Junior Spring Postmortem

This is my usual end-of-semester postmortem. I’ll try to address some of the goals I outlined at the beginning of the semester and gauge how successful or unsuccessful I was at achieving those goals.

Invest time in people.

Meets expectations.

  • Although many of my friends were occupied with their busy schedules this semester, I still managed to show my support by attending their dance performances and the like.
  • I also shared a lot of meals in the dining hall with friends. Rather than eat all my meals alone, if I felt up for having company, I made it a point to text at least one or two people to join me.
  • I’m also glad to say that through my diverse set of classes, I met some new friends, who were able to share personal experiences of theirs here and there.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Exceeds expectations.

  • I think I did surprisingly well with this goal. In fact, I might have gotten dangerously close to apathy. Whoops.
  • My attitude this semester was generally to do the best I could at each step of the way without stressing too much about the details.
  • For example, I used to care a lot about getting every single question correct on exams, but this semester, my strategy became to study as much as I needed to feel confident going into the exam. I carefully answered each question to the best of my ability, but I wouldn’t dwell too much on those that I wasn’t sure about. This lowered my stress levels significantly, which allowed me to move on to my next task immediately after taking an exam.

Communicate effectively.

Meets expectations.

  • My Voice and Speech for the Actor class is pretty relevant to this goal. One of the most mind-blowing discoveries I made this semester was the realization that delivery is just as important as content. In fact, some would argue delivery is more important than content. You can express two entirely different ideas by adding different vocal choices to the same sequence of words.
  • When I made this goal, I was mainly concerned with my ability to explain concepts to my 6.042 students. In the end, I think I did quite well. The part that made the biggest difference was preparation. When I looked through the problems ahead of time, I found that it was much easier to give coherent explanations on how to solve the problems. This was true even when I held my review sessions.
  • My computer systems engineering class was my first technical communication-intensive class. Although it was a lot of work, I certainly learned a lot about reading technical computer science papers and writing system critique and design papers. I certainly have lots of room for improvement, but I think I made good progress this semester.

Be willing to ditch your plans.

Exceeds expectations.

  • I had my fair share of ditching plans to study in favor of going out with friends on Friday afternoons. I still managed to complete my work somehow, and I’m glad to say that I feel just that much closer to the friends I spent more time with.
  • It’s fair to say that I pretty much “winged” it this entire semester.

Conclusion

Honestly, this past semester was probably my least favorite out of the six I have completed so far. I ended up taking a lot of classes simply to fulfill requirements, and unfortunately, I simply didn’t enjoy some of them. On the bright side, during my remaining time in school, I’ll have the freedom to take classes I’m actually interested in!

My biggest achievement this semester was teaching the inaugural CodeIt App Inventor class. There are things I’d like to change for the future, but I’m quite happy that nothing crashed and burned entirely. I have a running list of improvements to implement for next semester, and I’m looking forward to seeing how much better we can make the program within the next year.

Believe it or not, taking the acting class made me a better musician. Although I am still far from ever becoming a professional clarinetist, I now have a better sense of what it means to make “vocal choices” in the context of music. At least my chamber teacher seems to think I have improved a lot this semester 😛

Lastly, I wanted to say a few words about participating in the engineering leadership program this year. Although the leadership classes were not my favorite, taking the end-of-year cumulative quizzes made me realize just how much content we covered over the course of eight or so months. I’m by no means an expert in everything we learned, but at least I’ve had some exposure to the various concepts. As with many things in life, leadership takes time and practice to develop, but through this program I was able to soldify my foundation just a bit more.

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Engineering society

Professor Joel Schindall gave a Tau Beta Pi DaVinci Lecture yesterday, and something he said especially resonated with me. He pointed out that the Tau Beta Pi (TBP) mission was to honor those who demonstrated “distinguished scholarship and exemplary character as students in engineering.” Notice how character was stressed in addition to technical prowess.

Back in 1885 when TBP was founded, engineers played a huge role in developing society. Some of the major inventions that influenced people’s lives include the lightbulb (1879), the dishwasher (1889), the radio (1893), the gas turbine (1899), and so on. Introducing these inventions to the public and convincing people to adopt new technologies required exemplary character from the engineers. It was also a good reminder of the magnitude of impact on society that engineers can make through their work.

