Mathochism: Removing the discontinuity
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 got to the college early today, because I wanted to ask the calculus professor about a few homework examples. One example was that trig verification that was befuddling me last week. The others were of the graph and sandwich varieties.
A student was already there when I arrived, but he was asking about one of the problems I wanted to ask about, so the professor suggested I sit in (this is in complete contrast to Calc Dementor, who disliked such collaborations).
We wound up going over a number of problems, since it turns out the other student was befuddled by the exact things I was. Like me, he found it difficult to connect with the book, which surprised the professor. In fact, a number of mathematicians I have spoken to seem to love this book. I have to wonder if it’s because they are viewing it from a solid base of knowledge, not a blank slate. Or maybe it’s because I and my fellow student just don’t think like mathematicians?
Still, I think we both felt far less befuddled after attending office hours.
But going over homework problems isn’t all that happened in that office this morning. My classmate made some comment about how he felt lost in class because other students seemed so confident when answering questions he was still struggling to understand. The professor and I reassured him that he was not alone. I mentioned that it could be that some students had already taken calculus, and that I was one, as was at least one other classmate.
I also told him that, even with knowing my pre-calc, and having studied some calc previously, I’d still managed not to do so well on the quiz, because I get nervous about tests.
And that is when the professor blew my mind.
“My impression of you is that you understand the material, but that you are very nervous about it, and it is affecting your performance.”
True, I sit in the first row, where my math anxiety likely oozes off me in sine waves. And that quiz, where I solved a complex trig verification only to mistake cotangent for tangent, was surely a clue. (And anyone who has been following Mathochism cannot be in shock right now.) It was still surprising to hear her say it. She is clearly a perceptive person who is good at reading her students.
However, I have some mixed feelings about her assessment.
On the one hand, it was gratifying to know she doesn’t think I’m incapable of grasping the material. On the other, I am dismayed that I come across as overly anxious in class, even if that is how I feel.
As a girl, and as a young woman, people around me, especially those in authority over me — teachers, parents, various peers — have used my anxiety against me. They’ve bullied me because I was “too nervous”. They’ve criticized me because I was “too nervous,” making it out to be a huge character flaw. In some instances, they’ve flat-out said they don’t like me because I’m “too nervous”. I’ve been called “a nervous poodle”.
Therefore, being called “nervous” is a bit of a trigger for me.
But I know that in this case, the calc professor was telling me she had noticed this because she wanted to help. And, once my classmate left, she suggested an interesting solution. Apparently, the college will make accommodations for students with anxiety issues. If a student is deemed to be too paralyzed by test anxiety to perform well, that student is allowed to take the exam (with supervision) in a quiet room somewhere else on campus. The student is also allowed more time.
These sounded like great things to me, and I decided to investigate that option. I went to the office involved, and they gave me a form to fill out before getting an assessment. Here’s the rub — they require a psych approval from a medical professional.
I am not in therapy, though I have considered it in the past for other issues. I just don’t feel the need for therapy exclusively to address this issue, since the Mathochism project is almost over.
More than that, part of my reason for becoming a mathochist was to test my ability to overcome obstacles in the traditional classroom environment. I wanted to represent the universal student. Since the vast majority of math students, male and female, don’t have an option of taking the test alone, and getting more time, why should I?
Still, I really appreciate the professor noticing, having compassion, and actually suggesting a plausible way to fix it. I know the Calc Dementor found me nervous last semester. I remember him telling me I needed to relax just as I was about to ask him a question after class. I remember being surprised by that, since I was merely standing patiently in line with my book. I wasn’t tapping my foot, looking at my watch, biting my lip or playing with my hair. But I guess the anxiety sine waves were obvious anyway.
His reaction? Impatience and irritation and contempt. Hers? Well, I already covered that.
At any rate, I am keeping my options open until after the first exam. If I tank that out of anxiety (and we’re allowed to drop that, yay!), I’ll look into medical help. If I do well, hopefully my re-earned confidence will keep the Nervous Poodle at bay.
In today’s class, we covered continuous and discontinuous functions, and how a discontinuous function can become continuous if the discontinuity is removable.
Talk about a metaphor! Here’s hoping my anxiety — i.e. discontinuity — is removable. It would suck if it weren’t.
All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.