Calculus with Bhatnagar

January 20th, 2024 8 min read

A photo of my entire class after our exam

Origins: Orientation Week

Orientation week started, and I also excited to start my university journey. I had done AP Calculus BC and IB Math AA HL in high school. So I thought I was done with calculus and could move on to more interesting math courses. However, on my third day here – the day of the computer science expo – I was told that calculus had become a requirement.

I, in no way, wanted to take this course. After all, why would I need to learn calculus again? Trying everything, from approaching representatives and talking to seniors to asking professors if this would be possible, I was told I would have to take the course. I was disappointed, but I had no choice.

Mission Free Grades

As orientation week came to an end, our courses got assigned. I got Prof. Bhatnagar's calculus. "Let's use this course for free grades," I thought, accepting that I would have to "sit" through the same old classes again. To achieve these "free grades", I commenced Mission Free Grades. The goal was to:

  1. Understand the course structure
  2. Exploit it to get an A with the least amount of work

The course was structured as follows:

  • Weekly quizzes 1-10 (in class): 200 marks
  • Midterms 1, 2, and 3 (all take-home): 300 marks
  • Final (in class): 100 marks

"So I just have to do well in the quizzes and midterms and get an A. Midterms are take-home, so I'll manage them too :)"

Enrichment: First lectures

In terms of Math, the first few lectures were pretty standard. Prof. Bhatnagar was a great professor. He was funny, engaging, and made the lectures interesting. I was enjoying the course. I was also doing well in the quizzes.

Outside math though, he was different. Something he said in the first class stood out to me:

You see this x? What does this signify? What is it's meaning?

Nothing. It has no meaning. You have to give it meaning. It's a lot like life. You have to give it meaning.

This stood out because this is one of the last things I expected to hear in a math class. Little did I know, these aspects of the class were most valuable – and why it was more than just a math course. These one-liners, he said out of the blue, would always catch me off guard.

Other than these moments where he would throw these random yet profound quotes at us, time continued to pass. So did classes, and here it was: the first midterm. "Let's get this over with. I'll take my marks and leave", I said.

Testing: Midterm 1

Something I found interesting was how they were structured. He wrote:

It’s the weekend of Gandhi Jayanti. I have included some of my favorite Gandhi quotes. I hope they will inspire you as you work your way through this set of problems.

Just like his lectures, the midterms had quotes lying in random places.

Mission Not-so Free Grades

Yes, you read the title right. The midterm showed me why this was not a course to get free grades in. "This is why the midterms are take-home", I thought while I took my first glance at the paper.

In particular, there was one question I couldn't solve. I couldn't even think of solving it at that time. From asking classmates and even talking to third-year students, I couldn't find a solution. It took me three hours of scribbling on pages and whiteboards to find the answer.

The question that took me 3 hours

The question that took me 3 hours

I was jumping up and down, going across the floor to other classmates, telling them I had solved it! It was a great feeling I hadn't experienced in math for a long time.

I thought I was done with the tough questions when I solved this question, but little did I know that I would spend the next 12 hours solving the rest and then writing the solutions fairly. My roommate told me the next day: "You study so much that I feel bad about myself". Turns out, I was working since he slept until he woke up. Regardless, I was proud of having finished the midterm to the best of my abilities.

Aftermath: Midterm 1

Rushing into class 5 minutes late, I submitted my midterm. I could barely focus on that class, waiting to talk to the professor afterward. Unsurprisingly, 4 classmates joined me outside class to talk with him.

It was so hard!
I couldn't solve this question!
It took my entire weekend!
But didn't you like it when you solved the questions?

The dots connected. It made me understand exactly how professor organized this course and how he planned for it to play out. By this time, I had understood that this course was not going to be easy. It was going to be tough, hard work.

T-Minus 1: The Night before the Finals

The course until now, had continued as normal. Classes were fast, and everything was going well. I had gotten used to the midterms and the quizzes, and also having to sit down to solve the problem sets every weekend. However, unlike other nights, this one was different - instead of looking forward to a class or a quiz, I was against the much-dreaded finals. Even though I was excited to see what the final would be like, I was also scared because it was in class — if I blank out, it's all over.

Oh, and one thing — he had recently announced that he would treat us to Ashoka's Dhabba after the finals. He apparently does this for every course.

D-Day: The Final

The day came, and with a cold coffee in my hand, I walked into an empty classroom — no one had arrived yet! I took this time to get comfortable with the room and settle in. While I did this, my friends who had started coming in started playing the Hanuman Chalisa on their phones 😭. It was hilarious, and was the perfect mood for the final exam.

My friend listening to the Hanuman Chalisa

My friend listening to the Hanuman Chalisa

Then, it happened. The man, the myth, the legend. He walked in, with his usual smile, and casually told us to sit far apart, and continued with the guidelines. That smile was the only constant in the course. The specifics of the exam itself don't matter — it was an experience. Unlike my school exams, this was a great combination of easy and hard, thought-provoking questions. In reality, I enjoyed the exam. Even though some questions were tough and I had to think a lot, I was happy with the exam.

And just like that, it was all over. I finished 30 minutes early, handed in my paper to him, and he told me to go to the Dhabba and relax. The next 2 minutes were some of the most relieving, happy, and dopamine-filled minutes of my life. The exam was over, so was the course, and we all were going to get free food soon!

Completion: The Treat

After a very long 30 minutes, more and more of my friends started showing up. We talked about everything but the paper. Then, he came in again. This time, it did not strike nervousness but joy. He told us to line up and start ordering. We all ordered more than we could eat and had a feast, to say the least.

What I remember from this day is not the exam. Not the food. But rather the conversations all of us had as a class. We talked about everything, from the exam to the course, to the professor, to the food, to the future. It was a great day, and I was happy to have been a part of it. That, is what the header photo is — us at the Dhabba with the Professor.

Conclusion: Calculus with Bhatnagar

This course was not just a math course. It was a course that taught me a lot about life. It taught me that life is not easy, and you have to work hard to get what you want. It taught me that you have to find meaning in life, and that you have to work hard to find it (this sounds cheesy, but as a first-year college student, this strung a cord).

I made friends, learned a lot, found a great professor, and had a great time. I was happy to have taken this course, and I was happy to have met Prof. Bhatnagar.

Contary to how it started, if I could go back in time, this is the one course I would have chosen without a second thought.

Written by Dhruman Gupta

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