New semiotic domains

James Paul Gee’s book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy discusses the concept of semiotic domains. Given a domain like basketball or games, there are different modalities (i.e. images, sounds, gestures, and symbols) that convey a specific meaning in the language of that domain.

This semester, I’ve been gaining exposure to two new semiotic domains: acting and biology. For me, a big part of those classes is learning the vocabulary associated with those domains and learning to think the way that experts in those fields think.

The Acting domain

In my Voice and Speech for the Actor class, we are performing monologues from the play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith. We’ve only spent one class so far looking at the passages, but I’ve already learned some new terminology from the acting semiotic domain.

My instructor urged us not to use the word lines, but rather the word thoughts when describing the components that make up the monologue. She also encouraged us to breathe after each thought, especially since breathing serves as an avenue for thinking. Breathing often signals that we are preparing our next thought.

If you think of the word inspire, you might think of inspiration, creativity, inventiveness, etc. However, the word inspire actually comes from the Latin word inspirare meaning “to breathe.” It’s still technically one of the definitions of the word, though it is used less frequently nowadays.

The Biology domain

I’m taking the freshman biology class right now, and much of the material is review. Although I don’t necessarily remember all the details from taking high school biology, I’m familiar with most—if not all—of the terminology that we’ve covered so far this semester. Now that I’m seeing the material for the second time, I can focus more on deeper level understanding since I already have some grasp on terms in the biology semiotic domain. I’m a step above being a novice in the domain, which makes communicating new ideas and formulating questions much easier.

Moral of the story

Getting acquainted with new semiotic domains is challenging and often uncomfortable, but in the end, you open up new channels of communication with new people and have new ways of connecting with them.

Perks of college

I’ve only had two days of class this semester, but they were enough to remind me of the perks of being a college student (besides the student discounts, of course).

It pushes my boundaries.

After receiving feedback last semester on how monotone I sound when I speak, I decided that it would benefit me greatly to take a course called “Voice and Speech for the Actor.” I’ve heard really great things about the class, which is often overenrolled. I was fortunate enough to have made the cut, and so far the class seems pretty awesome and unlike anything else I’ve done before.

We spent the first day of class learning how to relax our entire bodies and to breathe the right way (btw, my clarinet teacher always nags me to do this, too). The instructor explained that we need to be open to inspiration not only intellectually, but also emotionally and instinctually. This semester, we will be working on intense concentration and relaxation combined with a complete commitment to play.

I was thrown back to my middle school days when I auditioned for the first and last time for our school play. I was so self-conscious of what I was doing that I pretty much laughed through the entire audition; as far I can recall, it wasn’t supposed to be a funny play. Anyway, this whole idea of “complete commitment to play” really resonated with me because it requires you to discard any feelings of self-consciousness and to instead be thoroughly absorbed by whatever you are doing in that moment. It’s a beautiful thing really, and I feel like I could benefit a lot from carrying around that attitude elsewhere in my life.

It brings together a diverse group of intelligent people.

I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t all too thrilled about having to take the biology general institute requirement this semester. It’s known to be a class full of freshmen, and it also has nothing to do with my major.

That being said, I was pleasantly surprised to learn about the diverse make-up of my recitation section. Only about half the students were freshmen, and the other half consisted of juniors, seniors, graduate students, and even a student originally from the class of 1992, but who took time off and is now taking biology to complete his undergraduate degree. It was a nice reminder that everyone on campus brings a unique perspective and that it’s a privilege to learn alongside them.

Stay tuned for more exciting updates on life in Cambridge, MA.

Let’s do this

Spending a month abroad has not only opened my eyes to new perspectives and realities, but it has also helped shape the person I dream of becoming. That being said, I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to redefine my goals for the spring semester, similar to the way I did last fall.

Backstory

If you didn’t know this already, I spent the month of January teaching computer science to Israeli and Palestinian high school students in Jerusalem and Nazareth. It was an incredible experience for me; if you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend checking out my team’s travel blog. What you probably didn’t know was that I had a one-day layover in Brussels, Belgium.

