Mathochism: Thrown to the wolves
One woman’s attempt to revisit the math that plagued her in school. But can determination make up for 25 years of math neglect?
When I started taking math classes at the college, I was usually one of the older students, but not necessarily the oldest. This semester, pretty much every student is young enough to be my child. I think the professor is about my age, but she may actually be a few years younger.
Considering the obvious age difference, and the fact that I am not their peer, I’ve been flattered by how several young students, both men and women, have been friendly and welcoming.
I’ve built a particular rapport with one young man named Phil. Phil is not only taking Calc, but also Physics and Philosophy. He has already taken Calc I and Calc II, and passed both classes, but because of the vagaries of the academic bureaucracy, and switching schools, he is being forced to take Calc I again. (He’s also had the Calc Dementor for a class, and we bonded over CD’s less than congenial mien.)
Even with his background in Calculus and his taking Physics, which reinforces concepts like differentiation, Phil is not acing this class. He was able to solve that implicit differentiation/linear approximation problem I complained bitterly about on Wednesday, but he told me he did so using methods he had learned in Physics class.
He asked me yesterday how I did on the test, and I shrugged. I told him I was sure I failed again, but that I was resigned to learning from the failures and sticking with the class because, ironically, I am actually understanding the material, even if I am unable to convey that on the test.
I also mentioned that an F was not technically an issue, since I wasn’t concerned about GPAs.
“So you’re just brushing up, huh?”
I considered his question, and then thought, “What the hell.” I told him that I am a journalist, and about the Mathochism project (though not about this blog, or the project’s name), that I had gone back to school to try to prove I could learn math and learn to love it. I told him I am writing a book about the issues involved in trying to learn math. I added that this was not some exposé on our college, but a more general view of the obstacles students face when pursuing STEM.
I then told him about starting from pre-algebra, and working my way up the sequence, and how I had been getting As and high Bs the entire time.
Until now. I told him that I was getting increasingly frustrated by my performance on tests, even though I understood lectures and aced the homework.
This led to a discussion of what we both thought were the obstacles in this class. We agreed that, while our teacher was a great lecturer and engaged with her students, she often rushes through lectures and never has a lot of time to address student questions in class. We remembered one instance when the professor helped a student with a question at the beginning of class, then was unable to finish the lecture. We also talked about how, because of the time crunch, there was never much time to really have an in-depth discussion of the material, which is quite complicated.
I shared my discussion with the professor where she mentioned the department’s desire to make us “independent,” and added that, while I didn’t mind being independent, that it shouldn’t mean having to scour other calculus books and the Internet for practice problems that would actually prepare me for an exam. Why not provide students with supplemental problem sheets that really challenged them? Or better yet, find a book that did this?
“That’s because this is a weed-out course,” he said. “They don’t want everyone to pass calculus. That’s why we’re thrown to the wolves.”
Huh. Yeah, I know that sounds inflammatory. But I do find it interesting that a big reason he is not struggling like I am is because he has already learned this material. When the best way to pass a course is to have already taken it, sometimes several times, what does that say about the way the academic institution who offers it has decided to structure it?
Since we were having this conversation in the classroom, we were not hard to overhear. Though Phil and I were the ones talking, his neighbor, a young man named Juan, also got involved. Juan has been friendly with Phil and reserved with me, which is fine. I am not going to force rapport. But I do know he is struggling even harder than I am, and like me, he has also gone through the sequence.
He opened up about that, which drew in the young man sitting behind me. That young man — let’s call him Matt, though I don’t actually know his name — chimed in, saying he thought it was weird that the college’s own program had failed to properly prepare me and Juan for the rigors of Calculus. So yes — he too felt that the way the course was structured was more aimed at weeding out than helping students learn.
Moreover Matt, like Phil, has taken Calculus before. I already knew that, since the way he asks questions in class often makes the professor admonish him that “we haven’t gotten there yet!” Because of that, I don’t believe he struggles like Juan and I do. Or the number of others struggling, too. Our class has quite a few students dismayed by their sudden math illiteracy. I know this because I can’t help overhearing them as I stand in the hall before class.
And I know this because the professor told me during that conversation we had about independence.
Which leads me back to the question, if the only way I can pass this class is by taking it before, so that the obstacles — the time crunch, the inadequate problem sets — don’t matter, then what does that say about the institution offering it? And if their ultimate goal is indeed to weed us out, how does that jibe with the lofty goals of academics and politicians who bemoan the shrinking number of STEM students in this country?
Phil has told me he wants to become a physicist. He is acing his Physics class, but even a C in Calculus will hobble his chances of transferring to a good school. Is it right to weed him out? Or does he deserve better?
Math instructors who read this, what do you think about Phil’s comment? Is he right? Are we being set up to fail? Are they throwing us to the wolves?
And if he is, is my college alone in doing this, or is this a universal tactic? Do universities across the country set their students up to fail?
And if we sincerely want our population to be more numerate, is this the best way to go about it? When I had these issues last semester, I thought it was just the professor. But now the professor is not the obstacle. This is an institutional obstacle. And I’m not struggling with it alone.
All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.