Mathochism: It begins again

One woman’s attempt to revisit the math that plagued her in school. But can determination make up for 25 years of math neglect?

Algebra officially began Monday, and I miss the dapper professor already.

In fact, I miss the entire pre-algebra experience, from the professor, to the book, to my classmates (though not the noisy, possibly calculator-using, back row).

Let’s start with the Algebra book, which I thankfully bought used at the anti-bookstore across the street from the college. I call it the anti-bookstore because it is clearly not a college-sanctioned place, but dares to sit just outside the college borders, mocking it by luring away official bookstore customers. It even has a contraband feel to it, with papered-over windows and slightly shifty salespeople. I must admit I worried a bit that the security guard monitoring traffic by the parking garage was going to report me for going there.

Still, they sold me a used Algebra text (there were none in the official bookstore) for what I consider a bargain price of $115.

Yep, $115.

Sound steep? Compare that to the $180 charged for a new copy, and it suddenly becomes a bargain, doesn’t it?

Back to the text, though — my pre-algebra text had a certain dignity to it. Its cover featured college students walking sedately up a flight of stairs. The math inside was straight-forward, the word problems old-school, full of baseball statistics and train times.

This new book seems to lack dignity. The cover features a bottlecap, and the inside relates polynomials to “The King of Queens” and Carson Daly.

In other words, this is a hip, “let’s make math fun for Gen Y!” kind of book, and as a math phobe and Gen X fogy, I’m not sure it’s for me. But I’m obviously going to give it a chance.

I’m also not entirely sure of my new professor, though he is also dapper (actually downright natty, with tailored pants and a nice tie), and also Nigerian.

His nationality, however, seems to be a point of contention. A number of students asked him where he was from, and he refused to answer, finally breaking down and announcing it to the class after break.

Both his last name and his accent (more pronounced than the dapper professor’s, but perfectly understandable) give him away as a foreigner. It is therefore entirely understandable — though not necessarily polite — that students would be curious. Why not just bring it up at the beginning of class, in a brief introduction, and just get it out of the way?

But I can understand his frustration. A close relative of mine speaks perfect English with a strong Scandinavian accent. When she tires of curious people constantly asking where she is from, she says “California!” and smiles sweetly.

I know I had an accent when I first moved here, but quickly got rid of it. Before that happened, though, I got asked a lot if I was a British exchange student.

People here — and pretty much everywhere, in my experience — always need to pin down a foreign-sounding person’s accent. Part of it, I’m sure, is xenophobia, particularly when they refuse to understand perfectly spoken English, but a big part is just plain old curiosity. And asking about an accent seems far less offensive than, say, asking about a disability or deformity.

But I digress.

I am less concerned about this professor’s reluctance to talk about his nationality than with his impatience and tendency to rush through explanations.

True, the first chapter of the TRL textbook was a rehash of pre-algebra, and he was working on the assumption that we all knew it. I just hope he is more open to questions when covering the new stuff.

I guess I’ll see at the next session tonight!

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.