Go to Class (Most of the Time)

part of the “what I learned after four years at MIT” series, I guess? A short post this time.

I can’t begin to count the number of times we were exhorted in high school to go to class. College is different, they said. Nobody is going to force you to go to class any more. This is what you came to college to do, what you paid so much time and money for. It’s on you to make sure you’re learning.

By and large I followed this advice, until I considered that I might have overcorrected given the exhortations. There are a lot of definitely bad reasons to skip class, chief among them being too lazy to get out of bed. There are also some non-obvious reasons to go to class, such as getting the professors to recognize you — this is a reason to go to office hours even if you’re not particularly struggling with the class, or if you know people who might be able to help you that you could ask more comfortably or more conveniently; professors who know you may eventually be able to give you career advice, research opportunities, or letters of recommendation. (Of course, you shouldn’t try to befriend professors purely for these selfish motives; they’re also good to know just as fellow humans.)

But there are also plenty of legitimate reasons to skip class. (It’s really unclear how many people out there need to hear this, but my past self did, and I want this draft out of the way-too-long queue of posts.) Here are some.

  • You just pulled an all-nighter and the sleep deprivation is taking its toll. Obviously the correct solution is to not have had to pull an all-nighter in the first place, but that’s always easier said than done, and it’s not particularly comforting after you have in fact pulled an all-nighter. In that case, get some sleep. Your education and your grades are not worth destroying your personal health over.

  • You already know all the material. Are you really sure? Be very wary about thinking you know material that you don’t. If you do, why are you taking the class? It might be better for everybody involved if you dropped it. But maybe you need it to graduate. Fine: if all those things are true, it might actually be best for you to register for the class while doing something better with the time you would have spent in class. That is a big “if”, but occasionally it’s true for some people.

  • You learn better outside of class. Maybe the lectures are recorded and you can watch them online at 2x speed while focusing, or at least not focusing less than you would if you were in lecture. This also requires a lot of self-discipline. Again, it may be easier just to go to class. Just because attending lecture would be less efficient for an ideal version of you who can absorb knowledge at will, doesn’t necessarily mean it will be more efficient for you, right here on this mortal plane of existence. It generally isn’t for me. But if it’s true for you, feel free to skip class and watch the lectures instead.

  • You have a rare, important opportunity that conflicts with class. It’s fine. Most MIT professors understand that job interviews fall squarely in this category and are explicitly OK with that, but I think this also handily includes scenarios such as, a friend is visiting you for the first time in years. This is a slippery slope that you have to be wary of — it’s not hard, I think, to keep finding rare or important opportunities if you start looking for them — so use your best judgment. This should be something you do at most once a month or so.

Learning is important, but so are other things, and attending classes is far from the only way to learn at college, though it helps. Prioritization is a tricky business. I don’t really have anything wittier to say here, so I’ll leave it at that.

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