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?

Under the compass of Damocles 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.


  • Try to remember that the students who don’t have the same issues as you aren’t the universal students, either. I’m sure you know that, but it can be difficult to see when there’s ableism everywhere.

    It’s tempting to think of taking extra time or taking the test alone as “cheating,” but if that’s the case, the rest of the class is “cheating” too by getting all that extra problem-solving time from not being anxious. I’m glad that your professor is so forthcoming with information about accomodations, and I hope you can find a way to make test-taking work for you.

    (Also, if not for proctoring issues, I would never put a time limit on my tests. Speedy math, it turns out, is not that valuable!)

  • That’s a good point. I haven’t ruled the option out altogether. When I speak of wanting to reflect the universal experience, I’m thinking more about access to resources most students studying at this level may not have. My college is pretty progressive.

  • In my experience, “progressive” means they pay for the diagnostic. But perhaps I’m a bit jaded from my interactions with accessibility offices. :-\

  • Heh. I think this falls under my healthcare services. Of course, I would still have to pay a separate doctor for a consult on top of the college diagnostic, so it does cost a bit.
    I may be even more jaded than you, because in my day (hey, kids, get off my lawn!) there was no talk of accommodating disabilities of any sort.

  • I have always had text anxiety when it comes to math tests, particularly calculus tests. It was not uncommon for me to literally cry through most of the tests. I would still manage to get B’s in the class, but it wasn’t easy. I have a few strategies that really helped. The first is that I always brought hot tea with me, (not so hot that I couldn’t gulp it down). The hot liquid really helped soothe me, and calmed me so I could concentrate. Sometimes I would bring a cut flower, the scent would also soothe me. I have heard of people eating lollipops, the sugar and taste are reminiscent of childhood happiness and can help. I’ve never had a professor give me a hard time about any of these things since they are clearly there to help me be calm. Perhaps you can find something similar that can help you cope.

  • Peach Snapple Ice Tea has always helped, but the college has a strict no food in class policy, so I drink it before.
    And the thought of you crying your way through the tests — wow. That makes me want to time travel back to your class on test days, and leave a pot of tea and a bouquet on your desk!