Top FaceMy strange sophomore year: I 🥴

303; 12022 H.E.

If you have ever heard of COVID, you probably remember it happened sometime in 2020, well, March 2020, to be exact. Coincidentally, it happened in the middle of my sophomore year of college. Surprise, it changed everything: how the world works, how we view ourselves, and the new path I’ve chosen to walk on. I’m getting ahead of myself. It happened in the Spring. We are still due to start our reminiscing of the Fall semester. Shall we?

Fall 2019

The fall of 2019 was a dark time. First time ever that I thought of dropping a course because it weighed too much on me. Someone told me, "Sandy, sophomore Fall would be the hardest semester; it’s like a transition from your freshman year." I don’t remember who it was, but they were on the spot.

Just a note that only 18 honor credit hours are required throughout four years to graduate; I took all of them in one semester. My advisor and I called this a "suicide semester," as I decided to enroll in six honor courses. I haven’t known anyone determined to do something similar. Probably for the better. I found The Tao of Pooh in those overwhelming times, which gave me peace.

Honors Physics II

After a fiasco called "Physics I," I decided not to meddle anymore in introductory 300+ person science lectures. Instead, I was in a twelve-person classroom led by the eccentric Hui Zhao, PHSX 214 (there is also a lab section, PHSX 216, but it’s so unremarkable, I would rather forget it). Thanks to the more intimate learning environment and higher standards set by the professor, I realized that physics can be fun! This is despite the double course workload compared to non-honors (peasant) counterparts.

During one of the lectures on fundamental laws of Physics, Professor Zhao preached, "Did you know when God said there shall be light, he actually meant the five Maxwell equations?" What a mad lad. He promptly pulled up a page from the Bible on screens, rewritten with those equations.

The Maxwell Bible
The Maxwell Bible

He was such a dad. Introducing a new topic or some law, he would famously say,

“This might be a law for you, but for me,
this is just common sense.”

He was a gambler too. One of my classmates and friends, Kim, didn’t want to get the $80 textbook, which also grants us the privilege of attempting our required-25%-of-the-final-grade homework assignments. I believe it was simply out of principle. Professor Zhao presented him with an opportunity, "You can skip the homework, but I will combine it with your final exam score. Basically, what you get on the final will be your homework section grade." We also had a policy of a higher final exam score replacing the lower midterm grade. In the end, 75% of Kim’s total grade in the class was riding on the final exam.

\begin{align*} \text{Total Grade} = \end{align*}

Normal student Kim’s Gambit
\(\begin{cases} 25\% \text{ - Assignments}\\ 25\% \text{ - Midterm}\\25\% \text{ - Final}\\25\% \text{ - Lab work}\\\end{cases}\) \(\begin{cases} 75\% \text{ - Final}\\25\% \text{ - Lab work}\\\end{cases}\)

Teaching assistants who took the professor’s courses in the past promised us he’s the kind of a teacher who makes easy finals. That was the case until one of those teaching assistants (looking at you, Neema) wrote a great (and super complicated) study guide for us to use to prepare (thanks) and shared it with Professor Zhao (no thanks). He believed we were beyond capable of handling the most challenging material in class, therefore making the last semester’s exam something reminiscent of a scholastic nightmare. Here is the two-page cheat sheet I prepared.

sheesh 🥶
sheesh 🥶

What happened to Kim’s gambit? Haven’t seen or spoken it him ever since. I heard he’s engaged now, so it couldn’t have been that bad. Hope you are doing well, Kim!

Honors Linear Algebra

"Linear algebra is easy," they say. "It’s only worth two credit hours" or "follow it like a cookbook, and you’ll be fine." None applies to MATH 291: Honors Linear Algebra taught by Margaret Bayer. Anyone who had her class just gasped reading her name. Not to give a misleading impression, she’s an excellent teacher, but her in-class policies and grading might as well be incarnate of what students tend to lose their sleep at night. Professor Bayer turned this "Baby Linear Algebra" into an upper-level course requiring students, primarily engineers with no formal math experience, to write tight linear algebra proofs.

It’s gotten so tedious for some students that the number of enrolled people thinned out by about a half in the first two or three weeks. Why? Because there is nothing more demoralizing than spending six to eight hours on a math proof for homework to get only 40% of the total credit. You might ask, "Oh, it couldn’t have been that hard!" Not excruciatingly, but out of ten given problems, only two to three solutions would get selected for credit, and the professor didn’t really believe in a thing called "partial credit." That’s for the weak and feeble-minded, apparently.

So much so that often our homework assignments reviewed by our grader would get tactically intercepted by Professor Bayer for a regrade. It is painful seeing your sweet 18/20 scribbled out and replaced with a 10/20. Also, the grader got fired somewhere in mid-semester for either being too soft on us or incompetent (by later testimonies of insiders, whose identities shall remain secret). What’s the difference between those two in the eyes of our professor anyway?

