Class Shopping and Hallway Wandering

At Harvard, you don’t just sign up for classes. You shop for them. Indeed, the first week of the semester is actually known as “shopping period,” where you can drop in and out of classes as wish and ask (to yourself), “Is this topic interesting?” “Is the professor engaging?” “Can I get up this early?” If the answers are yes, you sign up. No? Keep looking.

For most students, shopping days means picking from among a handful of classes you need to complete your major or fulfill other requirements. For us fellows, it means trying to choose from among thousands of classes, never mind all the offerings at MIT (which starts a week later) or Boston University or other area institutions.

The reality is that as a fellow, you have time to take about four or so classes per semester. I’ve currently got about 10 on my list, some of which overlap. So, shopping period is an opportunity to possibly rule some out, or visit others that simply look interesting, even if you know you can’t go.

At first, I was hesitant to go to shopping week. For one, it meant even more research and prep to find and locate classes and buildings that I knew I wouldn’t end up taking. For another, the chance of happening upon an awesome class was high, which meant I’d be even more conflicted about what to take. It’s not like the choices aren’t hard enough already.

But forgoing shopping week felt like I was missing out on a good opportunity. So after taking care of personal business on Wednesday (the first day of shopping, and, confusingly, was running on a Monday schedule), I dropped into a few classes on Thursday.

The first I stopped in on was “COMPSCI 279 – Research Topics in Human-Computer Interaction,” which I had no intention of visiting. Rather, there was another class in that room later in the day that I wanted to visit. But, I arrived early and saw a crowd of students flowing out the door. A good sign.

So, I peered in. The professor, Krzysztof Gajos, was giving students a tour of human-computer interfaces, from stylus-tablet input to Google Glass to nerve-sensing monitors that enable people to twitch a hand muscle and wirelessly control a computer. He talked about Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and how, through it’s API, it enabled computer programs to hire humans to perform tasks — a revolutionary and paradigm-upending achievement.

As I took in the significance of Gajos’s tour through HCI history, an undergrad took the opportunity to demonstrate her Harvard credentials. “I don’t mean to be a techno skeptic,” she started, “but isn’t this all just temporary until the next technological achievement comes along?” It was actually a good question, though couched in a superior attitude. Gajos’s smartly pointed out that while technologies change, the underlying issues remain the same and that would be the focus of the course.

After time expired, the class emptied out and a new round of students filtered in. This was the class I came to see: “BE 121 – Cellular Engineering” with Neel Joshi. Actually, this was a class another fellow came to see, but it sounded interesting, so I joined in.

Right away it was clear this class would be fascinating. These students would learning how to re-engineer cells via their DNA to express new and different proteins. Not just learning, mind you, but actually doing it in the lab.

As I looked around the room, I found myself thinking: fuck, these are some smart kids.

Once that class ended, I saw a steady stream of students heading into a large lecture hall. Curious, I followed them in. “COMPSCI 182 – Artificial Intelligence” was this class, taught by Scott Kuindersma. Hundreds of students crammed into the hot and noisy hall, many carrying hot, aromatic  lunches in to-go containers. As Kuindersma started to call the class to order, my stomach decided we had more urgent needs and I left in search of lunch.

I bumped into another fellow who was preparing to go to “ASTRON 110 – Exoplanets,” taught by John Johnson. Although I had already decided to attend a similar class at MIT taught by Sara Seager, a certified genius, I figured it would make for an interesting point of comparison. In the classroom, I noticed the open ceiling revealed clear plastic plumbing pipes. A large trap demonstrated its function as a well of water blocked gases from flowing back up the system. Other pipes were lined with dark sludge on their bottom halves. Were these sewage pipes? Was I about to see someone drop a deuce into the clear plastic tubes? This was fascinating.

At that point I realized I was more interested in the room’s plumbing than the professor, and so I excused myself and left.

Wandering the halls, I came upon a series of lab rooms. Most were dark, but one was filled with computers, instruments and a young man futzing with a camera mounted over a latex-covered piece of plywood.

“Pardon me,” I said, entering the room and distracting the man. “I’m a fellow at MIT and I’m just nosing around and wondered if I could interrupt you and ask what you’re doing in here?” I half expected him to call the campus police.

