Mathochism: When the book isn’t enough

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’ve never been able to learn math just by reading a book. Unlike literature, or art, or science, I’ve always needed a teacher to help me grasp even the simplest techniques.

Still, I’ve connected with some books more than others. Last semester in pre-calculus, I disliked the book so much that I ignored it, relying on it solely for homework problems, getting my theory from the professor and other texts, including the much clearer pre-calc book from the dropped summer course.

When I saw that my calculus book was written by the same guy who wrote the fall pre-calc book, my heart sank. But I wanted to give it a chance. The first chapter, which recapped algebra and trig, wasn’t so bad. But the second chapter wasn’t so clear. The third chapter may as well be written in moon language.

All week, I left class thinking I understood the concepts. Then I read the book. Whaaaa?? I shook my head like a dog trying to dry her long floppy ears, and then I tackled homework. Okay, no problem! Now, to check the solutions for the odd problems in the supplement I bought for a mere $17 less than the text.

Whaaaa? Our answers are the same, but how the author got that answer is far more convoluted. He also leaves out steps, making them less than fully worked out solutions, and that whole “solutions for odd problems” thing apparently means “only solutions for the odd problems I deem difficult.”

Apparently, a math fool and her money are soon parted.

Between this lousy textbook and the pessimistic professor, I realized it was time to supplement. I figured I’d go with the simplest option, so I picked up a copy of “Calculus for Dummies.” Now, I realize this is akin to trying to pass a lit course with Cliff’s Notes, but I discovered, to my joy, that the author is good at translating moon language. With his translations, I was able to understand the book’s examples much better.

I also picked up a more advanced study guide printed by Princeton University. Between the two, I hope to get the theory I don’t feel I’m getting from the text.

As for the pessimistic professor, I feel we are establishing some rapport. If anything, I think he appreciates my willingness to learn. This appreciation will be tested tomorrow, since I am planning on spending some quality workshop time with the guy. Hopefully, my endless questions won’t annoy him too much. I really don’t enjoy annoying people, even though I’ve spent much of my career being paid to do so!

The countdown to the exam has begun. Will I master trig limits, derivatives, vertical tangent lines and cusps and implicit differentiation by Wednesday? I will do my best to try!

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



  • Supposedly Italy has the largest number of female mathematicians compared to other countries. This is maybe because mathematic studies belong in the department of philosophy in the Italian university system.
    It seems that you are now adopting a more philosophical viewpoint to overcome your calculus obstacles.
    Good Luck!

  • Actually, Italian universities don’t do that. They may have at some point, but not now. They are set up much the way American ones are, placing the sciences and math together, and philosophy in with the humanities.
    I would love to know where you learned that there are more Italian women in math. I can find no evidence of that, even though Maria Agnesi is still well-regarded.
    I wouldn’t call my approach at this point philosophical — I am trying to be very practical, even scientific. If one tool doesn’t work, I try another. Trial and error.

  • What book are you using?

  • In the interest of maintaining a certain anonymity in the series (no college name, no prof names) I won’t say. What I will say is that the book in question has been around since the ’90s, and is used to teach not just Calc 1, but 2 and 3.

  • I am very intrigued by the tagline that precedes the body of this entry. I’m a college graduate who has suffered from math anxiety all her life; to an extent it dictated the course of my education, which ultimately I found less than satisfying. A few years ago I got it in my head that I should sign up for community-college math classes just to confront my anxiety once and for all. I finally got around to doing that, and am currently in college algebra, the highest math I’ve ever taken. It is much more of a psychological/emotional challenge than an intellectual challenge, but I have a strong work ethic.

    I’ve been getting A’s so far … But I really don’t feel like I have a good instinct for math at ALL. It just all seems so meaningless to me, and without a more thorough understanding of the machinations I don’t feel like I can be creative and approach problems from different angles. That is deeply frustrating to me. And for this reason, I am having a lot of trouble with the textbook — I’m really not one to be able to differentiate a terrible math textbook from a wonderful one (or a bad math teacher from a good one, for that matter), but I do strongly suspect that my textbook is a piece of garbage. It seems to assume that the reader has an excellent instinct for math, and is not very helpful to someone like me, with no/little instinct but a willingness to plug away at it. It gives very half-assed explanations of difficult concepts, seemingly relying on the reader to be able to fill in the “obvious” blanks. It asks “concept check” questions, which rely on my ability to be able to make connections between other concepts that are not explicitly laid out in the book, and I usually do poorly on those. And the “solutions manual” has been zero percent helpful so far (skips way too many steps, doesn’t explain why a certain move was made, etc.).

