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classes are hard but i’m sure you knew that already by Audrey C. '24

an academic case of murphy's law

Sometimes you put a lot of effort into something and the external validation you get in return feels good and satisfying and right. Sometimes, it’s like trying to pop a pimple, where you’d poke and prod at the pimple for what feels like eternity without actually getting all of the pus out, so your stomach clenches tighter and tighter, and you just want to scream. All you’re left with is an angry red welt. Even though you know that continuing to bother that welt would increase your chances of infection, you keep poking at it anyways…

I took a robotics class last semester that felt like trying to pop a stubborn, unpoppable pimple. Before anything else, I want to make it clear that in my opinion, the class itself was a really good class. We learned how to model nonlinear, high dimensional systems, which describes most robots that walk, fly, do backflips and other complex tasks, but applies to nonrobotic systems as well. The course staff was incredibly knowledgeable, approachable, and kind. When I asked for help, I received it.

I wasn’t prepared for the level of rigor that this class demanded, so I had my butt handed to me again and again. I guess the point of this blog is to say that:

  • robotics is really really hard lol (at least for me)
  • OX’ing a class at the end of a semester exists as a non-stigmatized safety net for when things goes to shit
  • I think I’m getting better at handling feelings around failure, and that in itself makes getting through this class worth it

me on my college application: "I want to be academically challenged." me after being academically challenged: surprised pikachu faceThe saga began when I added this class two and a half weeks after the semester had started. I felt the need to “replace” a different class that I had dropped, and this class just seemed so so cool. I sat in a lecture and it was!

But dude. You can just drop a class. I would, in a heartbeat, tell any underclassmen friendo that you can just drop a class without “replacing” it. But who listens to their own advice hehehe

I stayed up all night to catch up on a problem set that was due before I had joined the class. I was unfamiliar with the notation, how physical systems abstracted into equations and math, and every single problem made me contemplate dropping that class. That should’ve been a sign. But 7am rolled around and I eventually turned something in. I got around a 60%, which stung, but whatever. A bad pset grade here and there won’t penetrate the wall I’ve gradually built around my ego over these few years.

I did start doing better on the problem sets, especially once I started working on it with other people and attending office hours where many students had the same questions as I. But the lectures conflicted with a different attendance mandatory class, so I slowly but surely fell behind on lectures….

Again dude. You literally know that attempting to take a class asynchronously is a recipe for disaster. Every single time I’ve attempted to take two classes whose lecture times conflict, one of them always gives.

The midterm rolled around. It was on the Tuesday right after spring break. I wanted to claim the eighth amendment01 <b>Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted</b>. (usually summarized as no cruel or unusual punishments) for this horrible timing. But I allocated time during spring break to catching up on lectures, looked over mistakes from my past psets, did the practice exam, and crammed as much text as I could onto two sides of an 8.5”x11”.

I got a 32%. Clearly other people didn’t find this midterm as hard as I did, as I scored over two standard deviations below average.

That’s okay, I tried my hardest, grades don’t define me, it was a bad day and all the cool things I’m learning matter most—

My midterm grade meant that mathematically, I was no longer able to get above a C in this class. Normally I’d just tell myself that C’s get degrees and move on. However, I was planning to use this class to fulfill a requirement for my MEng02 course 6 has a nifty Masters of Engineering program that lets you pursue your MEng concurrently with your undergraduate degree, usually during the last year. later, so things got a bit trickier there. Unfortunately, you have to get an A or B in a grad level class for it to count towards an MEng degree. So essentially I flunked this class already and I didn’t even get to do the final project yet.

I know I could’ve benefited from building a stronger math background prior to taking this class. I know I could’ve watched the lectures more carefully, rewinding the tricky parts until I actually understood them. I know, I know, I know… But I didn’t feel like I deserved to fail: it hurt so much to know that in terms of what will show up in my transcript, all the work I’ve put into this class has been undone by one exam.

The walls surrounding my ego crumbled. I was once again vulnerable to the anguish of failing a test, like I was back in freshman year. I remember confiding in my UROP mentor, who graciously also acted as a pillar of moral support back then, that I failed my 18.0603 linear algebra midterm. Of course, that could only mean that I was doomed to fail the entire class and then fail at life. He took my melodrama well, eventually talking me out of my anxiety.

But I’m a junior.04 well at that time i was, and i dont want to think about the fact that i'm now a senior and getting oldddd I hate how things that bothered me back then still bother me now. Almost as if to “prove” to myself that my ego can withstand more hits, I walked into office hours on drop date.05 last day possible to drop the class without penalty I asked the TA if he’d recommend dropping the class, fully expecting what he would say. He explained in the gentlest way possible that I should consider retaking this class next spring, which again is exactly what any sane TA would’ve said, what I probably would’ve said if I were in his position. I quickly thanked him and made a beeline for my room and cried.

