for next year.

a schedule for next semester

Here are some classes that look sexy:

2.008 (making yo-yos), 2.671 (Measurement and Instrumentation), 3.096 (architectural ironwork), 4.140 (How to Make (Almost) Anything), a Junot Diaz writing class, a Harvard history class, 2.650 (Sustainable Energy), some other course 2 classes about photovoltaic cells and making lathes.



  1. 2.003 (dynamics)
  2. 2.086 (learning MATLAB)
  3. 2.671 (making a poster)
  4. 4.140 OR 2.008, not both — 4.140 is harder to get in to, harder in general, and will have fewer people I know. However, it might teach me more than 2.008. Who knows. 
  5. 3.096 (only if I get into it, which is not guaranteed, as it’s capped at 6 students and I am a course 2 junior, not a course 3 senior)
  6. Diaz class OR Sustainable Energy (or photovoltaic cells or that one that’s like underwater robots or…)
  7. a history class at Harvard 

There is a minor flaw to this plan. The flaw is that, when you count one two three four five six seven, you realize that this is not actually taking fewer classes. It is in fact taking more. Whoops. Lol. (if you know me please imagine that in my actual voice).

firehose schedule with the aforementioned classes

this is a large number of colorful boxes

One easy fix is to not take either 2.003 or 2.086, which are required core classes for Course 2, and which I did not previously have space for because I was too busy taking three HASS classes. (Also, 2.086 conflicted with my CI-H last semester). However, I want to get them out of the way. 

Probably I will take 2.671 later, not get in to the Diaz class, and drop Sustainable Energy or whatever else Class #6 would have been. Then that will be 5 classes, which is silly but more possible. Architectural Ironwork seems to be structured more like a HASS class than a technical, too.

  1. 2.003
  2. 2.086
  3. 2.008
  4. Architectural Ironwork
  5. a Harvard history class

Plus a club, a social life, running, blogs,05 Every semester, I promise myself to write more blogs next semester. This has a success rate akin to my ‘I will read the textbook’ promises in my Roman history notes. and the occasional personal project. 

firehose with just 5 classes

when you have fewer colored boxes the colors are less pretty

See this looks sane! Wow. Maybe there is some merit to planning things ahead, and publishing said plans in front of all your peers to pressure yourself into planning realistically.

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