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.”
Now, let me just get on the record that, during my recent math classes, I have done my best to figure homework and such out on my own. In fact, I’ve surprised myself, as someone convinced she had no talent for math, with my ability to figure things out on my own. While I can’t claim to love certain parts of math (logarithms, word problems), I’ve been able to soldier on without a huge amount of outside assistance.
And that outside assistance was often brief, as in “your issue is that you forgot that negative sign” or “negative infinity is never included” or “sin2x is 2sinxcosx.” With those tiny reminders, I could reset my brain, access the correct information, and solve the problem without problem.
As a Spanish professor I had many years ago told me when I was beating myself up for forgetting to put an accent on some words in an essay (this was in that prehistoric time when I was using a typewriter without accents, and they all had to be filled in by hand): “It’s okay, you have most of the cat in front of you. Don’t worry because it’s missing a few hairs on its paw.”
But I still filled in those accents. Because even if the cat is presentable, I don’t like the idea of it having a bald paw.
It never occurred to me, though, that asking questions when I was stuck on something was wasting time, or that it was rude to ask for help. I mean, the next time I’m in Oxford, and happen to see Andrew Wiles in a Starbucks on Cornmarket, I’m not going to rush up to him and ask him to help me solve that instantaneous rate of change problem.
Nor would I bother my professor with it should I see him or her in the campus cafeteria. But is asking a question, even if simple, during office hours rude? From the way my last calc professor often treated me, I guess it was. I guess he felt, like Vector, that I was wasting his time.
And if that is the case, I’m not sure what to do. This may be a cultural difference I cannot overcome. I’ve been a professional journalist for almost 20 years now, and asking questions is as natural as breathing.
Don’t know? Ask.
Do know? Ask anyway, because you may be wrong. For that matter, the first person you ask may be wrong, so ask several people. And even if they’re all right, it’s better to have as many sides as possible!
“Never assume” has been my motto for decades. Never assume that John Smith is John Smith. He could be Jon Smythe. Never assume things are entirely what they seem. Keep digging. Keep asking. Only stop asking when you’re getting close to deadline, when the pen of Damocles, and your editor’s wrath, are hanging above you. And then once the story is filed, start asking again, because this story just turned into a series!
At this point, I don’t think I can turn off my need to ask. And I don’t really want to. As a child, I was very shy. I had a lot of social anxiety, and being the center of attention, especially in a classroom setting, was intolerable. On my fourth grade report card, my teacher noted that “When asked a question in class, A.K. blushes and gets nervous for absolutely no reason!”
Well, there was a reason. I was terrified. My deformed joints and general ineptitude at sports due to my deformed joints made the other kids look at me in suspicion. They weren’t kind. And the adults, while not unkind, were completely unsympathetic. So I kept a low profile. I asked no questions, and soldiered away on my own. I did fine, but probably would have done even better had I not been afraid to ask.
And many years later, when I became a reporter, I really struggled against my fear of asking questions. What if they were stupid? What if they were rude? What if I was wasting someone’s time?
And then something glorious happened: I stopped caring. I realized I would rather ask a stupid, time-wasting question, and make sure I had the right answer, than not ask, and get it wrong. And if the first person I asked sent me away, I would go to someone else. And if I was feeling Puckish, I would return to that first person, and ask again, because I’d be damned if I let them silence my curiosity. But I didn’t usually return, because my time is valuable too.
So what to do in this case? And does this “asking is rude, and you’re on your own” attitude really permeate the math world? How about in science, or tech? Because if so, I must point out, respectfully, that that may be part of the reason so many people fear math and STEM in general. It may be part of the reason we are losing promising individuals to other fields, because there they get more support and feel free to always ask questions.
And yes, I realize I’m rude for even asking.
All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.