Reflections on Finals Week

Dec 20 2004 Kelly Norton

It is official, I have survived my first bout with an MIT finals week. There were quite a few times when I wasn't sure if I would, but I woke up late Friday with only a piecemeal recollection of the previous eight days and some email records acknowledging receipt of my assignments. I had emailed in the last of the assignments, a paper, the night before and had finally come home and crashed for a prolonged, somewhere on the order of twelve hours, sleep. I don't know exactly how many hours I slept over the course of the week, but it wasn't many and I felt as if I was closing my eyes for the first time in like 12 years. When I finally woke up and staggered into the living room to see if anyone had noticed that I hadn't made it into the lab, I realized that the memory of the past few days was pretty shaky and I couldn't recall exactly how the days had progressed. During the whirlwind of activity, it seemed like the stuff I was doing was worth retelling, but now that it's passed, I don't really remember what the hell I did. Here are a few things I do remember:

6am Friday the 10th

Seven hours until I have to give a presentation on a paper that isn't due for another four days. I have an outline, which I am hoping will be sufficient filler for twenty minutes of presentation. I did most of the research and reading over the past sixty hours in between meeting with my group to test the various design iterations for our Tangible Interface prototype and getting just enough sleep to ensure that I can focus for at least short stints before drifting off. Plus, my presentation later today is just one in a lineup of eight hours of student presentations where I will be expected to stay awake. So, I will have to limit my coffee intake until then since I have developed some sort of caffeine tolerance over the past few days. I get no more than three helpful cups a day, anything more has no effect. My list of things to do before I go on stage is down to six and includes finding more references and trying to rehearse at least two times to ensure that I don't overshoot my time. I just keep thinking, “I'll be glad when this is over, so I can move on to my paper and projects.”

10pm Saturday 11th

I've moved on to writing my paper though progress is slow. I am on page 3, only 17 to go to meet the minimum page requirement. I'm still in that early stage where it's hard to determine whether to be verbose or concise, but I figure it's probably easier to go from verbose to concise than the other way around. I met with my group earlier to discuss plans for finishing our Tangible Interfaces project. We were surprised to find out on Wednesday that the final presentation for that project is on Monday, even though the course website still advertises it as Wednesday. Oops, that fact would have been helpful for planning. That project all comes down to tomorrow night. We currently have epoxy setting on one of our prototypes. We will test it first thing tomorrow and if it doesn't work we'll start shooting video to present on Monday. My current plan is to try to reach page twelve of my paper tonight.

4am Monday 13th

I'm standing on Main street with a handycam and Mimi, Mat and I are discussing how to shoot the next scene. We've been shooting on and off since about 2am and we're getting pretty desperate to finish. As soon as we have everything we need, Mat will do a whirlwind editing job and hopefully it will all be ready at 9am when the presentations begin. I managed to get a couple of hours of sleep earlier in the day, which is good because I'm running on empty and I definitely won't be able to take a nap again until Monday afternoon at the earliest. It's very hard to stay focused on shooting, and with so little sleep I'm freezing. I won't say too much about what we are shooting, except that it involves pretending to vandalize recognizable landmarks around MIT. Currently, we're shooting a scene on the Legal Seafoods fish statue and next we're headed over to the Stata Center to finish up. While Mat edits video, Mimi and I will work on some posters to illustrate the designs we came up with and the problems we addressed with each. We also have a partially working prototype, which we'll show if time permits. I'm feeling delirious and I can't stop moving or I'll fall asleep.

11am Monday 13th

We're in the middle of student presentations and I keep dozing off. Fortunately, I'm not alone. As I look around the room, I realize that almost everyone in the class has been in the Lab all night. Arnaud is still wearing a suit the suit he wore to a wedding in Japan a day or so ago. He apparently flew straight back and just carried his luggage directly to the lab and began helping his group finish up. I saw another of the groups earlier in the night already drinking Red Ice, which from what I could gather was a concentrated form of Red Bull. I just drank a four shot espresso, but it's not doing anything for me, because I keep waking up with my head against the wall. Mat, Mimi and I are still waiting to give our presentation. We've been trying to keep our heads low because Mat is still working feverishly on his laptop to render the video. I lead off the talking portion of the presentation, so I'm trying to figure out what I say whether the video finishes or not. Damn, I hope the video finishes rendering.

11pm Monday 13th

I'm back to writing my paper and OpenOffice currently reports that I'm typing into page 10 of 10, but I still have a long way to go. Maybe concise would have been a better strategy early on. Well, at least I won't have to worry about falling below the length requirement. I'm trying to take advantage of the five hours of sleep I just got. It was not supposed to be that long, but after being awake for about 30 hours and missing my two to three hour morning nap, I couldn't wake up. Our presentation went off well this morning. The video finished rendering with about five minutes to spare and we pulled our tired minds together long enough to explain what we had done with what seemed like clarity. Our project was a class favorite when we had presented our proposals, so we got a lot of good feedback. Hiroshi even suggested that we continue to work on it and try to submit it to SIGGRAPH. I'm happy it went off so well, but at this point I'm mostly happy that it's out of the way and I can concentrate on just one thing at a time. I also have a research deadline on Wednesday, but I can't think of that until the paper is done. Twenty-four hours until the paper is due; I'm going to request an extension ... just in case.

4am Tuesday 14th

I just drove in to print my paper and begin proof-reading and editing it. Fortunately, I was able to secure a twelve hour extension so the paper is now due at noon. With any luck, I will email it by 8 and go to bed for a little while before heading into the lab to take care of what I can for the research deadline and putting the finishing touches on a much smaller paper that is due on Thursday. I keep forgetting about the smaller paper.

3am Thursday 16th

I'm well into yet another long night. This time the entire PLW is pulling an all-nighter to try to do what we can to get some pieces of the new Treehouse Studio working. I'm not sure why the research deadline was scheduled right in the middle of finals week, but the group is doing what it can to get something done. I am splitting time between fixing little problems with the server infrastructure and finishing the short paper that is due later in the day. At this point, I've run into a wall and while I do continue to work, my efficiency is lousy. Plus, I keep thinking how I need to get a few hours of sleep so I can make Trey's end-of-year parent teacher conference at 3pm tomorrow. If I leave on the early train, I might get issued a frowny later in the day, but I haven't really seen my family in several days and I really need to make it to this parent-teacher conference.

6pm Thursday 16th

I'm finally done. I made the parent-teacher conference. The research deadline came and went. There was a brief showing of the things we had done, though I suspect we'll all receive some criticism for not getting further. Oh well, there isn't much to be done about that and I didn't have any more hours to devote. At least I'm done.

Finals week ended and now I'm trying to transition into Christmas. We did receive news that our research efforts had fallen short of expectations, which sort of dampens the enthusiasm now that I actually have time to put in a little time on that front. As I look back, I don't know how little I slept over the extended week of finals, but it wasn't much. I beginning to think that days without sleep is the defining MIT experience. But for now, it's over and I have shopping to do.