Saturday, April 5, 2014

MIT Culture: Critical and Personal Experience

This post isn't going to cover everything I have to say about MIT culture and it's not going to make everyone happy. To be quite clear, this is meant to be critical. If you don't want to read a criticism of some of the problems with MIT culture, please go no further. If you are looking for a careful analysis, I'm sorry but I'm not in the place to that; this is just a collection of my personal thoughts. While some of this is bitter, there are also good things about my school. I'm not bitter because I have bad grades or because of some other failing I've projected onto the school. (Even if I were bitter because of this, it wouldn't invalidate my criticism - Harvard is well known to grade inflate; MIT doesn't which puts students at a disadvantage.) I'm bitter because the school and culture I feel in love with over MITES and CPW is not the school that I'm attending.

I appreciate what MIT has given me in terms of advancing my career and solid financial support. A lot of what I talk about won't bother people but from where I come from and with the difficulties I tackle, some times these aspects of MIT culture seem like unnecessary and insurmountable obstacles.

If you want to know my experiences, as a college junior from a background that didn't give me a lot of support, then read on.

The MIT culture during CPW 

While all colleges have college preview weekends, MIT's campus preview weekend is a big deal. Compared to most schools, MIT's CPW is amazingly student driven and has a wide diversity of events. CPW events run 24/7 for the whole three days. As a student here, I now understand why. Basically MIT allows all of the dorms and student groups to run events with funding provided to them. We get a holiday so that we as students can host these events; most professors understand not to schedule heavy course loads over this weekend. MIT also has it's official events that cover 'parent' topics like financial aid, meal plans, and class offering. Most students don't attend these events; MIT encourages parents to let their students do what they enjoy and wander campus.

CPW promises this amazing wonderland of MIT culture. Everyone is excited and welcoming. There are so many stories to be heard about how East Campus always builds a roller coaster and then hosts the orange tours! I loved the east campus counter culture at the time. I was a bit of a rebel and the idea of the Institute quietly accepting the 'freaks and geeks' of its campus was a major appeal. I dyed my hair during CPW - it went terribly but I felt so exhilarated by it.

But the daily MIT is not this way. Not all the dorms 'get along.' Not all of east campus wants to be friends: there's a competitive nature at MIT, about geek cred, about hacks, about staying up late. A lot of what CPW promises doesn't matter to dear old TIM the beaver.

A lot of privilege goes into the MIT culture. For example: You can get arrested for hacking. If you get arrested, your scholarship can be removed. You can also lose your job. On the other hand, your dorm mates may look down on you for not trying a key part of the culture.

Perhaps more than that: some of the work hard, party hard culture is a dangerous lie. There are the kids who never manage to leave their rooms because they are too busy studying. But there are also the kids who party too hard. I know more than a few students who deal with stress by drinking. And it's not good and it's not something that MIT talks about, certainly not at CPW which is dry.

Genius that doesn't try

Sleep. Friends. Grades. Choose two. Hack. Punt. Tool. 

These phrases have been repeated around me. They're part of the work hard, party hard - the machismo of "how much sleep did you get last night?" followed by "so what'd you get on the last exam?" Not everyone prioritizes school while others have to work hard all the time to keep up. A culture of procrastination and comparison doesn't foster early planning and cooperation. I've often struggled in group projects, not because I don't want to do my part, but because other members don't want to meet or wait until the last minute to turn in their part. 

Additionally, not everyone who claims to be coasting by while playing DODA for hours is actually quite so breezy. After all, it's often the same kids talking about math camps that they've done since middle school. They've arrived on campus with both a set of friends and experience with course work I'd never even heard of before. 

Some students take this to the extreme. There are students who purposefully take an exam drunk, just to compare who still gets a passing score. Other students choose to see how little effort they have to put into their HASS classes, a expensive middle finger to the professors who teach the classes. 

The MIT culture of procrastination or comparing who can more easily breeze through can be harmful for students! Some students really do have to work hard; others can't afford to slack off to create an image of nonchalance. It should be acceptable to work hard and own up to it. 

Support networks: Promises and Payoff

I did MITES. In MITES, there is an amazing amount of support. Really, MITES is the main reason that I realized I could apply to Ivy Leagues and do the work. No one had ever inspired that type of confidence in me or pointed me to the support to get there. There is so much good I can say about MITES and the OME. And the programs offered by the OME are often pointed to. 

