Mathochism: Rationally confident, emotionally terrified

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

In just seven days, the calculus begins again.

I’m excited. I’m also terrified. This experience will hopefully be very different — in a good way! — from the last.

Certain parts are already very different. For the first time (in a regular semester, summer doesn’t count) I am taking an hourly, four-day-a-week class. This may be better, since I often process difficult concepts more successfully in smaller chunks. It does make balancing other parts of my life more challenging, since I’ll be going to the college a lot more.

The most different thing is that this professor is a woman. All seven instructors I have dealt with so far have been men.

This professor was my second choice. I would have loved to get the summer pre-calc prof, but he is very popular (and rightly so), so his class filled up in about two seconds. This professor seemed interesting, and has an interesting background. She has mixed reviews on Rate My Professors, at least at my college. She has rave reviews at other colleges in the area.

It’s always a gamble, and I have to remind myself that both the dapper and dour professors got mixed reviews, but both helped me immensely.

The biggest problem, really, is to undo the damage done in my last calculus class. I may not have thought I had “major problems” when I started, but I did when I left. Sure, the major problem may have been the man in charge of the classroom, but how I allowed him to affect me was bad.

Very, very, bad.

All I can do is try to overcome the various obstacles that will invariably stymie me. I will work very hard, try to establish rapport, take advantage of any help I can get. There really is no reason why I can’t learn this. After all, before I was told I had “major problems,” I was absorbing and applying various concepts successfully (if success can be measured by getting the right answers on homework problems and online tests). I have no reason to become my own worst enemy. But sadly, I often do.

On a happier note, I have been talking to incredible women all summer for the Mathochism book. Most have been local (I figured I would start there, though the source list is growing, and growing more and more international), so I got the pleasure of meeting them in person. Not all are mathematicians (the mathematicians on my list rock, of course), but all use math in their work in some way. To date, I have spoken to astronomers, physicists, chemists, biologists, computer scientists and engineers. Some are students. Some are teachers. Some are working in their industries.

All are thoroughly inspiring. And all have been generous with their time and kind with their interest and support. STEM may still be male-dominated, but women are there too. And they’re kicking serious ass. I am honored to tell their stories along with my own, and as I face a semester of self-doubt and possible self-sabotage, I will keep them in my mind.

Rationally confident, emotionally terrified. Hey, if that’s how everyone felt at JPL during the Curiosity landing, then I’m in good company!

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



  • Best of luck with resuming your Calc studies! I hope things go better for you this time, and I think they will. Everyone encounters a discouraging teacher, nasty supervisor, demoralizing coach or uber-critical client from time to time, and it’s hard to prevail once they’ve gotten into your head. Honestly, that prof sounded like the source of the “major problems” last time. I have every belief that you can – and will – have a better experience this semester!

  • Thanks, Olivia. That really helps!

  • (Here from Shakesville) Good luck! I am doing something simular — I took and passed Calculus long ago, but I never really understood it. As I am getting older, I am trying to find ways to stretch my mind, so I’m making another run at it. I am starting at Trig, which I last took nearly 40 years ago, just to get me back in that way of thinking.

    Bear in mind, older students think differently and approach learning differently than 18/19 y.o. kids, and professors are not accustomed to dealing with older students. That doesn’t mean that something is wrong with you, just sometimes you don’t match up cleanly with your professors way of teaching.

  • Good luck to you too! I really enjoyed trig, which surprised me. Even though I struggled a bit with the change of base problems, it was a really cool branch of math.

  • Sending you good vibes for the new semester. And I hope the prof you have this time is a better fit.

    The previous calc prof sounded kind of like he thought his primary job was to weed out people who didn’t strike him as potential math majors by midterm, which is, I think, all kinds of obnoxious.


  • Thanks so much!

  • Hey, good luck! I’ll be waving pompoms for you & following along to hear how it goes.

    Have you thought about doing something like the kind of intervention that’s been shown to combat stereotype threat in an attempt to address the “major problems” stuff? Something like spending ten minutes before class writing a paragraph about who you are, what your values are, what you believe in, what you’re good at. Basically grounding yourself in your strengths as a pre-emptive strike against the math-related self-doubts.

  • Thanks!
    And I’ll definitely consider the positive affirmation idea. It sounds intriguing.