What was different about traveling in Brussels was that I wasn’t surrounded by my friends and coworkers like I was in Jerusalem. In Belgium, I was traveling solo in a foreign country with just my high school French to get me around. (I exaggerate—most people in the tourist areas spoke English anyway.)

I spent the morning walking to all the famous attractions like Mannekin Pis, Jeanneke Pis, and Zinneke Pis.

And after that, I decided to visit the Atomium, where I met someone that made this trip a ton more memorable. When I was in line to get my ticket, I met another college student visiting Brussels for the weekend. We ended up talking the entire time we were in the Atomium and continued to hang out the rest of the day. He was unlike anyone I have ever met (and probably would ever meet) at MIT, which made learning bits and pieces from his life story all the more enjoyable for me.

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And this brings me to my first goal of the semester:

Invest time in people.

When we travel to new places, almost everyone sees the same monuments, the same museums. It is the people we meet and the unique experiences we share with them that differentiate all our trips. For me, I don’t think I’ll be able to think about Brussels without also thinking about what a great time I had making a new friend completely by chance.

Even though I probably won’t be traveling far from Boston this semester, there are obviously still people on and around campus. I did a pretty good job of making time to spend with friends last semester, and I want to continue doing so this spring. As an added bonus, I’d like to get to know more people outside my current friend group.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

While I was abroad, my stress levels were quite low, especially in comparison to what I’m used to when I’m on campus. Instead of worrying about my own classes, I was trying to keep my students in Jerusalem and Nazareth from stressing too much about assignments and exams. Some of the brightest students I worked with also happened to be the ones who worried the most. This semester, I’d like to take my own advice and realize that I can work hard at my classes without having dangerous levels of stress from worrying about the outcome.

Communicate effectively.

Working with the year 1 computer science students was surprisingly difficult because I had to take a step back and explain concepts I take for granted like input variables and function return types. Fortunately, I got tips from my coworkers regarding how to explain certain concepts, which I then incorporated into my own explanations.

As a first-time TA this semester, I want to continue learning how to effectively communicate my ideas and explanations to students. I know it will be challenging, but I also know it will be worth it in the end.

Be willing to ditch your plans.

I had planned out my entire day in Brussels ahead of time, but when I made my new friend, I was willing to ditch my plans and just wing it. As a result, we stumbled upon the 7th Magritte Awards completely on accident.

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I’m not advocating to forgo making any plans at all, but rather I think it’s important to be open-minded and flexible, which requires a willingness to deviate from what is planned.

Something New

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

—Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

I’ve been in Jerusalem for 18 days now. The newness of being in a different country has gradually worn off, which means that I’ve had more time to think about my surroundings. The other day, I found myself really upset, and I was having a hard time articulating why. Now, I realize that it was because I felt like an outsider—I don’t belong here.

All my life, I’ve lived in places where it was relatively easy for me to fit in. I was familiar with the culture and the customs, and I always managed to find food that was familiar to my taste buds. But here, no matter what I say or do, I’ll always look different from everyone else. And while the food here is great and an adventure in and of itself, I really do miss Asian food.

But then I reminded myself why I decided to relocate to Jerusalem in the first place. It is a city flooded with religious and historical significance, and I was eager to learn as much as I could about it all. The cuisine would be different from what I was used to, but I figured it was about time that I grow out of my picky-eater lifestyle. And probably most importantly, I wanted to meet the people who love and care about this region so much that they would fight to protect it.

Every single one of those reasons involved experiencing something new. Of course, it would be uncomfortable. Of course, I wouldn’t feel at home. That’s the whole point of new experiences.

Humans are social beings, and when it comes down to it, all we want is to be accepted. I fell into the trap of thinking that to be accepted, I needed to be like everyone else here. But quite frankly, that’s out of my control.

What I can do, however, is continue learning as much as I can about this region and the wonderful people who live here. My job is not to blend into society here, but rather to stretch my mind with these new experiences. When I leave Jerusalem in two weeks’ time, I’ll be taking with me a new strength: a new lens with which to view and appreciate the world around me.