Mathochism: Lowered expectations

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

The grades are in, and it’s official: my A streak is broken. The Brofessor gave me a B in Algebra II. Considering how I did on the tests, that is the grade I deserve — I had about an 85 average all along, and probably got the same on the final. I just can’t let go of the belief that I would have done better had I had the dapper professor — heck, had I had anyone who wasn’t the Brofessor, who annoyed the hell out of me.

But the bigger problem is that, even at my so-called advanced age, I still allow personal dynamics to affect my performance. I had hoped that by now, my work ethic and talents had evolved enough that I could rise above such things. I had hoped that I finally absorbed the advice from my good friend M, who once told me, in an exasperated yet kind way that “you give other people too much power over your feelings!”

After all, I’ve had difficult bosses, and still produced good work. It wasn’t fun, but I got through. And sure, when I liked my boss, I blossomed and kicked butt. Hmm. Now there’s an image!

Still, when I was in school, how I did seemed to depend entirely on how I got along with the teacher. If it was a subject I was good at or interested in, I would do better even if I had a lousy teacher. But not always. That D in creative writing comes to mind. So does the D in French, after two years of straight As, and a later stint as a TA in college.

But I was a lot younger then, and quite immature. Perhaps not working full-time in a newsroom means I have regressed? Why else would I feel I’m back in the ’80s again? (Off-topic — leg-warmers have returned. Sigh.)

The adult thing to do now is to just carry on. I am signed up for geometry this fall and, barring health issues, hope to take the class, pass it and move on to pre-calculus. The geometry instructor has quite a few bad reviews on, which makes me wary. Just geometry itself brings up a lot of awful math memories and ups the ante on the math phobia.

Oh dear.

One last thing: now that the grades are in, I am ready to evaluate the Brofessor. I will report the results here. This might just get ugly.

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


  • I don’t think you should blame yourself for achieving a B because you disliked the Brofessor. He sounds like an incompetent teacher, plain and simple. That can affect your grade, no matter how hard you study. I think that, under the circumstances, you did really well. Better luck next time!

  • Thanks, Olivia!! Your kind words mean a lot. Even so, I need to work on rising above petty stuff — it’s a character flaw I have yet to master.

  • I just wanted to say that I don’t think you should blame yourself too much for allowing the Brofessor to have an effect on your performance. You still did quite well, and math definitely requires a good instructor, even for the best math students. I think that’s partly because of the textbooks… even mathematicians hate reading math textbooks!

    Thanks again for sharing your experiences.

  • Thanks Antonia. And it’s interesting to hear that mathematicians hate math textbooks! Don’t mathematicians write them? Or is it a special group of mathematicians that sit at a different table in the cafeteria?

  • A solid B is pretty respectable– it seems as if you were basically teaching yourself this semester, since the person with the degree in it wasn’t pulling his weight in the classroom.

  • I wouldn’t sweat the B. That’s still a perfectly respectable grade, and shows a solid understanding of the material. Sure, you might have done better with another professor, but it’s still a solid achievement in its own right.

    As far as math textbooks go, I’ve seen a bunch of different ones in use among my clients this past year. I tend to be aware of where I think individual textbooks fall short, thinking “I could explain that section better.” I may be right about any particular section, though I’m sure that I would leave a bunch of similar holes elsewhere if I were to try to write my own text from scratch. That said, I’ve seen some textbooks that are pretty badly organized, or that only cover a fraction of the material in another textbook. Being familiar with the subject material can make you more aware of the flaws in other’s work.

  • Can I just say that I love this series? Congrats on your B–that’s good. Don’t let the absence of an A keep you down. Like your friend said, there’s a lot more that goes into grades than knowledge. Badly worded problems, bad environment, disengaged professor, lack of sleep, stress…they can all affect your grade.

    And I just want to chip in with how important a good professor is. My math professor was a nice guy, and obviously knew his stuff, but didn’t know how to control his classroom. I ended up snapping during the final and screaming at the auditorium full of freshman, because they were talking and trying to convince the professor to give them the answers. I ended up with a B as well, but I had to work a lot harder than I would have if I had a good professor.

  • akwhitney, I can’t speak for Antonia, but I’ve found that maths textbooks come in two flavours of evil:

    – the patronising kind that use Big! Bright! Colourful! Fonts! but don’t actually tell you anything helpful, because they’re focussed on making the information “fun”,
    … or…
    – the pedantic kind with tiny, squashed-up text that will go into minute detail in some places, but will then assume that you can follow a logical jump that (if you’re not already familiar with the topic) is often completely incomprehensible.

    Of course, there’s also the problem that many mathematicians are terrible writers.

    Your chances of finding textbooks that suit you, that are neither patronising nor pedantic, in your particular branch of maths, at the point in time that you need them, are vanishingly small.

    And I know it’s not quite what you wanted, but congratulations on the B – 85% sounds great to me!

  • Thanks so much to everyone for the support! And thanks for the textbook insight. The Algebra I book was the “let’s make math fun!” kind. Gee thanks, but I’m not a toddler!

  • akwhitney, I think Rachel hit it right on the head: “Of course, there’s also the problem that many mathematicians are terrible writers.”

    Sometimes math texts are written by math professors, sometimes they’re written by math educators (and by that I mean people who teach math but who are not actively involved in original research), but pretty consistently, they’re written by people who cannot seem to explain math well. I’ve had a few good texts over the years, but I’ve seen far more confusing ones. So even though I love learning new math, it’s often horrifically difficult for me to parse textbooks on things I don’t already know without a good bit of help from a professor. And this is coming from a math graduate student. You’d think I’d have enough training and mathematical intuition by now, but nope.

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