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wrestling with my ego by Amber V. '24

it takes so much energy to drop a class

I like the idea of working on this blog far more than the idea of choosing between 8.022 and 8.02.

so maybe i should



and work on blogs



I took this class called 8.022, which is electricity and magnetism with vector calculus and things. I really like it. I am drowning somewhat. 

It’s Friday as I edit this blog, the 19th of March, Add Date. If I want to switch into 8.02, that’s gotta happen today.

This blog was not originally intended as a blog; I just wanted to get my thoughts out. Apparently I had a lot of thoughts. Now I’m curating them into something that is maybe intelligible, perhaps relevant, hopefully not too obnoxious.01 I’ve never turned my rambling not-intended-for-blog into blog before and I am honestly kinda spooked  


A brief timeline: every week has been a hellscape marginally more desolate than the last, and I am learning bit by bit what all those upperclassmen meant when they talked about being hosed. On Monday we had a physics midterm, and on Tuesday the professor emailed me to “check in,” which has never happened to me after a test, ever. I talked with her on Thursday morning. Then I soliloquized alone in my pod lounge, ate lunch on the way to lab, got back to my dorm around five, and made some notes: 


sorta realizing — like I had some rational thoughts earlier today [ie, in the pod lounge] but part of me is just thinking again of the pattern of how you can be smart enough and that is tied to your worth. It’s tied to your worth and who you are as long as you are smart enough. And once you’re not, you’ll learn how to, I dunno, become a person. And it’s like religion, it’s like anything and everything else, once you’re on one side you do not want to ever be on the other. 

I was thinking as I walked back from lab about how in my high school, being smart was valued, and lots of people hated that system but I didn’t. I liked physics C for itself but I also liked that I could afford to fuck up in math, I could relax for a whole year of calculus — and why? Not because I had grown to understand that being smart was not the end-all be-all, but because I had proven to my classmates that I was damn smart.02 how many times have I said this about myself in one paragraph? Wow. The title of this blog is really not hyperbole, is it.


Most of us are not that way at MIT, most people do not need other people to understand that they themselves are special. When I meet people who do need me to understand exactly who the smartest person in the room is, or the zoom chat or whatever, I tell myself that that person will grow, they will learn. I have learned, I have grown, or so I damn well hope. 


I went to a Q&A for the 2025s, and Petey talked about a rise and fall of an admit’s self-assurance, how your ego is highest the summer before freshman fall, and during freshman fall it hits a new low, and slowly it climbs back. Students graduate with a confidence they’ve built through hard work; a steadier confidence, less prone to shattering. He phrased it better than that.

I’ve never seen myself that way — I spent my gap year frolicking about the countryside, not thinking about academics at all — but you could pick out trends, in how I have the audacity to sign up for classes like this, how I always seem surprised when it’s a struggle.

I have done this before, caught myself at a crossroads between classes that are nearly identical, except one is much harder. I have always chosen the hard one. [or at least, as soon as I choose the hard one I stick with it. I’m in 18.02 right now, not 18.022 or anything, never considered doing that.]

So after this, this here choice I gotta make, my ego will be bruised but I do not think it will shatter. It has become tough and rubber. It will be tougher yet when I leave.




Okay, enough of the shallow reasons that one would stay in a difficult class.

The rational thoughts I had earlier today were roughly thus: oh christ

they were not about being clever or prideful. My ego is voluminous, but somewhere inside I know that it is a means to an end, a tool I use to force myself to learn. I hope it is anyway.


I’m used to throwing myself off the deep end and clawing my way back to shore. Every year since I was sixteen, I jumped into a class so difficult it seemed that merely passing was a stretch, and getting an A an impossible leap. There would be other people, other girls just my age, who would definitely get A’s, who would study hard for half the time I did and get better grades. I admired them a lot, still do. Meanwhile every year, I realized that I would not understand everything well and deeply, but I would understand it better than if I dropped into the class below. And I worked my ass off, and I got a 5, I got an A. 

I like that narrative. It’s useful. It’s not the one thing that defines me; it’s not something I think about at all, really, until I start to wonder, why am I here? Why am I doing this?

I do it because I want to learn as much as I can in a limited period of time. I do it because I like the idea of being someone who does that. I like the victory, the fact that I survived.

I’m not learning as much as I could right now. I like the idea of doing 8.022, the idea of surviving it, but I am not learning enough.


This Thursday morning, I sat down with my physics professor. I’d googled her name the night before and discovered she had tenure, already, that she had won awards. None of this surprised me. She approaches E&M vector calculus with the attitude of one explaining something very simple, in an unpretentious way. She makes this class seem hard but solid, grounded in proofs. (8.012 felt fiddly, like multiplying out two very long polynomials: something you might have to do on a test in first-year algebra but would never use in real life. 8.022 is different. I wish I could keep up with why).

