Mathochism: Looking back to go forward

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

It’s been a tough week, confidence-wise.

Even with the indignant comments about the Calc Professor and the “you go, A.K.!” sentiments expressed by friends and well-wishers in the cyber and real worlds, even with my own unending stubbornness, I wonder if I haven’t finally hit that proverbial wall.

Am I able to learn calculus? Or am I just kidding myself?

Is my feeling that I understand limits and derivatives just an illusion? Even with hard work on homework, and study sessions, and professor pestering, will that illusion be exploded on the next test?

And does that mean I never really learned all the material I studied in the last three years?

I find myself looking backward to see if I can go forward. I find myself going back to the days of pre-algebra with the Dapper Professor, when he explained to me that negative 2^2 is not 4, but -4, because “the exponent belongs to the base.” I remembered that when I was deriving 1/x, as well as the Dour Professor’s assertion that 1/x was another way to write x^-1.

I put their advice to use, and using the power rule, derived 1/x to -1/x^2. I almost put the negative sign on the bottom. But the exponent belongs to the base!

When deriving the square root of x + 4, and then graphing it, I remembered the Brofessor’s advice on figuring out what such equations look like. A root function looks like a parabola turned on its side, except the bottom part of it has been pulled off. And square root of x + 4 means that half parabola is moved four points to the left.

As I confront problems that bewilder me, I try to remember the Summer Pre-Calc Professor’s advice to first figure out what kind of problem I’m dealing with, then set up a strategy to solve it. I also try to remember Uchitel’s exuberant “You have to have confidence!” and “You will learn it if you practice!”

Looking back, I DID learn a lot. Those As and Bs were not an anomaly. But why is that chorus of positive voices being drowned out as I contemplate going forward? And why is it not stronger than one soft male voice saying, in dry tones: “If you got a D or F on this test, then this class may not be for you. There are too many major problems to overcome.”

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



  • Actually, the derivative of 1/x is either -1/(x^2) or 1/(-x^2). Either one is correct!

    As far as being able to learn calculus, I think you can do it. My personal opinion is that most people can learn calculus as long as they have good help and enough time, though it sounds like you may be lacking the former.

    I would also keep in mind that the professor was probably keeping in mind that (1) most people do not work as hard as you do and (2) this will have an effect on most people’s GPA. He still shouldn’t have said that D’s and F’s shouldn’t bother, but since you work hard and don’t really need to make a particular grade in his class, I would just ignore his pessimism.

  • Right, I realize that about the derivative. I just find it easier, for further calculating purposes, to leave the negative sign on the top. Otherwise it can confuse me. I have messed up many problems by misplacing the negative sign!
    As for the prof’s pessimism, well, that’s what I’m trying to work through. And as an instructor — heck, not just you, but any instructor who reads this — I ask you to never forget how much influence you have on your students. I always wonder at how teachers seem to forget that, even as they themselves remember how much “Mrs. Smith” in seventh grade Spanish made them miserable.

  • As a professional educator, I have to say this: you have a bad calculus teacher. I definitely would not judge your success at learning math — either previous courses or the current one — by this man’s evaluation. Of all the math courses I’ve encountered, calculus was the one where the instructor seemed to make the biggest difference. I’ve known people who failed when taking it with professor X and earned high A’s when re-taking it with professor Y. Is there another prof out there who teaches calculus? Because, if so, you might take this one’s advice about dropping the class; not because you’re incapable, but because he is.

  • Thank you!
    Depending on how this goes, I may retake the course once the official Mathochism is over. But I’m committed to getting through the semester, Calc Dementor notwithstanding!

  • I will admit to only occasionally reading your posts (mostly through the links you leave at Shakesville!) but I thought I might let you know this little tidbit:

    I am a chemical engineering major, and I am going to graduate school next year. I’ve taken calculus 1-3 and differential equations, and I use math and calculus every day.

    I tell you this, because that should make the next statement better:

    I misplace the negative on a regular basis. I also forget what a derivative is periodically, and limits were never my things (and some of the other concepts in calculus, which you haven’t reached yet, I will never ever understand).

    Even for those of us that “get” math, math is hard. And I just wanted to applaud you for working through it anyway. Why? because math should be accessible, even if it’s hard. And your professor is absolutely horrible if he’s telling people that they should drop because they failed, as opposed to actually analyzing what went wrong. I hope to never become that terrible.

    With as much work as you are doing, and your obvious understanding of the underlying algebra concepts (which, by the way, I found to be the hardest part of calculus, not the calculus itself) you should kill this next text.

    Good luck! I’m rooting for you!