It’s the night before your organic chemistry problem set is due – although, at this point, “night” is probably the wrong word, since the sky is turning a funny mix of pink and orange. You (and everyone else in your little freshman psetting group) are stuck on a problem. Options?
(2) and (3) are clearly not socially acceptable options at this hour. (1) is less than desirable, since you’ve been trying for hours already and can tell that you’ve reached the limits of your productivity.
Conclusion: (4) is your only option. You figure that the world is over and that you’re going to fail out of MIT soon, so you might as well pack up your bags and go home now. As you pull out your suitcase from under your bed, you suddenly remember that there are two chem majors who live in your hall. One of them stays up until 3 or 4am on a regular basis; you check, and sure enough, the light in his room is on.
You’re scared of knocking, though. He’s an MIT student. An upperclassman. By definition, he is currently super busy. Even worse, you feel that if he helps you, you’ll owe him pset help in return, but you really don’t know enough about graduate-level chemistry and complex analysis and goodness-knows-what-else to do that.
So, you don’t knock. You and your friends make your best guess, and call it a night.
Experience has suggested to me that this, much like using NaBH4 to reduce an ester, is not a productive approach.
Here’s what we French House sophomores do when we get stuck on chemistry pset problems, and help in the form of a TA or professor is not available: we wander through the living group until we find one of our resident chemistry majors, and ask whatever questions we have. Same goes for physics. The kind upperclassman will almost inevitably reach for a whiteboard marker, which is why I’ve never seen a blank whiteboard in French House; they’re always covered with a combination of organic synthesis reactions and kinematics equations.
We never beg for help. If anything, we are begged to ask for help more often. To quote one Particularly Enthusiastic Chemist: “YOU GUYS DON’T ASK ME ENOUGH QUESTIONS ABOUT ORGO! YOU SHOULD ASK ME MORE QUESTIONS ABOUT ORGO!!!! I LOVE HELPING PEOPLE WITH ORGO!!!!”
I guess Particularly Enthusiastic Chemist didn’t realize that he had gotten his point across, because he continued with “I LOVE HELPING PEOPLE WITH THEIR ORGO QUESTIONS SO ASK ME WHEN YOU HAVE QUESTIONS!”
Seriously. I’m not making this up. People here love to teach. A huge contingent of MIT students tutor, both here on campus (for our fellow undergrads) and at local community centers and neighboring schools. We teach classes on topics of our choice to middle and high school students. We’re excited about projectile motion or lockpicking or carbonyl compound reactions or how to build rockets – and we want everyone else to be, too.
This isn’t to say that you should ask upperclassmen for help all the time. They are busy, and you shouldn’t use them as a resource instead of your TAs and professors (whose job it is to help you, and whose advice will probably be more directly related to what you need to know for an exam.) However, you should know that your peers are usually happy to lend you a hand, so you shouldn’t feel shy or embarrassed.
This eagerness to help used to make me feel horribly guilty, because I felt that I had nothing to give back.
Take Particularly Enthusiastic Chemist, for example. He helps me with introductory organic chemistry. But could I help him while he studies for graduate-level chem classes? Could I help my physics major friend while he psets for Quantum II?
SURE! – if by “help” you mean “smile at”. Otherwise, I’m totally useless. These upperclassmen give, and give, and give – and I have nothing to give back.
I expressed this concern to Particularly Enthusiastic Chemist, and he laughed at me. “You have no idea,” he told me, “how often I asked [insert Math Major’s name here] for help with [some math class with a fancy name that I don’t know anything about]. Like…it was every second. I wouldn’t have been able to do a single problem on my psets without him. I didn’t even know what the problems were asking without him. I felt really bad because I could never help him with anything, so I’m paying him back by doing the same thing for others.”
“Oh, I see!” I said, not seeing at all, and thinking about how guilty I felt.
Fast forward to last night. I was kneeling on the floor of my room, helping a freshman with a couple of 8.01 problems. The whiteboard in my room was covered with equations describing projectile motion. As we arrived at the answer, she thanked me and said that she felt bad; “you must be busy too! I feel bad for using up your time!”
If she only knew. I laughed, and began explaining that I got help all the time from our resident chemists and physicists – and realized that I was echoing what Particularly Enthusiastic Chemist had been telling me all along. I understood what he meant. Yes, I <3 physics with all my heart. I also happen to have a particular soft spot for projectile motion, and masses and strings and pulleys and ramps. It was more than that, though. After this year, Particularly Enthusiastic Chemist and a big contingent of other upperclassmen who have been tremendously patient and generous and helpful over my first two years will be gone. I’ll never have helped them with a single pset problem. I will never pay them back. Instead, I’ll turn and face the other way: at the freshmen and to-be 2016s and to-be 2017s (AHHHH 2017? I’M SO OLD), and when one of them is stuck on a pset problem at some obscene hour of the morning – watch out, fellow upperclassmen. I will fight you for first dibs on helping.