Some observations on the first day of classes.

As the newest Departmental Liaison for MIT OpenCourseWare, I spent some time today in 7.012 and 3.091, intro bio and chem classes here at the Institute. I have to say, it was deeply strange to be sitting in 10-250, the lecture hall where I sat for most of my classes freshman year, with a bunch of freshmen I admitted. I felt like I was undercover, particularly when the 3.091 TAs kept giving me (but not my coworkers) the handouts.
Some things are different; some have stayed the same. For instance, pre-lecture conversations and chatter now feature a coda of the scattered electronic melodies of cell phones being turned off, and some students have laptops with them in class. The cell phone problem generated much laughter in 3.091 today, when Sadoway was going through his usual classroom behavior spiel: no talking, no food or drink, and no cell phones. “If your cell phone rings during class, you’re out of here,” he said, at which point some kid near the front made the mistake of reaching down and turning off his cell phone, which produced a little synthesized jingle.
“That’s it,” Sadoway said.
“No, no,” the kid pleaded. “It makes that sound when you turn it off.”
“Is this true?” Sadoway asked the class. There were murmurs of agreement, and a group of girls sitting next to the unfortunate soul vigorously spoke up in his defense. Sadoway relented.
“Alright,” he said. “And you owe those girls,” he added, gesturing at the guy with the phone.
Of course, what hasn’t changed is the fact that lecture halls are always packed on the first day of classes. But come back next week and there will be room for everyone. You remember that montage in Real Genius…?
In 7.012 — which was a scattered lecture with the prof showing a bunch of diagrams of cells and occasionally scrawling words like “vacuole” and “ribosomes” on the chalkboard — I noticed that the instructor spoke in an interesting way about cells. He was speaking of how cells have evolved over the past 7 or 8 million years, saying that “cells had to solve the problem of how to communicate between the exterior and the interior by inventing proteins to facilitate the transmission of these signals.” I think it’s interesting (and probably no coincidence) that the intro bio class at an elite technical school uses this language of innovation and problem-solving to describe evolutionary processes, even on the cellular level. Biology as innovation in which cells have agency? Cells as the engineers, entrepreneurs, innovators? It’s kind of funny, when you think about it.


19 thoughts on “Some observations on the first day of classes.

  1. That is the major thing about biology and sometimes chemistry that bothered me – people who treat cells and biological processes like they’re little people doing things. Just wait until someone tries to explain electron affinity and polarity . . . “Well, you see, some atoms, like oxygen, really like eletrons. They’re electron greedy, and they don’t share very nicely with the hydrogen.” It is, unfortunately, a teaching method that prevails at all levels in the field, and even I sometimes found myself relying on it when I was a TA. Sometimes I wondered if anthropomorphizing cells was an unconscious answer to the absence of religion in science. We’re not here as the result of the divine, but maybe we’re here because our little cells like to work together and communicate and share and instant message and all that. Anyway. It is kind of funny, and I always wondered if anyone else noticed how peculiar it was.

  2. That’s a really interesting observation.
    In EE instruction, sometimes components get personified
    (transistors are apparently male, in case you were wondering),
    but fortunately they are never depicted as having control
    over their destiny, or being capable of independent thought.
    Sadoway, meanwhile… I like his style.

  3. The words and metaphors people use to talk about science and technology are a big subject of discussion in the science studies community (STS and all that). I remember sort of laughing at the figures used in one book we read in STS.350 (Rodin, you’ll remember this…), which described the ways high-energy physicists anthropomorphized the machinery and equipment they used, but, as silly as that particular treatment of it was, I do think that the ways in which we choose to talk about these things are revealing. It probably doesn’t say as much as the author of that particular book was trying to argue, but it does say something that’s worth talking about: something about how our society thinks about and views scientific endeavor, as well as how we learn (or how we think we learn). In STS.350, I argued that everyone talks about their computers in just that way, but I think I came around to realize that that’s actually a perfect reason to examine it. It’s important to talk about precisely because it’s so sneaky: it comes in under the radar, and you have to stop and pay attention.

  4. Hmmm. Reminiscing. Alas, I have never stepped foot inside an MIT classroom. I didn’t realize how much I would miss learning until AFTER I got my bachelor’s degree.

  5. Interesting perspective. Reminds me of a discussion at the house last year between educator and scientist regarding the optimal level of sensory processing for young children. Josh used the term ‘band-width’ for a spectrum of optimal arousal for learning, which for me was a novel perspective. Later, I used that perspective to help a parent — who happened to be an engineer– understand what was trying unsucessful to be explained. When the tern ‘band-width’ was used, he said: “Yes, now I get it.”

  6. Sadoway rocks.
    Who, BTW, was the bio Prof?
    Also, I got this when trying to post the first time:
    “Your comment could not be submitted due to questionable content: g mail . com” (spaces mine, so this will get past your censor)
    How in the world is gmail questionable?

  7. Ah. must’ve gotten added to the blacklist because of some spam comment I got from a gmail address. I’ll correct that now.
    Not sure who the bio prof was, but I bet one could look it up on //student/catalog.

  8. According to the interwang 7.012 is being lectured by Lander & Weinberg. So if it was a short Jewish man with a combover it was Weinberg, and if it was the barrel-chested leader of the genomics revolution it was Lander.
    And Amrys, how about some full URLs? Not many of us are still on MITnet with any regularity.

  9. I was figuring from your description, Amrys, that it was Eric Lander. He is the one person who has ever made bio even mildly interesting to me–it is so very *excited* about it. Also, he is used to explaining bio to all types of people, so I would have figured that he would use such a comparison.
    The quick test to see who it was: if the lecture was good it was Lander , if it made you want to leave (and harped on the dangers of smoking) it was Weinberg .

  10. That day was the first time I’ve attended one of Sadoway’s lectures, but it was just as interesting as the man himself. I recommend that you converse with him if you ever get the chance. He’s an interesting guy and interested in nearly everything!

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