“Oh, I’m setting up some physics experiments,” he answered. I asked if he could show them to me. He thought for a moment, perhaps wondering if he’d get in trouble or if I’d cause him to run behind schedule. “Um, sure,” he said.

For the next half hour, we walked me through several terrific experiments. One looked at the impact of gravity on orbital mechanics. Another looked at the ratio of the frequency of rotation to the path of a ball. But the coolest involved an old mouse ball (the computer kind, not the rodent kind), a PVC pipe and a tall plexiglass cylinder. Below is a video that demonstrates, but the essence of the experiment is that as a ball circles the inside of a cylinder, it doesn’t just circle down. It actually rises at certain points due to the rotation of the ball against the inner side of the cylinder. See here:

As awesome as going to classes is and will be, I suspect wandering the halls and popping into labs will be even better.

The next day I went to the first class I planned to attend. “COMPSCI 50 – Introduction to Computer Science I” with David Malan is unlike any class I had ever taken. Part lecture, part rock concert, part TED Talk, it is held in Harvard’s Memorial Hall, a brick Cathedral-like building dating from just after the Civil War. Inside is part Hogwarts, part Notre Dame. The Sanders Theater, home of CS50, seemed more like a place to kneel before God and pray for humility than to work out functions, if-else statements, and loops.

Hundreds of students flowed into the theater with a stage set like an Apple keynote address surrounded by multiple cameras on booms. This was no ordinary lecture. Indeed, when Prof. Malan took the stage in a buttonless black shirt, I half expected him to unveil the iPhone 8.

The next 75 minutes were captivating. Malan spoke without notes and without hesitation. Charming and funny, he held the audience’s attention and delivered unto them a sermon outlining the logic and reason underlying computer science and programming. Little of the information was new to me, but as a tour de force of teaching, I was awestruck. And then we were served cupcakes — lusciously soft and moist. He had me at “Hello World.”

(Interestingly, the next morning I woke up to read a story in the Boston Globe about the course. Apparently, as popular as the class is, Malan is worried some won’t show.)

I had a couple of hours to kill before the next class I wanted to see, so I quickly biked home. Living just five or 10 minutes from Harvard has its advantages, though I suspect come winter they won’t be as apparent. Nevertheless, a quick lunch and I was off again. This time to the Harvard Kennedy School. I hoped to pop into “IGA 507 – Science and Technology in Domestic and International Policy,” led by John Holdren, President Obama’s former science advisor.

I arrived early and took my seat. Unlike the earlier classes, here the students were all closer to my age. I suddenly felt out of place. Whereas the undergraduate students barely managed to throw on a sweatshirt, these students were smartly attired in jackets or skirts. I looked down and saw a smudge of chain grease on my pant leg. A little hole in my shirt suddenly looked as big as Harvard’s endowment. I sank in my chair a tad.

“What are you doing here,” the gentleman to my left asked. It wasn’t accusatory, but felt that way. I explained the fellowship and learned he had been a professional ballet dancer before starting a nonprofit. (The next day we run into each other again. This time as he moved into the apartment adjacent to ours.) Sitting on my other side was a woman who was in her tenth year in the Army. She laid out her pen and notebook with a precision that made it clear that either could be used as a deadly weapon.

Feeling even more out of place than normal, I asked, “This is John Holdren’s class, right?”

“Oh no,” the former ballet dancer said, proving I was more out of place than I realized. I excused myself and raced through the halls to find Holdren’s class.

As it happened, all of the classes had moved from their original locations. Once I finally located the correct room, I could see Holdren had already started. Would he yell at me? I snuck in and took a seat. Then I noticed four of the other fellows were there too. My embarrassment lasted a few minutes, relieved only when a sixth fellow snuck in after me.

If CS50 was like a stadium rock concert, Holdren’s class was like a brilliant singer-songwriter performing in an intimate coffee shop. The slideshow was nothing special, but his mastery of the history of the intersection of American science and policy was mesmerizing. Anecdotes about Edward Teller and Harrison Brown punctuated the lecture. I desperately wanted to invite him to dinner to continue the conversation.

Unfortunately, it appears my schedule precludes me from attending the class on a regular basis. And that is the cruel reality of the fellowship program. There are so many great classes. So many great lectures, seminars, events, opportunities and you can make time for only a tiny fraction of them. For someone with chronic and debilitating FOMO, it’s a challenge to manage.

And MIT’s classes haven’t even started yet!

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