Mathochism: Calculus dread

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’m about two-thirds through pre-calc now, and I’m pulling a reasonably solid B average. Logarithm horrors aside, trigonometry feels pretty good, and the few forages into calculus so far, as in studying limits, didn’t feel too scary.

Still, I’m starting to dread calculus. Part of it may be bad memories from 20 years ago. A bigger part is a conversation I overheard the other day.

The class before ours is a calculus class, and I often arrive a bit early to secure my still-coveted front row seat, so I see what the calc professor is putting on the board. So far, it looks like a lot of trig. And a lot of limits.

So that’s no surprise, right?

Well, the conversation I overheard was between Assertive Woman and that calc professor (she once told me he was one of the best in the department). She was asking his advice about which classes to take next year. She asked if she should take calculus. I gather that, for her major, it’s not required.

“How are you doing in pre-calculus?” he asked her.
“I’m in the high Bs,” she replied.
He frowned.
“You probably shouldn’t take it, then. It might be too hard.”

Whaaaaaaaaat? Can only pre-calc A students do well in calculus? I thought a B average showed a “solid understanding of the material,” to quote a kind commenter a year ago? And what about Uchitel and the Summer Professor’s assertions that pre-calculus was the bear class, and everything else is easier in comparison?

Cue the calculus dread!

Sigh. I’m taking the class anyway, because quitting now would be like leaving the marathon with two miles to go. And even if calculus indeed proves that I suck at math after all, that’s part of the experiment, right? Right?


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



  • For what it’s worth, I would agree with Uchitel. I found pre-calc hard. I did well enough, but I frequently felt insecure in my knowledge, as if I were really guessing. In calculus, all of a sudden, a bunch of the stuff that didn’t sink in during pre-calc made sense. It wasn’t just the change in teacher: it was also repetition within a new context. (I always remember information better if I have more context for it, and my calc teacher supplied more context and more applications for the techniques we were learning.) To me, calc was the reward for pre-calc.

  • Thanks, RachelB. I just found that professor’s advice disheartening. And in spite of my classmate’s opinion of him, I will not seek him out for calc.

  • I think the professor’s advice is terrible unless Assertive Woman’s primary goal is to maintain a very high GPA or she is worried about the time it could detract from her other classes.

    I mean, I think part of what your blog is about is defying those who told you “Nah, it’s too hard, I’m sure you wouldn’t be good at it.”

    I would say, take that overheard advice as a CHALLENGE.
    (And I pity the fool who attempts to challenge you!)

  • Priestfriend, you know me too well. OF COURSE this is being taken as a challenge! And just when I thought I couldn’t adore you more, you bring on the Mr. T reference. Nicely done!

  • It varies greatly from person to person, but I know I found calculus a lot more intuitive than pre-calculus. You start being able to derive things you had just taken as fact earlier, and it becomes a lot easier to see the big picture, in my opinion.

    So I think you should try taking it anyway! Don’t let that professor scare you away from calculus. Calculus loves you.

  • I agree with the above posters, don’t let him scare you from calc. Calc is not easy, but in my opinion, calc is really important. Once you get to the point where calculus really means something (as opposed to just applying rote formulas), you’ll start to see things in a new way. The distance I travel in 10 minutes isn’t just the time times the speed (the algebra way), it’s the integral of my speed over time time (because maybe your speed changes). Instead of thinking how fast things are changing by subtracting two numbers (like fitting a slope to a line), you start to think about their derivative. There will be a lot of stuff in calc that is useful and will seem like it’s not, and a lot of stuff that is only questionably useful. However, as you go through calc, try to remember that there is a big picture. Calc is extremely useful, and so try not to think of it as memorizing a bunch of formulas (which you will unfortunatly have to), but remember that you’re learning tools for how to sum up an infinite number of small things (integrating), and finding how to find changes in quantities (differentiating).

  • If it matters at all, I took pre-calc in high school and only got C’s. Then I took calculus in college (at a very highly rated and snobby school, btw!) and got A’s – and ended up majoring in physics. :p

    Of course, my pre-calc teacher was a bit of an ass, so that was a factor.

  • Well, yes, the quality of the teacher *cough Brofessor cough* can make a difference!

  • I really really enjoy your math-stories.

    I’ve been wanting to say that for a long time.

  • Thank you!!!