    I feel like math classes act as “filters” to encourage the people who have naturally good math instincts and filter out everyone else. This may be one reason why people like me have been discouraged. I have no desire to be a mathematician, but I would have needed math to study science, which probably would have been much more fulfilling than what I ultimately studied in college. I do have some bitterness about that, but for the time being I’m just trying to do well in algebra. The original plan was to get all the way up to calculus but right now I am just so discouraged by it all! “Mathochism” is right!!

  • Anna, it sounds like you are me three years ago! I’m curious — is this just a self-improvement project? Or are you doing it to switch careers?
    Yes to all your comments on books, solution manuals, etc. That is my experience also. Part of the reason I’m doing this (and am ultimately writing a book about it) is that I hope not just students like myself, but also educators will realize that math can be, and needs to be, more accessible. Why do we, as a society, set up so many obstacles to learning something so fundamental?
    From one woman aspiring to get over her math anxiety to another, please continue if you can.

  • Well, originally the idea was to take math classes as more of a self-improvement project. But my math anxiety was so strong that I couldn’t even get myself to take the math-placement test. So I took a no-prerequisites biology class instead, to confront my less-pronounced science anxiety. I ended up doing really well in biology, but ultimately hit that wall where I needed to take chemistry, and to do that I needed to take math … I’m at the point where I could actually get an associate’s degree in science if only I could stomach making it through calculus. It is possible that some kind of career change could come out of all this, but at this point it’s still more on the self-improvement side of things. If I can confront the calculus hurdle, though, the prospect of switching careers will probably become more real.

    I love your comments on all this. Definitely bookmarking to keep tabs on your progress — maybe it will help inspire me to keep plugging away at all this.

  • Okay, this is eerie. Our paths are way too similar. I, too, aced biology. But the thought of taking physics made me want to vomit. Now, I must say I have no interest in changing careers at this point — I love being a journalist, in spite of the wretched state of my industry. I just want to be a journalist who doesn’t fear math, and hopefully this will lead to more writing on science, tech, etc. apart from the book.
    Please keep plugging away! And while I may not actually pass this calc class due to that disastrous first exam, I am actually understanding the various concepts. Irony, I has it.

  • I was actually originally planning to take physics this summer — but ultimately decided that taking a five-week, five-unit course in a subject completely unfamiliar to me would be a very bad move. Oh well, in the future I suppose! I do really enjoy biology, and now that I’ve taken some chemistry I find that I like that a lot, too. (I’ll be able to take more chemistry classes after I’m done with college algebra.)

    In college I worked on the student paper and thought I could parlay that into a career in journalism. Of course, after I graduated from college was when the newspaper industry started to implode, so that didn’t happen. Instead, I ended up with a very dissatisfying job (I wouldn’t even call it a “career,” to be honest). It’s good to have a job, and one thing I like about it is that it’s flexible enough to allow me to take a daytime class if there are no evening options. For now I just write about science topics on a more “amateur” level, and am open to learning about new options to explore as I gain more education in these exciting, new-to-me fields.

  • If your professor has indicated that as a general rule, people who haven’t already adapted to his teaching style don’t pass his classes, then a radical change in your learning style is indicated.

    I think that making extensive use of office hours for focused individual instruction is a suitable change in style. I also think that using books by authors which write in different manner from the author which you have trouble understanding is a great idea.

    Might a textbook by a different author, which perhaps uses a different style be useful to you?

  • I’m already haunting the prof on a regular basis, and the two books I bought to supplement are helping a lot. So we’ll see!

  • Just to give an update, I did make it through Calculus I and am now studying science in grad school. 🙂

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