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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

What can you do with a bad grade in quantum? by Anna H. '14

What is my life going to be? (Avenue Q, anyone?)

It took me a while to internalize that a grade is fixed but one’s reaction to it is not.

Like I mentioned, 8.05 (Quantum II) was a rough time; frankly, I should have dropped the class after the midterm, but I was too stubborn (or too persistent*?)

*I once asked a friend what distinguishes persistence from stubbornness. He said: “whether you succeed or fail.” Umm…great.

When I found out my final exam score, my brain immediately switched into “problem? there’s a problem? WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?” mode. My neurons fired through some possible courses of action, and settled on: moping.

First, I moped alone. During this period, I decided that the responsible course of action would be to e-mail my professor and my TA. After procrastinating for a few hours, I finally hit “send”, and away went my request for “advice you can give me on how to move forward from here.”

I thanked them for their help during the semester, etc, and returned to angsting privately.

But not for long. An hour and a half later, my professor responded, expressing sympathy, frustration because “Prof. Adams* and I concur that you know a lot more than what you exam grades show!” and said that he would be happy to meet with me. Absolutely mortified at the idea that they had discussed me at the grading session, I arranged to meet with him on January 4, when I returned to campus after winter break.

*The TA of the other recitation section

The next day, after my linear algebra final (which was a much more pleasant experience) I was ready for the next step: to mope in good company. I went over to my friend Sam’s dorm and watched How I Met Your Mother and ate a chocolate cupcake.

Then came the first of two very profound e-mail moments.

Out of the blue, I got a message from Professor Adams. “We’ve finished grading the class,” he wrote, “and I wanted to to write to say that I think the final exam did not accurately reflect your command of the material and to encourage you to not let it discourage you. I’ve been impressed by your questions, answers, quick thinking and enthusiasm. Keep it up, don’t lose heart, and go knock 8.06 out of the park.”

I will never, in my entire life – IN MY ENTIRE LIFE – forget how it felt to receive that e-mail. If I go crazy and forget who I am and what species of creature I belong to, I will still remember that feeling. Professor Adams probably wrote it quickly and didn’t think much about it afterwards, but woah. That meant the world to me.

There was one more person I wanted to talk to. I waited until I got back home, to London, then e-mailed him, asking to meet on January 4 (I figured I might as well get all these conversations over with at once.) I realized that I had previously only been to see him with good news (babbling about how excited I was about my summer research, etc) and wanted to be open about my academic situation – I hoped for some perspective on what to do about it, in return.

This led to the second profound moment.

After I made the appointment with Dumbledore, I freaked out a little bit and e-mailed one of my best friends (and long-time pset buddy) telling him what I’d done and that I was worried that Dumbledore would judge me – stop having faith in me, or no longer think I could succeed in astronomy. He responded with an e-mail that I won’t reproduce in its entirety; one section that meant a lot to me, though, was:

“no matter what, do not let yourself think that you can’t succeed. You’re smart…[and] an enjoyable person to be around. Sure, it might not show on any transcript, but don’t underestimate that value in where you end up.”

He finished by saying “I have always thought that you were valuable person to work with. I have always known you can succeed. I really mean that.”

That’s another e-mail I will never forget. Remind people that you believe in them!

Today is January 4. At 11am, I met with Dumbledore. I got there early and wandered around the hallway a bit, steeling myself, and clinging very tightly onto those two e-mails. Don’t let yourself think that you can’t succeed, don’t lose heart…

I shouldn’t have worried. When, with a gulp, I brought up 8.05, stammering way more than I usually do, Dumbledore didn’t bat an eyelash. He was quiet for a couple of minutes, stared off at the wall, then said something like “it is not uncommon.” I found some awkward way to ask “IS MY LIFE RUINED?” and his answer was, in a nutshell, “no. don’t let it happen again, but what really matters is what you do about it.”

So, we discussed what I could do about it. He suggested that I become a grader for the class, as a way to gain familiarity with the material and, I guess, demonstrate how serious I was about learning it. That idea hadn’t occurred to me, so I wrote it down to remember during my subsequent meeting with my 8.05 professor. He thought for another minute, then said: “did [the professor] type up his notes?” I replied that he typed up some of them, but ran out of time by a little over halfway through the semester. “You could offer to LaTeX them for him,” he said, and I nodded, since I’d already thought of that.

