071. Rules

tldr: and who sets them

Post number 8 on MITAdmissions. I personally like how the one on that site looks better with annotations but you do you.

This post includes an in-depth and personal discussion of the November Rule. I recommend these posts for more reading/information on the Rule itself, though I will also be detailing what the Rule is here. While the audience I am directly talking to is meant to be members of the MIT student body, this post is one that I believe may be useful for high schoolers, prefrosh, and people in general.

And in case at any point it feels a bit vague, let me be perfectly clear: do not break the November Rule. But if you do, you aren’t alone.

1. An Incomplete Understanding.
More aptly titled: The game of rules and living by them.

Song: The Name of the Game, from Mamma Mia! soundtrack, written by ABBA

Math people stereotypically like rules. They provide formal systems with which to navigate the world. This is unsurprising for a field (again, stereotypically) devoted to axiomatic thinking. Except, in reality, mathematicians don’t start research papers with the axioms they’re assuming. They simply know that the axioms exist, and, at the very least, what those axioms imply for the type of math they are trying to understand.

This approach to understanding and navigating the world is one I believe most people try to utilize– not just the mathematicians. From childhood, people are taught (some of) the social and legal rules they should follow. Now, these rules aren’t as rigorous as those in math– they are hardly logically consistent or complete– but we get by as best as we can. This is what makes society and math both extremely different and extremely similar. The difference is apparent through the logical inconsistencies, while the similarities are seen through the actual real world applications.

Because by the end of the day, all we are trying to do is make some non-trivial addition to our respective worlds, and this requires accepting a (perhaps incomplete) knowledge of the rules so that we can actually sit down and get some actual work done.

2. The Questions at Hand.
More aptly titled: Formalism.

Song: Night Shift, by Lucy Dacus

Personally, I appreciate the rules of math, even if some of them can be a bit pedantic. This is because I am a formalist. I believe that math is a human-built mechanism designed with a purpose that can be motivated and (hopefully) understood by the people who created it. Other mathematicians, [cough cough CJ; (CJ: “i’m a platonist on the weekdays and a formalist on the sundays”)] believe that math is simply out there– that math is a fundamental truth of the universe that humans are merely approximating (platonism). Though, for the purposes of this blogpost, this is neither here nor there.

However, when it comes to the rules of society (or subsets thereof), I am often (at best) a bit of a follower. I accept that these rules exist for some reason and move on with my life. But on occasion, I feel rather frustrated by the rules that be. In particular, I wonder who created them, how they are enforced, and why they even exist.

Often, societal rules [like “why shouldn’t I talk really loudly in the deep lounge at 2am” and “why shouldn’t undergraduates be allowed to hang out in this area”] are harder to motivate for oneself when there is no clear rewarding outcome. It isn’t that these rules aren’t beneficial, it’s rather a question of who they benefit. Because more often than not, this person isn’t you.

At least, not at first.

3. the Rule.
More aptly titled: Don’t Break It.

Song: Back to Black, by Amy Winehouse

Note: for clarity, in this post, the word Rule is capitalized when referring to the November Rule in particular, which is most of the time.

While the last two sections are generally true, in this post I want to talk about the November Rule specifically. The November Rule states* that first years should not get into a relationship, romantic or sexual, before November of their freshman fall.

The reason there is an asterisk here is due to the fact that the rule is different depending on who you ask. Some people/places say that the Rule specifically applies to first year/upperclassmen relationships, but I feel like this is insufficient. For the reasons below, I believe that the rule should be that that first years should not get into a relationship, romantic or sexual, regardless of class year, before November of their freshman fall. That being said, it may be worth noting that there isn’t a universally agreed upon ‘November Rule’.

Note that (in this section) I’m not talking about anything inherently original. Some of the reasons for not breaking the Rule have been discussed time and time again in the blogs and in The Tech (see links in the preface).

a) Who you know (or moreso, who you don’t).

