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My Favorite Course of Spring Term

Sherry shares her overwhelmingly positive experience with her favorite class of the term: linear algebra.

Sherry shares her overwhelmingly positive experience with her favorite class of the term: linear algebra.


You might be surprised to hear me say “I enjoy doing linear algebra.” You probably think that I’m either a nerd or a psychopath. Trust me, I’m not usually an academically rigorous person, and I always prefer non-academic things to academic ones. But if you ask me what my favorite class is this term, I would say it’s linear algebra. To explain this seemingly irrational and crazy answer, I tried to summarize the reasons below. Read about my experience before making your judgments about me!

sunset
The sunset last Friday: It’s the best time of the year

Back in registration

The story began with course registration back in winter. When I was considering taking linear algebra in the spring, a sophomore told me that the class would be very intense. With professor Rafe Jones, it involves two midterms, a final, and two group projects each due in Week 7 and Week 9. But linear algebra is a very important course that has wide applications across many fields, and you need to learn it well. And if you really want to learn stuff, take it with Rafe. With an adventurous mindset, I registered for this course and started my math journey.

Class content—abstract but fun!

The first several classes seemed perfectly normal. Just like any regular math class, we were going through definitions, examples, theorems, and facts. Rafe has a unique teaching style that is chill, slow-paced, and peaceful, which you might find a bit dry at first. I really don’t know when and how I changed my perceptions of the lecture. I suddenly felt like he was not just imparting knowledge to us. Math was like magic under his chalk. When Rafe looks at his own writing of a mathematical proof on the board and slowly says “That’s indeed amazing!” his enjoyment in doing math is passed on to you.

Besides, it was only when the class content started getting abstract that I realized how clear and organized Rafe is. I am always surprised when I could fully comprehend those complicated graphs and equations. As an experienced lecturer, Rafe also has perfect control of time and can always finish the content on time. I’m always amazed at the professors who are able to do this!

notes
My notes for the first midterm

Group work—an exemplary group

Apart from the professor, I also found my classmates insanely smart. Everyone seemed able to follow the lecture without effort and grasp the concepts in a split second. When I was still thinking about the previous example, my classmates had already come up with answers to the next question and were exploring more ways of solving the problem. It often made me slightly intimidated.

Another significant component of the class is group work. In Rafe’s class, we have something special called “Flipped Wednesdays.” This means that we need to watch a pre-recorded video before coming to class and work on group homework during class time. As we all know, when it comes to group work, there’s always someone who never shows up, someone who does not do any work, and someone who takes the responsibility for the entire group. To be honest, I seldom enjoyed group work in the past. I was often the person doing the most work, which was super frustrating.

A positive experience

However, I had an entirely opposite experience in this class. I was so grateful to have two smart and patient groupmates. Even when I was experiencing brain fog, my groupmates would offer to go over the problem with me until I fully understood the problem. We always make sure that we are going at a reasonable pace and everyone gets it. Most of the time, we were very efficient and could finish the group work in class and hand it in early. It’s such an exemplary group that everyone would hope to be involved in. 

I remember the first group project (“Lights Out”) came in Week 5 and was supposed to be done during the mid-term break. However, I was off-campus during that time and couldn’t have a meeting in person. So we decided to work on the project in Anderson on a Friday night when everyone else was partying and the entire building was nearly empty. It was an unforgettable experience.

It’s funny that when I was still away from campus, I opened our shared Google Doc once and saw long answers that were already put down by my partners. I felt so guilty and immediately took out my drafts and started writing in the hotel. I feel so lucky to be placed into this group. Aside from being so intelligent, my partners are also super nice and friendly. This is definitely a significant reason for my love for the class.

matrix
A manually entered 25×25 matrix from our first “Lights Out” project

Office Hours—a super fun person to talk with!

Outside of class time, Rafe has office hours every single day and really wants us to drop in during that time. He is super helpful when I go in for questions. Instead of just giving me the right answer, Rafe really pushes me to think every time. I am forced to go over the entire thinking process myself. This gives me a deep understanding of the class content. 

Rafe is also a super fun person to chat with. At Amherst College, he double-majored in math and French, a cool combination that I often dream of having. When I said that I’m going to Paris this summer, he told me that he also did a one-year exchange in Paris. We talked about French a lot, and languages indeed open doors for me!

I remember he once said in class that counter-clockwise, which can be abbreviated as c.c.wise, would be an eight-word phrase in French. When learning diagonalization, he pointed out that the word diagonalizable has 17 characters and seems to be the longest math word. The one more he can think of is non-diagonalizable, which has 20 characters. Or pseudo-diagonalizable. I always enjoy those details, and they really draw me into his class. In addition, he’s also an excellent writer, which I can easily tell from his elegant way of speaking with many beautifully structured phrases. (I’m too lazy to read his publications, but will definitely do it one day!) Rafe also likes to mention his lovely daughters in class. They know what googol and googolplex mean already, which are words that I’ve never heard before as a college student.

Summary

This is probably the longest blog that I wrote this term, as I really can’t stop complimenting Rafe and his class. I also chatted with my classmates, and they all enjoy the class a lot. My classmates, group members, and Rafe all made my life much easier this term. I’m glad that I’m taking it with Rafe. That’s why I’m (a little bit) more determined to be a math major. I’m also closer to saying that I mastered linear algebra. In short, I truly look forward to taking more classes with him in the future.

fireworks
1 week to summer break [fireworks]!!

Sherry is a first-year student from Hangzhou, China, and holds a real passion for travel and food. She is thinking about majoring in Mathematics, but would also like to explore more in Economics, Computer Science, English, and French. Things she likes to do in her free time include hanging out with friends, taking photos, writing random stuff, and finding the funny in everyday life. She also got started with alpine skiing and is always ready for the trip to Welch Village every Friday! Meet the other bloggers!