As much as I tend to demonize this class, it was great! Slowly but surely, I have gotten used to writing proofs, which has made me better at the subject. This experience served as an excellent setup for what came in the following semesters! As a little sneak peek, this is not the last time I have taken a Margaret Bayer course, nor has it been the last time I have done my linear algebra studies.

Honors Ordinary Differential Equations

Oh, boy. This course in the Fall of 2019 went down in history as the most chaotic ordinary differential equations class to date. It all started even before the beginning of the semester. The day before the start of classes, our assigned Professor, Milena Stanislavovea, was switched to a Ph.D. graduate student, Brad Isom. Recall that one of the significant allures of honors courses is the respective department’s guarantee they will be taught by a professor or faculty member. This was Brad’s first time instructing this level of a class (our Teaching Assistants usually undertake the role of supplemental instructors in introductory calculus and algebra courses). No narcing on Brad, though. He was a real homie.

He walks in on the first day of lectures and tells us, "I don’t know what honors sections are. I’ll give you more homework, harder material, and harsher grading. You chose this class." I never asked for this. If you thought Professor Bayer’s class was equivalent to the math department’s hazing, Brad went straight to scholastic abuse (we still love you, Brad).

Never have I bombed a midterm so hard that I barely got away with a D. I guess optional homework assignments were a part of that; hence the negative incentive to do those hadn’t been much help. On my way to the classroom, I saw my friend Kaitlyn (made-up name) walking in the opposite direction. Confusingly, I asked her, "Hey, Kaitlyn, how you’re doing?" She replied with a heart of burning passion, "Went to Brad’s office hours to see if I could do anything about my midterm (she also bombed it?) He looked at it and said, 'Too bad.'" What a mad lad. I never saw her again.

Also, Brad had this quirk about him, where he would spend at least 99.8% of the class time proving an ordinary differential equation solving technique and do a very trivial example of using it. Later, never asked for anything close to proofs on any submissions and was only required to speed-solve what felt like a never-ending list of back-of-the-book problems. Sometimes, textbooks can be beneficial.

At least he would ask us how to name variables in his class proofs. Pro-tip, always go for the most obscure ones, like capital xi "Ξ" or capital lambda "Λ." It didn’t stop at just symbols; it spread all the way to let us choose the colors of markers. I famously asked him to use the poop-colored one. That marker went flying straight into the nearest trash bin. Kinda wasteful of campus resources if you ask me. Circling back to the grade part — it wasn’t great. I walked into the final exam needing to score at least 99% to get an A in the class. Thankfully, I had an awkward date with a girl I was seeing at the time, so to take my mind off it, I occupied all my free time right before it with solving differential equations. I studied like never before.

During the final exam, in two and a half hours, I wrote out 27 pages full of raw math, scored 120% (full extra credit, thanks, Brad), and finished the course with a strong A. So... thanks, Liz.

Looking at it all later, Brad also had a lot on his plate. The math department dumped a whole class of too-clever-for-their-own-good honor students while he also had to take care of his newborn kid, henceforth, a family. You know you be real for that! Thank you, Brad.

Extra content! I enjoyed the content; I have a whole article (Differential equations 🔥) written on solving ODEs with what I learned from the class. It took a while to type it all out — worth it.

Honors Digital Circuits

Even with my newly discovered math major, I can’t forget my primary duties as a Computer Scientist (whatever that means). I couldn’t at that time yet. Okay, this class is summarized as — misery. Not as bad as the next one, but still uncomfortably close. As much as I enjoy wiring circuits; soldering; playing with small LED bulbs; learning the theory (SoP, PoS, PMOS, NMOS, CMOS, more evil to follow); designing circuits (adders, buses, latches, flip-flops, registers, pls no more). All of it was the bane of my existence. It just didn’t click, and I had to grind through the material. Professor Petr (whom I worked for next year, yet to come) had this policy — if you get a score of D or lower on any in-class exam — you will be administratively removed from the course (the wording is verbatim). Every midterm, he would apply a weird curve, such that approximately 25% of the students get an A, another 25% a B, more 25% a C, and the remaining quarter ends with a D or lower (this meant goodbye). Bizarre; I know.

It didn’t help when every midterm (there were two or three?), a quarter of the remaining students would get popped out of existence. The moment I have ingrained in my memory is of me sitting at my desk at midnight. Quiet in my shoebox-sized (that’s flattering) dorm, watching Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, and almost in tears from doing an EECS 141 assignment I had no love for. But hey, we built something that resembles a bomb and would get you in a lot of trouble if you tried to smuggle it past TSA. (don’t do it)

Don't travel with this
Don’t travel with this

This was my introduction to circuits, digital logic, and all alike. Fun.

Second Volume coming! 😭 ◼︎