Unfortunately, that attitude of supporting students does not extend to the rest of campus.

A fair number of professors at MIT believe that the point of MIT is to teach you how to teach yourself. I, however, am very upset to realize that I have scrounged together approximately $54,000 dollars worth of scholarships in order to be told to 'google it.' 'Teach yourself' is a lesson I have already learned when I found out how to put myself through college. I do not mean to minimize the support that my foster family and my foster worker have offered me, but I do mean to recognize that I have managed my own finances and 'googled' my scholarships all the way to MIT. I do not need to pay MIT such a large amount of money to 'learn' how to find resources on my own. More so, I need to keep my grades up too keep these scholarships I found for myself.

A lot of professors are unwilling to change their tactic of 'teaching' when confronted by a student that doesn't learn well with that particular style. If the resources are all online, then you either need to have a well documented reason or "learn to deal." If you need tutoring because asking questions around others gives you anxiety, prepare to repeat yourself infinitely to get the resources you need. If you have a recurring medical condition that makes lab a torment, know that attendance is mandatory and without another battle, there's no bending in that. 

Similarly the support networks that are available your freshman year disappear for sophomore year and beyond. Tutoring doesn't exist for classes outside the institute requirements and introductory courses. The writing center really doesn't know how to help you edit technical writing. The course advisors are either over burdened or don't care. Student Support Services and Mental Health are so overtaxed and don't get enough respect from professors. There's no real support network. 

Really, if you have a serious difficulty, no one notices. Even if, say, your dorm's GRT or S^3 do realize you need help, by the time they can manage to help you, it's often a herculean task of it's own to deal unsympathetic professors with their help and the complete lack of support means that one shot help is all you're going to get. Those few resources are aimed at crisis management, not sustained assistance. 

The Firehose and your personal hell

There's a common MIT saying: Learning at MIT is like drinking out of a firehose. Classes are designed to throw too much at you. The hours given in course listings are too low for the reality of the class. Professors expect you to be able to more things than there are hours to do. Classes assume a basic knowledge that the prereqs don't provide. Reading may not be posted until the night before they're due. Even if the class doesn't have a coding pre-req, basic coding skills are expected. Etc. Etc. I could go on.

When I was learning about MIT, I heard this but I also heard about the support that came with it. During my freshman year, I took advantage of the support. I was in learning community; I had a tutor for the classes that challenged me; I had a pset group; I went to the TSR for preparation. These resources don't exist anymore. Most majors don't offer tutoring. The TSR doesn't cover classes beyond the GIRs.

Don't get me started on trying to create these resources. It's almost impossible. 

This mentality of extra work for no credit is terrible for students that are trying to work to put themselves through school. I can never figure out what work shifts to sign up for until half a month into the semester. The course load changes; professors purposefully assign more than the class is supposed to; sometimes classes go way over their time slots. All of this makes it easy to lose a job - if lab class goes over, an off-campus supervisor won't see that as a reason to be late to your shift. If your work load changes or isn't posted with advance notice, a student whose medical problems crop up will fall behind.

Additionally, this 'firehose' approach puts first generation students or students from less proficient high schools at a disadvantage - if you don't have a good foundation, a fire hose is just going to knock you over. 

Grading on a curve- forget your scholarship

Another portion of professors are big fans of 'the cream rises to the top' mentality. Whether they quietly curve their classes and purposefully test students beyond the material covered, these professors believe that the true merit of a student is found when they go past their supposed comfort zone. When I encountered professors like this, I was astounded. What sort of person expects you to know things you were never taught? What sort of teacher doesn't teach but torments?

Of course, MIT's official policy is to prohibit grading on a curve. But when most courses don't explain how exams are graded until after the first one has already been taken, students don't have a lot of resources to protest. The number of classes where a 'bell curve' has both been used to determine grade cut off and posted for students to ruminate on - that number is all of my technical classes.

I've had a TA say to my face that he wrote the exam on material we hadn't seen yet in order to get a 'better distribution.' What does that mean? A bell curve distribution of scores? A better distribution of resources for struggling students? I found out very quickly that it was the former; the latter had never crossed his mind.

More so, what sort of professor doesn't realize that students rely on grades to maintain scholarships? Creating a class where only 1/4 (or less) of the students can achieve an 'A' is one where you are discouraging students from keeping their scholarship. My understanding of the material isn't dependent on three other students understanding - after all, we could all be understanding it at an 'A' level.