Try listing out the people you knew (or know) as a frosh. How many of them live in the same hall as you? How many are in your classes? Your clubs? From your high school or from your high school activities? If you were to cross off all of the people on your list who fit this criterion, chances are you’re left with an empty sheet of paper. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s to be expected. Most social circles are initially formed like this. You form PSET groups with your classmates and get dinner with people in your hall/in your club, and with how busy MIT is it can be really hard to meet people any other way. 

So often, as a first year, you know no one new when you get here. Why is this a bad thing? Because if the relationship goes sideways, which no one wants to happen, those involved can become/feel deeply isolated. Your social groups are usually more limited your first year. Who you know is often who is a part of your support system. Thus, the person you get in a relationship with is more likely to become a part of your social circle if they aren’t already a part of that circle. And when this circle is all you know (compared to later years when your friend group is likely more spread out), it’s common for either you or your partner to be ousted from the social group and it can become hard to turn to the circle for help.

Relationships ending can already make you feel alone, and a lack of a support system can only add to that.

b) An additional twelve units.

There’s a common, and relatively realistic, notion that a relationship is an additional “twelve units” on top of your course load no matter what year you’re in. For MIT, this number is meant to coincide with the number of hours you should expect to spend per week on some class. Of course, some classes are less than that, and others are dastardly more. But whichever the case may be, there is a reason that first years are only allowed to take 54 units (this is a new-ish change, before it used to be 48).

A lot of thought is put into this credit limit. It is meant to keep first years from inadvertently over-exerting themselves with their first year “I was the best at my high school and I want to be the best here!” energy, as well as give students the chance to explore both the campus and their identity. You might ask why this only applies to first years, and the answer is that quite frankly it doesn’t. There are a number of upperclassmen who take a million classes and do a billion clubs, and I’ve been exploring my identity through these blogs my entire time at MIT. But the more time you spend at MIT, the more you learn how to balance this exploration with your priorities whatever those may be.

So what happens when you pile on another twelve units with a relationship as a frosh? However good at balancing you think you might be from high school, hell hath no fury like a full course load at MIT.

c) Most general, but thus most likely applicable.

Things can go wrong. The best relationships can end, and the best semesters can take a turn for the worst. No one wants this to happen to you. And it isn’t like we are out here thinking it’s more likely to happen to you because you’re in your first year. But most everyone has seen how devastating an experience like this can be for one’s freshman fall. So devastating, that many (including myself) truly believe that it is better to be safe than sorry.

College is the time to take risks and go out on a limb. But we have seen too many branches break when there is so much to be done here, safer on the ground.

4. Me: My first year.
More aptly titled: Breaking the Rule.

Song: Motion Sickness, by Phoebe Bridgers

My first year started like most first years do. It began with two packed suitcases and a backpack to move from California to a different state to start school. Except, this year was in the middle of the pandemic, and I wasn’t moving to Massachusetts. I was moving to an apartment in New York City with two other first years for the fall.

To be honest, I felt like the November Rule held little water. Like, I could see how it had hurt others, but it would be different for me somehow. But then, I broke the November Rule.

As quickly as the relationship started it ended. [Out of courtesy for the other person involved, and for any number of other reasons, this is as much specific detail as I will give into the actual relationship itself, though there may be a second part to this post providing some more context into my side of the relationship.]

And it has played a role in my MIT experience, for better or for worse, ever since.

On paper, that semester went great. I maintained my stellar GPA of all Ps (passes) [though if there were any NRs (no records)], and I started making some progress towards my math degree. But in reality, that semester was devastatingly lonely. For nearly all of my life I had been a content little loner, and yet nothing compares to living in a three-person apartment in the biggest city in the world [well more accurately the United States] and feeling like you have no one in the world to turn to. Call me the subtitle of Home Alone 2, because I was Lost in New York.

I had no support system. When the semester started, I was expecting a tight-knit living group of frosh just trying to survive the pandemic. Instead, all I had was weekly PSET Zoom calls with people who had no idea what I was going through [because I hadn’t told them let alone anyone] and I had weekend dinners with roommates (apartment mates?) who were dealing with the consequences of breaking the November Rule themselves.

But on paper I was fine. I kept telling my advisor this. I kept telling my mom this. I kept telling myself this. Just get through this, and you’ll be fine.

