Mathochism: Life lessons

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

I still don’t know how badly I did on that last math test. I still don’t know because the Brofessor didn’t get around to grading the tests in time for our second class. He had a reason — apparently he and his wife are moving into a new house. Moving can be stressful. I understand that. But I have little patience for someone who in one breath expects forgiveness for not meeting a deadline while in the next breath condemns those who do the same.

Well, not quite the same. Shortly after confessing he had yet to finish grading tests, the Brofessor was grumbling about the fact that some students don’t finish all their homework between classes. I admit I don’t always, because deadlines for paid work, or unpaid work, or just life gets in the way. We all have lives outside of class, after all. We have families, and jobs, and even other classes.

But I, and most of my classmates, turn in our work when it’s due — that is every Wednesday. And we accept that, should we fail to turn in the homework, we will get half-credit. We also accept that being late to class docks us points, and that we are only allowed to miss four classes a semester. Or at least, I think most of us do, because I have yet to see the kind of drama between teacher and student I saw last semester.

I also accept (though do not approve of) the fact that the Brofessor sets his own rules in in his own classroom. That he is usually five to 10 minutes late. That he can sit on a test for weeks on end. That he only needs to cover the bare curriculum, in spite of what the Math Department says.

The fact that people have double standards, that they don’t practice what they preach, that increased status allows for hypocrisy — these are all life lessons I learned long ago. I’ve seen these scenarios repeated in classrooms and workplaces and social settings all my life. And because it is tough to convey tone in writing, let me make it clear that I’m not even indignant about this happening again. I’m just tired.

But there are some things I will fight against. I can’t do anything about the chronic lateness, the failure to meet deadlines, the sloppy demeanor. But I can help keep the subject to math, at least while in the classroom. The trick is to do it without pulling out a can of much-deserved whupass, and I’m not sure I have quite succeeded. Or have I?

On Monday, we covered more division of polynomials. This time, however, they were set up as unequal equations. For example: x + 2 over x-7 is greater than 0. X could then equal anything greater than 7. Anything less would make it untrue. We also had to plot the points on a number line. The Brofessor went over a few problems, and put a new one on the board. Then he turned to face the class.

“Have you ever added sugar to a diet soda?” he asked. “What happens?”
There was some confusion. After all, what is the point of turning adding calories to a drink designed to give you the flavor without calories? After some silence, I offered the information he wanted. When you add sugar (or salt) to soda, it foams.

That was the right answer, but he wanted more.
“Why?” he asked.
A few more theories were advanced. He started talking about carbon dioxide, and pressure, and volume. I started waiting for him to tie this to the equation on the board. Surely there was a connection between inverse pressure and volume, and the effect of NaCl on a carbonated beverage, and the polynomial before us?

But oh no, reader. There wasn’t. It was just another Brofessorial Digression (TM), another way for him to stave off his own boredom at the expense of the class. And I’m afraid that, like a well-shaken can of Cola, I couldn’t stop myself from exploding.

“That’s it?” I ranted, trying hard to keep a humorous tone while still getting my message across. “You mean this wasn’t about that equation? Where’s the payoff? I thought you were using this as an analogy that would lead to some kind of math epiphany! That’s it???”

Oh yes I did.
I’m not proud, but I am not necessarily sorry either. Maybe it’s because I have the privilege of taking this class for fun. Maybe it’s because math, and my GPA, is not a linchpin for my degree. Been there, done that, got the BA. And the MA.

He had the grace to look slightly sheepish. And perhaps I am imagining this, but I could feel the class, or at least some of the class, supporting me. You know, those classmates who have other things in their lives, who would rather learn the math and then get home at a decent hour, instead of being held hostage by a self-styled raconteur.

I imagine there may be some blow-back here, but the thing is, I don’t expect to have to ask this man for a favor. If I flunk the class (and there shouldn’t be any reason I will, unless I really screw up the last test and final), I can simply take it again. I already have the most expensive part — the book. Tuition is negligible. Again, I am fortunate to be so privileged, though I resent him wasting my time.

And here, dear reader, is your payoff for staying with me so far: My rant may have helped!

On Wednesday, we covered exponential growth and decay, and were introduced to the constant e. And the Brofessor began talking about compound interest and radioactive decay. At one point, he said “I’m actually going somewhere with this, I’m not just rambling!” And he did go somewhere. And he tried to stick to the point.

Maybe he learned another life lesson?

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



  • Good for you!

  • Thanks! I just wish I didn’t have to do it in the first place!

  • Good for you!
    I’ve often found that a gentle, humorous “rant” as you applied is good way to keep a professor on track. It’s all in the tone.
    And I truly doubt someone as exquisitely polite as yourself would use anything but a civil tone (and as someone so well bred, what YOU thought was a sledge hammer was probably a mere “love tap” in “Bro’s” world.).
    If he’s bored, that’s HIS problem, not yours. There’s tonnes of interesting real-life applications for math (what does math NOT apply to??) that he can weave into the curriculum to keep your interest as well as his own.

  • I love that you did that. That is all.

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