Monthly Archives: April 2012

Mathochism: The worthy math student

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

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I learn things, and how my style of learning has at times butted against my learning environment. That environment includes everything from who is teaching the class to what materials are being used to what extra support, if any, is available when needed. If two out of three main components of that environment don’t mesh well with the way I learn, the odds are I will not do well.

But do incompatible styles mean I am not even allowed to try? Does my inability to connect with a professor or a book in a given semester mean I am not worthy of learning the subject they are teaching? Does stumbling at first mean I’m better off giving up?

And why is it that this question of worth seems to come up more often in STEM circles than in humanist ones? Read more

Mathochism: Is asking for help just rude?

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

Last week’s post, “Show your work” elicited some interesting feedback. One comment in particular made me realize that my approach to learning mathematics — i.e. asking someone for help — may be downright uncouth.

An individual named Vector wrote:

“If we absolutely can’t figure something out, we might ask a friend, but it’s generally considered rude to trouble a mathematician (or anyone much more skilled than you are) with something elementary, and counterproductive for all involved. They waste time transmitting information, and you waste a problem that could have taught you something. It’s seen as your duty to figure things out on your own.” Read more

Mathochism: The dark side of math humor

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

A recent post/rant on the inadvisability of skipping steps in a lecture prompted several kind readers to leave me links to math and science jokes.

While most were either really cheesy or silly, some were pretty on point with the attitudes and personalities of folks in STEM, particularly in academia.

And then, there was the tale of “Little Polly Nomial and Curly Pi.”

Now, I’m not entirely unfamiliar with this tale. My spouse, who majored in a science in college and took advanced math, had mentioned this story in passing. The way he told it, though, made it sound innocuous but ribald, the kind of wink-wink nudge-nudge joke you might see in a vintage copy of Playboy. (Say what you will about Playboy, but that publication has always seemed to embrace the importance of both parties having a good time.)

But when I actually read this so-called math joke, I was pretty icked out. It’s essentially a tale of stalking, and rape, and the moral of the story is not “rapists irrational constants are bad,” but “lock up your daughters polynomials, because giving them freedom will get them raped.”

I imagine this rotten chestnut has been around a while. And I realize I’m a big ol’ humorless bore, but that alleged joke made me remember that, even in the world of allegedly genderless numbers, being female isn’t safe. And solving a problem, to some, is all about domination and humiliation. Would it be better if little Polly Nomial were little Paul E. Nomial? No, I can’t imagine it would be.

Sigh.

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

Mathochism: Show your work

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 little over a week since I dropped the calculus class. I find myself trying to unpack what went so wrong in this last outing, and what I need to do to prevent myself from going down the wrong path again.

A commenter wisely reminded me I do not necessarily need to be enrolled in a class, with an instructor, homework or tests to learn, and that’s true. Auditing the summer professor’s pre-calc class was a great experience, because I could just sit and absorb it all without stressing about deadlines. Doing this also made the next pre-calc experience less terrifying.

But I also know myself enough these days — a benefit of middle age — and I need the structure of a class, and the deadlines, and the accountability. Blame more than a decade in the newsroom — nothing fuels inspiration quite like desperation. Read more