At 12:55pm, I found myself outside my 8.05 professor’s office, taking some very deep breaths. I knocked; he wasn’t in. A couple of minutes later, a cheery “ANNA!!!” floated into the hallway, followed by the always-smiley Professor Zwiebach. He let me in, picked up a notepad and a pen (uh oh.) and sat at the table with me. “So,” he began. “What can we learn from this experience?”

AHHHHHHHHHHH.

Um. Brain blank.

He looked up at me and put the pen down. “What are YOUR thoughts?”

I mentally slapped myself, sat up straight, rested my hands on the table, and was careful to look him in the eye. “I guess I have two main concerns.”

He nodded gently.

“The first is…concern with my understanding of the material -”

More nodding.

“and the second is how this is going to affect me with, you know, things like graduate school applications.”

He nodded more.

“About the first one, I…I met with a professor earlier today, and we have some ideas.” I told him about the grading, and the LaTeX idea, then asked for his suggestions. He seemed surprised, but said that those were both great ideas, and that he would love help with the notes. He went a step further, to suggest that I grade for 8.04 (Quantum I) in the spring. We settled on a game plan: I would grade for 8.04, then 8.05, and type up the notes in LaTeX.

Then, the questions began. Lots of questions. He picked up the pen, and asked what classes I’m taking next semester, what my interests are, what I want to do after college. I talked about science writing, and pulsars, and the conference, and public speaking, and museums and planetariums. I told him my IAP plans, and he exclaimed that “you have a very exciting life!”

We talked briefly about C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and The Hobbit (we both liked the movie a lot.) When I started going on about this, he politely steered the conversation back to 8.05 and my feelings. He asked how I felt before, during, and after the exams; how I felt while psetting; how I felt during lectures, during recitations. It was a little painful to re-live all of that. I thought about a documentary I watched on the plane ride, the day before. It was about James Cook’s trip to Australia, when he claimed it for England and named it New South Wales (the obvious thing to name a new country). Apparently, on the way back, the ship struck a coral reef and began to sink. Cook’s resident botanist flipped out (mentally) and the sailors began flinging (flipping?) their heavy belongings overboard. Eventually, they threw out enough equipment that the ship returned to a safe, floating equilibrium.

It was quiet in Prof. Zwiebach’s office after I finished. He folded his fingers together and stared at his notepad, which now had some blue ink descriptions of “Anna” and her interests. He said it was hard to know what the problem was: whether I didn’t understand the material or just suffered from severe exam anxiety problems (or both.) He made an analogy to hard drives and RAM. He then said that, although my grade obviously couldn’t be changed, he could give me the exam again: I could take it as a problem set, with open notes and as much time as I needed, and scan my answers back to him. I would let him know how much time it took me, and how often I needed to refer to notes. Together, we would diagnose what’s going on.

I accepted. He printed the exam out for me. I folded it in half and tucked it into my notebook. It’s sitting in my purse now, waiting. I stood up, we shook hands, I left. I bought a cup of mocha coffee (my treat for myself at Times Like This) and went to Building 37 (the astrophysics department) to do some data analysis for my research. A couple of hours later, Professor Dumbledore walked by and I told him about my conversation with Prof. Zwiebach. I announced the game plan. He smiled, nodded, said “you’ve got a plan”, and walked on.

You’re always told that in college, teachers aren’t going to come find you when you’re struggling and ask you what’s going on. And it’s certainly true that Zwiebach would never have approached me with ideas for more chances to learn. Dumbledore would certainly never have known about the situation, but I figured that I stood to gain more than I stood to lose by bringing him in. These are busy guys. But they weighed in when I reached out, and I feel the situation floating back to within my control, which is where I like situations to be.

I should also mention that not all professors would do this – I’m very grateful. Rock on, MIT physics department. And thank you, MIT Physics Department physicists.

In High School, I had an English teacher (who remains one of my Favorite People Ever) who always signs off his e-mails to me with the same word. It’s been ringing in my head for days, so I’ll end with it here.

Onward!