And I got through it. As it turns out, it’s not impossible to exist at MIT if all you’re doing is trying to do is get through it. Survive, focus on your studies, and nothing more.

5. Me: Three semesters later.
More aptly titled: In Pursuit.

Song: Run Boy Run – Instrumental, by Woodkid.

My sophomore spring, I took 21L.000: Writing about Literature which focused on monsters and monsters in society. In this class, I got to read Frankenstein for the second time since high school, and there was one line in particular that struck me differently this time around.

Before Victor Frankenstein created the Creature, he told the following about his time in school to Walton:

“Two years passed in this manner [deeply engaged in my studies], during which I paid no visit to Geneva, but was engaged, heart and soul, in the pursuit of some discoveries, which I hoped to make.”

(For context, this is just a bit before he had created the Creature.) When I read this, I saw a part of myself in Victor. Which was quite frankly, unnerving, for obvious reasons. I engaged, heart and soul, in the pursuit of math. I think I did pretty well in this regard. I took cool classes and I learned some neat things.

But I felt like I had no one.
Three semesters later, and I was back where I started after breaking the Rule: alone.

Sometimes, I wonder where I would be if I hadn’t broken the Rule.

Maybe I would have a better support system, and maybe I wouldn’t be so terrified to create one. Maybe I would’ve gone to Ring Premiere and formals and parties with friends, rather than alone if at all. Maybe I’d have more to my name than the pursuit of some discoveries.

At the end of the book (spoiler alert), Victor dies. The Creature comes to pick up the body of his Creator, and ends his life in a fiery blaze. Only then does Walton choose to do something more than engage in his own academic pursuit.

At the end of my sophomore year, I planned to do the same (as Walton, to be clear).

6. Me: Now.
More aptly titled: Horcruxes.

Song: Somewhere Only We Know, cover by Darren Criss, written by Keane

One reason people advocate for the November Rule is that “first years need to learn how to be independent at MIT”, but I find this to be insufficient. Hell, I have never been as independent as when I had broken the Rule.

The issue with breaking the November Rule, in my experience, is rather hyper-independence. After the relationship that led to the breaking of the Rule, I didn’t know how to talk to anyone about what I was going through. So, I didn’t. I just kept it to myself, and as I entered my sophomore year, I started finding it difficult to lean on others for support. Asking for help is something that requires so much vulnerability that is often difficult for me to muster.

Some of my friends are really good at reaching out when they need help. They’ve created a community of people they can rely on. Part of me wonders if this community is one that is supposed to be fostered during your first year. After all, first years needing help navigating adulthood in college is expected. It’s expected that the upperclassmen on your hall or in your major provide some amount of support to first years. It’s expected that by your sophomore year you feel like some fraction of the hellscape that is MIT feels normal.

I now know, or at least am learning, that this community is one that can be formed whenever one goddamn pleases– and there are always people who are willing to help. There are always people who want to help. Maybe this is what I would’ve learned if I had a normal first year.

But I didn’t have a normal first year. Sure, this can be chalked up to the pandemic or neurodivergence or whatever– but whatever the reason I just feel like I’m broken. My first year, I went out on a limb. I wanted to put a bit of myself into a community and grow as a result. And I failed.

In this way New York was like a horcrux (Harry Potter reference). If that semester had gone well, who knows where I would be now. But it didn’t. And now it feels like a fraction of my soul has been shattered. I feel like I am a bit less powerful than I could’ve once been. I feel like by breaking the Rule I broke some part of my ability to reach out for help.

Like somehow, some way, all the time, it’s my fault.
And I know it isn’t.

I know that simply blaming myself is reductionist and unrealistic.
But who else is there to blame?

I don’t blame MIT; generations of students have survived the Institute so how can It be at fault? I don’t blame upperclassmen; I hardly even knew any my first year to blame (not that I would blame them even if I did). And I especially don’t blame the person who broke the Rule with me; they were a first year too. Why should it be expected that they should’ve known better than I did?

But where does that leave me?
Feeling utterly and hopelessly alone.