But a good captain always sinks with their ship, right? I opened the drop form, but I so desperately wanted to prove to myself through the final project. I deleted the drop form.

My ship must’ve been named “The Sunk Cost.”

My 6.115 project, which I worked on concurrently with this class’s final project, went surprisingly smoothly. I hit milestone after milestone, every component clicking together with the ease that my robotics final project completely lacked. I spammed the Piazza question board, went to nearly every office hours session, and wished again and again that I had submitted that drop form.

With the power of caffeine and a willingness to suffer, I managed to turn in half of my final project deliverable on time, but shit happens and I just couldn’t finish it. Instead of begging for a late drop, I begged for an extension.

More accurately, I begged for an OX. An OX is essentially an incomplete grade, granted by both the professor and an S^306 Student Support Services dean in the cases where extenuating circumstances prevent a student from finishing a class. For example, if you get sick during finals week, you don’t have to drag your snot to the exam room and manipulate equations with sleepytime flu medicine messing with your brain. Instead, an OX lets you recover and take the final, or in my case finish my final project, once the storm has passed.

Bloggers before me have talked extensively about their experiences with an OX. I just want to reiterate here that this option exists as a way to make life’s challenges a bit more manageable, should they occur around finals week.

As much as I was thankful for my temporary reprieve, it meant that this saga dragged on. When things finally simmered down near the end of June, I had a foreboding set of unfinished experiments and a full length research paper sitting between me and the end of the tunnel.

label that reads "you can do it. resolve your OX"

guilt tripping myself every time i’d open my laptop

Forcing myself to work on resolving my OX meant that I first had to confront my feelings surrounding this project. Obviously, it’s not motivating to view this as a project for a class that I was doomed to fail. Luckily, I was able to petition for this class to fulfill an requirement for my undergraduate degree instead, where a C would count. I also deployed every trick I knew for facilitating better executive function. But I think what really helped was knowing that I had been in a similar situation last summer, and I can do it again.

I had written about a UROP project that I had given my all in attempt to get it published, but I burnt out before I could make that happen. My mentors gave me the time and space I needed away from the project to put myself back together. I so desperately wanted closure, but revisiting the project also meant revisiting the baggage of shame and disappointment attached to it. Six months later, I finally cleaned up the code base and threw my paper up on arxiv.07 arxiv is an online archive of scientific papers that does not involve peer review. At that point, it became less about making meaningful contributions to the scientific community, and more about just finding closure. Closure is all I wanted, for my UROP project and this class project alike, to transform feelings of failure into acceptance. Maybe even pride.

It’s easy to lament making the same mistakes that I thought I had already learned from. I wished that I was better at validating myself; otherwise I wouldn’t have needed to prove my capabilities to myself or anyone else by going through that whole saga. Sometimes dropping the damn class is the best thing you can do for yourself.

But I can see the ways I’ve grown through how I’ve dealt with the series of setbacks throughout this class. I addressed my feelings instead of dismissing them. I’ve remained relatively calm throughout the decisions that I did make. I used to hold bitterness towards the classes themselves if I struggled in them (cough 18.06), but I hold none of that towards this class. If someone asked me how I thought of this class, I’d only have good things to say. Besides, I did learn quite a bit about robotics, nonlinear systems, and controller optimization,  and made a ballistic squirrel do a backflip for my final project:

squirrel model doing a backflip

i attempted to model Mark Rober’s squirrel launching platform for my final project., showing how the inertial effects of the limbs and tail contribute to squirrel’s righting reflex.

I’m currently in grades purgatory, still waiting for the final verdict as to whether or not I got my C. I’m optimistic though. According to the official guidelines for an OX,

The OX grade is appropriate for students who […] have been progressing satisfactorily in the class.

My professor must have some faith that I’ve been “progressing satisfactorily” right?? But regardless of the decision, I’m done with everything within my control. I’ve gotten my closure, I’ve satisfyingly popped this pimple.



edit 9/3/2023: I PASSED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  1. Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. (usually summarized as no cruel or unusual punishments) back to text
  2. course 6 has a nifty Masters of Engineering program that lets you pursue your MEng concurrently with your undergraduate degree, usually during the last year. back to text
  3. linear algebra back to text
  4. well at that time i was, and i dont want to think about the fact that i'm now a senior and getting oldddd back to text
  5. last day possible to drop the class without penalty back to text
  6. Student Support Services back to text
  7. arxiv is an online archive of scientific papers that does not involve peer review. back to text