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?

As commenter PriestFriend pointed out in an earlier entry:

“Can you imagine an English professor telling a group of students, ‘If you got a D or F on your first essay, there is no hope for you. Drop out now.’ Makes my head want to explode just thinking about it.”

I know that part of the answer lies in the fact that, in math, knowledge is cumulative. Layers of knowledge build, course after course, like bricks in a wall. And a D or an F on a test would indicate cracks in a student’s wall of knowledge.

But what if those cracks are superficial, and easily grouted? What if the wall isn’t pretty, but still pretty solid?

Okay, enough with the wall metaphor.

I worry more about about a math or science teacher deeming a dedicated — but stumbling — student unworthy than about an English teacher doing the same, because in this country, being bad at math or ignorant about science or tech is a badge of honor.

(How else do we explain certain politicians/pundits who have no idea how contraceptives like the pill work?)

I wore that bad at math badge proudly for 26 years. I know many who wear it still. And yet, not one of these people who brag about their inability to calculate a tip at a restaurant would brag about being unable to read a newspaper.

Being illiterate = not okay. Being crappy at arithmetic = just fine.

People who are illiterate, but work hard to become literate, are praised for their efforts, even if they struggle. They are not deemed unworthy because they are willing to try. In fact, the greatest stigma lies in giving up.

Shouldn’t a math student be given the same courtesy?

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


  • I suspect that many English professors look at a students first work and know that student will fail the class. I’m not sure why English teachers are discouraged from sharing that knowledge more than STEM teachers.

    I do think that there is a qualitative difference between the ‘hard’ sciences (those that require and further an understanding of higher math) and ‘soft’ sciences. I can’t clearly define what that difference is, but the added difficulty involved with the requirement to reach identical conclusions with the same (complete!) data is part of it.

  • I’m sure you’re right about those English professors! However, as cynical as I am, I know first impressions can sometimes be wrong.
    If I may use a math example, is it fair to judge someone’s performance by just looking at the derivative? I may have fallen at one point in the graph, but then I picked myself up, and made it to the end in the time allotted. Doesn’t the end result count too?

  • The end result is the only thing that matters. To use a different metaphor, if you saw someone start a race in the middle of the pack, and some fraction of the way through the race that person was significantly behind, would it be reasonable to expect that they would end up finishing along with everybody else?

    Catching up to a class in progress is extremely hard; by the time you have the feedback that you need in order to recognize that you don’t fully understand the chain rule, the class is already on the quotient rule. You start out trebly handicapped in the lecture: (Presumably) you weren’t able to preview the subject matter in the textbook, you don’t have the previous skillset internalized, and you are under additional stress because of that. It’s possible to overcome all of those under the time pressure of needing to cover a set amount of material before the end of the semester, but the stress of trying has killed people.

  • True. And that’s when you drop the class, work some more on your own, and return in the fall, knowing you are worthy of trying but just were in a bad situation. (:
    But back to your race metaphor, if you just wanted to run the race so you could prove you could, getting to the finish line is what matters.

  • Which, as I understand it, is exactly what you plan on doing. Just recognize that the other people on the track are doing something different than you are, even though you are both running.

    For self-study, I recommend two hour sessions once or twice weekly. Each session, either focus on understanding and practicing a single topic or skill or on practicing all of the skills you have so far- don’t mix new content and review, and don’t try to learn two new things at the same time. Understand the concept, then learn to implement it, then internalize it, then internalize the general form.

  • Oh absolutely. I just want the different styles of running to get the same respect, is all.
    Funny, your study strategy is the one I’m implementing. My only regret is that Cadbury mini eggs are seasonal.

  • All the mathematics professors at my school would agree with you — I feel completely confident that none of them would have said something like that. In fact, if any of them had a class where almost no one got an A, I’m certain they would consider it at least partly a failure on their part. So I’m quite surprised by what happened with your last calculus professor — perhaps the environment at my school is unusual, but I wanted to assure you that what you experienced is not by any means a necessary or universal attitude in math pedagogy.

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