Mathochism: Acceptance

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 Ever since that eye-opening (or, more accurately, denial-ending) conversation with my classmates on Thursday, I’ve been grieving.

I’ve been grieving for the calculus experience I had hoped I would have, one where those classmates and I got the support we needed to master the material. I’ve been grieving for an experience where we weren’t treated like a commodity not worth investing in, or a sucker parted quickly from his tuition money.

I’ve gone through the Kübler-Ross stages — denial, anger, bargaining. I’m still kind of in depression, which made me consider dropping the class, because failing repeatedly even after working hard and understanding things is a huge drag on the psyche.

But I’m determined to see this through this time. Even if I don’t pass a single test. Even if I am always a pace behind.

Because I AM LEARNING CALCULUS. I’m taking limits correctly. I’m deriving things correctly. I’m slowly but surely demystifying related rates.

I really want to see what comes next. I want to study integration, and the fundamental theorem of Calculus.

I WANT TO KEEP LEARNING CALCULUS.

Yes, the format sucks, and the time frame for tests is against me. Yes, the department wants to weed me out. Yes, the book sucks, but I am finding new sources of problem sets every day. (PS to math folks out there — I’m open to suggestions for more sets! Give me the tough stuff! Just keep in mind we’re not covering logarithms or exponential equations. They leave that for the next course.)

But I still enjoy the professor’s lectures, and appreciate the clarity she’s given me, in spite of the part she plays in the system. And I wonder if, unless she is a sadist, she finds this set-up as soul-sucking as I do. I’ve seen glimpses of that when she’s let her guard down. I think this person truly loves math, and truly enjoys teaching.

Or maybe I’m a fool who just wants to think the best of people, because the alternative is bleak. Then again, I am also old enough to have seen many acts of grace, and many acts of beauty, coming at times from people who are also despicable.

But never mind. This is not about her soul, but about mine.

So yes, I may fail this time, if only on the transcript. But things ARE worth doing even if I’m not perfect at them right away.

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

6 comments

  • This. This is what I wanted to convey to so many struggling algebra students in classes I tutored in or substitute taught in. I saw so many of them give up and stop trying once it became clear that they weren’t going to pass this term, when they should have still been trying to fight to learn as much as they could, if only to make it easier next time. Ideally the grades should reflect what you have learned – but if they don’t, focus on the learning rather than just getting the grade. The learning is what will stay with you for the rest of your life.

    Good for you. It’s clear to me that you are learning calculus, and I want you to see what comes next, also. I’ve enjoyed following your journey, and I wish you the best in continuing it.

  • Thank you. As I’ve said before, support means a lot. Thank you.

  • I’m with you. I’m going through a similar thing this semester (well, it’s graduate courses and they’re kicking my ass because I got really sick, but the thing is that my mindset is, like yours, doing the shifting thing). All I have to say is that the reason why I’m so adamant to become a professor is that I’m disgusted by the weeding, and want everyone who wants math to get as much as they can carry.

    But anyway… this is likely a long, long way off, but if you keep loving mathematics as much as you have, I recommend the books “Topology” (Munkres), “Algebra” (Birkhoff and Mac Lane), and “Principles of Mathematical Analysis” (Rudin). These three are the best books I have found thus far for introductory proof-based mathematics in the three main fields of algebra, analysis, and geometry, and I think that you might really enjoy learning more about the underpinnings of what you know already. Of course, there are holes in the reasoning that you will be expected to fill in, but if you’re willing to go a lot slower through the books (expect an hour or more per page at first as you get used to how it works), you’ll be handsomely rewarded. I’ll note also that most professors tend to be a lot nicer/more helpful if you start showing interest in proof-based mathematics, so you may be able to get answers to your questions even if the teacher in question is teaching you for a different course.

    Unfortunately I don’t have advice on where to find other computation-based problem sets, but I’m behind you 100%. You can do this–and more than that, you already are!

  • Thanks, Vector — for the support and for the book suggestions. I’m also going to suggest them to my husband, who enjoys reading quantum mechanics books for fun (even though he claims he doesn’t understand them). And I am in awe of your fortitude as well. You’ll be a kickass prof!

  • Or maybe I’m a fool who just wants to think the best of people, because the alternative is bleak. Then again, I am also old enough to have seen many acts of grace, and many acts of beauty, coming at times from people who are also despicable.

    But never mind. This is not about her soul, but about mine.

    So yes, I may fail this time, if only on the transcript. But things ARE worth doing even if I’m not perfect at them right away.

    Love this. Amazing how something like math can cause us to search our souls. Proud of you and your earnest pursuit of learning for learning’s sake.

    Ironic how the phrase coming to my mind about your learning calc comes from a Loreal commercial:

    ‘Cause you’re worth it.

  • Aww, thanks. If only calc would make my hair shiny and manageable. It’s just turning it grey.

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