My professor addressed me honestly, didn’t sugarcoat my score. Talking to her, I felt totally respected. She said that dropping from 8.022 to 8.02 does not make anyone more or less intelligent, that the content is nearly the same, and one does not need to take 8.022 to major in physics. She said I was not in danger of failing, that I was on track for a C (which I would hide behind P/NR), but we should come up with a plan so that I did better on the following exams.

So what did I want to do?


what I was thinking is —

what I said to my professor is that I have always taken physics somewhat ahead of my math background, I have always struggled to catch up. I have also always taught myself out of the textbook. I’ve liked physics for physics, not because of the presentation.

And now I have good lectures, and I’ve literally never had a good physics lecturer before, so I should be doing better. This should be the breakthrough where I finally fall in love with physics. Only the material is harder now. 

I want to like physics for physics, but when my professor mentioned that she had been behind in math while taking a string theory class in grad school, my first thought was ‘how lucky that I shall never have to do that.’ 


My worry is that if I take 8.02, physics will be boring and arbitrary, and I will not like it, and I will not take physics classes again. 8.022 is less arbitrary.

But what I’ve realized, over and over, is that 8.022 in fact still feels kind of arbitrary, because the math is difficult and not intuitive to me. So unless I learn more math, physics will be arbitrary either way, only 8.022 is harder.

And do I want to learn math? Here’s the thing — I don’t know if I’m burning out, or if this particular math class [18.02] is not to my liking, or if I never really liked math as much as I liked feeling powerful. Or — and honestly this is probably it — algebra, calculus, everything I understand, it makes sense and it’s mine. I fucking hate when things feel arbitrary. All my life, I’ve been told to memorize formulas, and I’ve thought, god, I’m so happy that I understand how these things work, where this came from, that I am not simply chucking numbers into a box.

And I am now chucking numbers into a box.

I have never enjoyed that.

Of course I don’t enjoy that.


 [did I stop liking math because it got hard– algebra, trig, calc — or did I stop liking math because it got easy — geometry, graphing lines,03 this was fully half of middle school bullshit where I felt like my brain turned to mush in the classroom, and math was an hour of reading under the desk? 

And when I ask it like that, it’s obvious to me that I stopped liking math when it was easy. 

That’s the narrative I’ve always told myself: geometry and bio sucked, because they were not AP classes, and I mostly read and did not feel challenged. Chem and Physics C were great, because they were APs, because they took over my life and I couldn’t let myself believe they sucked. But I liked AP Calculus as one likes a hobby; warmly, with spurts of passion but little overarching drive. 

Did I stop liking math because I was no longer the best, because it stopped making me feel strong? I sure fuckin’ hope not. That would be sad.]


I got up, drank water, wandered around the halls. My jeans were slightly wet from walking back in drizzling rain. The sun was going down.


Honestly, bottom line? 8.022 is a good class, with a good professor and a good recitation instructor and it just has a really good vibe. It is objectively a very good thing. The professor’s attitude about dropping frankly makes me want to stay.

8.02 could well be a good class. I don’t think I like the learning style, but there would be less content to learn and I would likely learn it better. As my podmate points out, it (likely) wouldn’t be boring. 

I’m overwhelmed and realizing the stress is getting to me more than I expected. I told myself I would be miserable because I wasn’t writing, but I haven’t actually gone three months without writing before — like, zero words, no documents opened — and it fucking sucks, and I’m glad that it sucks because it proves, once again, that writing is important to me. And 8.02 versus 8.022 would not change that. But also, 8.02 would give me some more time. The hours I’d spent catching up in 8.022 could potentially be spent on writing in 8.02 — and, if not, at least on hanging out with friends.

20 people are taking 8.022. 20. Out of probably half the freshman class in 8.02.

Either one is okay.

Either one doesn’t matter.

Either way, in one year, I will be okay. I will look back on a class and —  I imagine if I look back on 8.022 I will feel a vague blur of pain, where I’m sure I learned something because I didn’t know much E&M before, and a sort of triumph that that shit is done and over with. I imagine looking back on 8.02 would have more, like, 8.02 content in it. But I’m not sure.

did I learn more in AP physics, or did I learn more in honors bio? [physics, all the way, I don’t remember jack from bio]. We’ve determined by now that I learned a fuck of a lot in chem. 

I notice that I’m taking physics now, and planning to ASE out of bio. Interest spurs interest. 8.02 feels like giving up.

But I’m worried that 8.022 will scar me and I will then give physics up anyway.


I observed to myself, in the solar double [this morning], staring out at the river as one does, that in high school I used to say that this was just what I wanted. I wanted to be challenged. I was tired of classes where I didn’t have to try, where I could get A’s learning most if not all of the content, and catch up on the bits I’d forgotten in the week before finals. I’m realizing now that I liked that. I liked feeling ahead of the curve, like we were all racing and I was keeping afloat. Like no matter what, I in fact could keep afloat.