7. Rules, again.
More aptly titled: An Answer.

Song: The Answer, by Joe Iconis and covered by George Salazar

When a rule doesn’t make sense, I question it. I’ve always been someone who asks questions.

Who made the November Rule?
If I had to guess, someone (likely a collection of someones) who broke this previously nonexistent Rule and paid the price. A person who wished that someone, anyone, would’ve told them not to. Would they have listened to that someone? Who’s to say. I know I didn’t. But the mere presence of a Rule can provide some amount of comfort to those to have to face the consequences of breaking it. Some amount of comfort in the fact that other people, many people unfortunately, have been where you are.

Who enforces the November Rule?
In reality, no one. It isn’t against the law for two adults to be engaging in a relationship in their first year of college before November.

Now that doesn’t mean that society shouldn’t uphold this Rule in some form or another. If you see upperclassmen “preying” on the new first years, tell them to back the hell off. Tell them the Rule and tell them why it’s important. And if you know a first year who broke the Rule, don’t hold it against them. Ask them if everything’s okay. Is the semester going well? Has balancing a relationship with MIT been hard? Tell them that you’re there for them, and be there for them if they need help.

Who benefits from the November Rule?
To be frank, I think everyone does in their own, perhaps muddled and unclear, way. If the Rule prevents you from breaking it, great. If it doesn’t, then at least you know you’re not alone.

Others have been where you are.
I’ve been where you are.

This doesn’t mean that the pure existence of the Rule makes the pain go away.

It just means that you’re not alone.
It means I’m not alone.

8. Tricky.
More aptly named: The Caution in Telling a Cautionary Tale.

Song: Being Alive, from Company

Writing about the November Rule is tricky. In fact, while I was searching for resources from people who had previously written about the Rule, I came to the conclusion that not many people have. It isn’t that the Rule is unimportant– it’s basically preached to every first year. But the nuances are tricky to deal with for a number of reasons.

For one thing, you don’t want people to come to the wrong conclusions. Take for instance this post. Here, I wrote about how, in my sophomore year after breaking the Rule, I was hyper-independent. After having such a bad first year, I found it really hard to lean on others for support– emotionally and academically. This made my sophomore year deeply isolating and frustrating. My intention is for this to come off as undesirable.

The last thing I want is for someone to read about my experience and come to the conclusion that they should be overly-cautious and avoid deep emotional (platonic) relationships your freshman year. In reality, forming connections during your time at MIT is important. While we are only here for a short amount of time, connections with others can make the MIT experience so much deeper and more fulfilling. This is an overly-cautious conclusion.

In contrast, one could hypothetically reach an underly-cautious conclusion. One could come to the conclusion that my experience was a result of the pandemic rather than a result of breaking the November Rule. And while this may be plausible, and while it is interesting to examine the role that the pandemic played during my first year, the underly-cautious conclusion would be something along the lines of: “Well, Paige only had a bad first year due to the pandemic, breaking the Rule can’t be all that bad now.”

No. Bad. Stop that, hypothetical person reaching an unintended and potentially harmful conclusion.

My intention is to tell a cautionary tale. My story may not perfectly apply to every person and every scenario, but I hope it provides an example of a painful experience that is rarely talked about.

Furthermore, it takes (at least) two to make a relationship. This isn’t just my story. I think this writing dilemma is one that has no correct answer most of the time. Sure, if I was in a better place with the person I was in the relationship with, I could ask them, but they don’t want to talk about what happened anymore– and I don’t blame them for that. It’s their prerogative. It just means I can’t exactly ask them for permission. But I need to process what happened that year, and I do that best through writing. Is there a way to write about my experiences while being respectful of their privacy and their own side of the story? I sure hope to try.  [Spoiler: there may be a second part to this post, undecided but very likely.] But am I allowed to tell it? I think so; at least I’m allowed to tell my side of it.

It’s just tricky.
I don’t know where precisely to begin.

Published by Paige Bright

Hi- my name is Paige Alexandria Bright. I am a rising junior at MIT interested in mathematics and philosophy. I have been writing this blog since the beginning of COVID. Lets see where this goes.

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