I could have that now, if I chose. I could have gone to a different school, or picked an easier schedule in this one. But I chose not to, because I thought that struggling was worthwhile. I thought that I would learn more here than I would elsewhere. I did. I do.


I stopped writing and had dinner, got to work, came back to this some time at night.


oh right 

My friend is taking 8.022, and I keep telling myself that if she is doing it, then I should be able to, too. Even though I know my friend has a different schedule and different skills, a different math background, it’s almost like we are in fact different people. From an outside perspective it seems like 8.022 is just another hump in the week for her, not the mountain that it is for me.

it’s not about comparisons. It’s really truly not.

When I got home at five, my friend was just sitting down to do the next physics pset. She offered to pset together, but I said that I couldn’t, I had two lab reports to write and sixty04 actually less, because the last 20 were just works cited, and my UROP advisor said I could skip certain sections pages of a scientific article to read before tomorrow. And true, if I could read faster that article would be finished already; if I had not spent an hour fixing a simple CAD, I would have been home instead of at lab. [if I actually worked on either of those things, instead of writing this blog].


I woke up at 8:30, got out of class around 3, ate lunch on the way to chem lab because there wasn’t time to sit and eat.

I’m formatting this blog tomorrow but the bulk of the text was written today, Thursday, around five in the afternoon.
It’s 3 am now. I’ve been working for sixteen hours.

I called my sister, I had dinner, I might have been more productive on a pomodoro sort of technique but honestly, I got shit done. I don’t think I can get any more done than what I’m already doing. Honestly I’d benefit from doing less.


Then I slept.


A final long and dramatic epiphany.


It’s 4:29 pm now, Friday, thirty-one minutes from the add/drop deadline. Last night I decided, while going over the test, that I would be better served in 8.02. I went to bed happy. I woke up happy despite having 5 hours of sleep, which is new for me.

But right now I just feel sad. 8.022 feels like a great opportunity I could rise to meet. I can imagine myself holing up at my desk for just one more hour, then another, trying to understand; developing a relationship with the professor; working my ass off to scrape a B.

But also

I spoke with my UROP advisor today about the sixty-page paper I read twenty pages of, which is a survey of global methane emissions. I asked questions; she answered casually, in great detail, and it struck me that I was talking with one of a limited number of experts in this particular topic. She is going to guide me in how to make circuits for a methane trap.05 which measures how much methane comes out of lakes! Further hand-wavy explanation to come ;) I’m going to do a lot of googling to understand how the circuits work. I want to be a useful intern.

I went to Orgo today and kinda zoned out for a bit, but understood most of the reactions our prof showed, remembered how to spell “Markovnikov.”

I sat down and wrote a list of things I wanted to get done over the long weekend, and on that list were three blogs which I’ve been meaning to write for a while. 

I could take 8.022 and pass. I am on a trajectory for a passing grade even if I keep doing exactly what I’m doing, slaving over the psets and doing poorly on the tests. That would get me a P, 12 credits of physics credit, a notch on my belt. I could bitch loudly about physics, how damn hard it is. 

But at this trajectory, I would actually learn more physics in 8.02. I think. 

I wish I could try 8.02 for a week or two and then jump back if I want, but I know I’m out of time. I have twenty-two minutes.

I wish I could double down this weekend, catch up on everything I missed in 8.022, hammer out practice tests until I get a score I’m happy with. But that would take hours, and I don’t know if it would make me happier than I am now.

I feel like I’m losing something,

but part of the point of writing this last section,

spelling out the other things that fill my time

(even if none of them are writing fiction),

is to point out that I will do these things

and I will learn physics

and I think I will be better served in doing these things and learning physics in 8.02.

I am realizing that given me, my bandwidth for work, my ability in this moment, I could take 8.022 and pass. But the more mature thing to do is actually to take 8.02. Swallow my pride, take the easier class, because that will better serve my learning. 

It won’t serve my ego this week, or next, but in the end I hope I can be satisfied that I chose to prioritize an understanding of physics over a name or a little prestige.

Eighteen minutes.


I up and did it. Dropped the class.

It feels… I don’t know. Everyone was working tonight [Friday night] but I was goofing off, and I knew that I could have locked myself away to do physics instead, and I didn’t quite regret my decision.

I hope I can study under that professor someday. 

  1. I’ve never turned my rambling not-intended-for-blog into blog before and I am honestly kinda spooked back to text
  2. how many times have I said this about myself in one paragraph? Wow. The title of this blog is really not hyperbole, is it. back to text
  3. this was fully half of middle school back to text
  4. actually less, because the last 20 were just works cited, and my UROP advisor said I could skip certain sections back to text
  5. which measures how much methane comes out of lakes! Further hand-wavy explanation to come ;) back to text