Thursday, September 07, 2006

I've Found Math

I can remember spending enough evenings during 8th grade in a frustrated fury, throwing my algebra book across the room, to know I didn’t grow up believing I had any real mathematical talent. I didn’t hate math, but I didn’t love it, either. It was just something to be endured, and if I liked it, it was only because it was so finite. I knew I was done with my math homework when my 25 problems were done. Language arts assignments were far more amorphous (especially for a budding editor). I took calculus (which I almost failed) and statistics (because all psych majors had to take it) in college, and that was it, whereas I took so many English electives, I suddenly realized in my fourth year I had accidentally minored in it. Most of my life, I would have told you I’m an “English person,” not a “math person.” Nevertheless, here I am today, an editor whose subject areas are math and science.

My colleagues and friends will tell you I’m like a late-in-life, obnoxious, born-again fundamentalist. I run around pointing out every area in their lives in which they’re “really doing math, you know.” I tell them there’s no such thing as an “English person” or a “math person,” as both are left-brain functions. I tell them they just don’t like math, because math was taught in such boring and uninspiring ways. I want to spread the Good News. I want everyone to come to Math. I want them to know it’s not okay to Hate Math.

One of my favorite series of questions is “Have you ever gone to a party and asked people if they’ve read any good books lately? Do they ever turn to you and say, ‘Oh, don’t talk to me about reading. I was lost once we got past The Cat in the Hat,’ or ‘I can’t read; you’re either a reading person or you’re not; I’m not?’” Of course not. Yet, start talking about math at a party, and more likely than not (unless you’re at a CalTech or M.I.T. faculty party), people will launch into discussions of how horrible math is, bonding over the fact that they just never could get it. And they’re not the least bit ashamed. Even if someone can’t read well, you’d be hard-pressed to find him or her admitting so in a crowd.

I thought I’d gotten over my own tendencies to bond in this way until Dorothy asked us all in a recent post whether we’re slow or fast readers. I immediately responded that I’m a slow reader, and I have absolutely no problem telling anyone this. I’ve never equated it with some sort of lack in my reading ability. It’s just a fact: I’m a woman; I’m an American; and I’m a slow reader. However, give me a series of math problems, and if I can’t solve them all quickly (and, preferably, in my head), I immediately equate that with a lack of mathematical ability. Somehow, it’s been ingrained in me that in order to be really good in math, I have to have a calculator-like ability to pop out answers.

Obviously, my authors are people who can do math and do it well, and I’ve noticed a reluctance on my part to do any real math alongside them. I don’t mind if they give me problems over which I can puzzle on my own, but I don’t want them to see how I really “can’t do math,” because the process is a long one for me. I become “Sally-Who-Was-Saved-Yesterday” trying to answer questions posed by Billy Graham. Maybe I haven’t really been saved after all.

So, I’m going to have to change my ways, if I’m going to live up to my new born-again status. I’m going to have to start proclaiming myself a slow problem-solver, just as I proclaim myself a slow reader. And what a nice thing to be. It gives me the chance to stop and smell the roses along the way when I’m trying to figure out if we can fit the new couch through the front door. One day, I might even get to have my own tent revivals, helping bring poor, lost “English souls” to Math.


BikeProf said...

This hits home. I was both a "reading person" and a "math person" until my first semester of college. I took calculus, which I had already taken in high school, but it seemed like the rules had all been shifted about ten degrees and no one had told me. I couldn't get even the simplest quadratic equation to work out right. I was lost, and I've had a fear and distrust of math since then. I keep promising that I am going to sit in on the math classes on campus, but so far I haven't.

Anonymous said...

Emily, what a wonderful thing to talk about today, just as school is beginning and that feeling of a clean slate is everywhere! Being told it's okay to work a problem slowly is something that never happened for me, although it would have been so wonderful if I'd been given that piece of advice. (Also, that you should actually DO the story problems before you take a test might have come in handy.)
It is odd that adults read for pleasure but have very little access to science and math for pleasure, when those subjects have plenty to recommend them. Do you know if there are any good math "reads"?

Anonymous said...

I really identify with this post. Since I can claim the label "science writer" for a living, I've grown a little sad over all the years I lost NOT understanding science, not being a 'science' person. Chemistry AND math felt so difficult in high school, and I do think the teachers have so much to contend with that they can't spend time with students who linger or experience difficulties. Now as I learn more and more about scientific research, I can't believe I didn't have a passion for this all along! I guess there just isn't enough time in adolescence to 'get' everything, and those of us who are fortunate have the opportunity to revisit areas we struggled in and understand the beauty found there.
Maybe we should co-author a book - finding the grace in math and science for highschoolers or something like that.
Okay, off to learn more about megakaryocitic leukemia now..

litlove said...

I do like your emphasis on gentle, paced, problem solving. I hated maths with a passion - it was the only class I worked my way through keeping a tally of each 5 minutes that passed (about the extent of my maths ability). I didn't mind adding up but algebra did my head in, because it looked like a chemistry equation, functioned like an essay in numbers and ended up with a right or wrong answer. I was moved to call this intellectual faschism at one point, and much preferred the 'always slightly right' optimism of the arts. Perhaps if someone told me it was ok to move very slowly through these things, I would have liked it more.

Rebecca H. said...

I'm a math person too; in fact, sometimes I think about taking college classes in it again, just for fun. I think in high school I found math easy enough, and English more of a challenge, that I decided I didn't want to be bored, and went with English as a major in college. So, Bikeprof and I will be in a math class together someday probably -- doesn't that sound like fun?

Anonymous said...

I have always wondered why people need to draw such an iron curtain between

science/math on one side and literature/history on the other side. I have never known which side I was on, except I knew that the french academic system favored the former, so there I am, an aerospace engineer, reading and blogging, and stalking litblogs to make up for lost time.

There are three important things I like to tell non-math people. The first is that you do not really learn math at school: you learn the basic tools so you can do real math at college -- it can be pretty boring. Imagine seven full years of navy training not going out to sea once, just learning knots and the names of ropes and sails. You may hate knots and still be a passionate sailor.

The second thing is that (just like sailing) everything becomes much less abstract when you have to do math for real, not because a teacher told you to, but because you need to. I had an epiphany about the subtleties of linear algebra when I had to solve complex non-stationary guidance problems in four-dimensional space.

The third thing is that there is an implicit convention among mathematicians to disguise the beauty of math under a dull dark cloak of formal notations and arid proofs, when in reality there is a wonderland under the cloak. To prove this, I often lend my books by expert cloak-lifters Ian Stewart or Simon Singh, and more often than not, my math-hating friends change their mind about math.

Emily Barton said...

Well, glad to see I've gotten some great responses to this one.

Bloglily, I'd start with YOU ARE A MATHEMATICIAN by David Wells. THE NUMBER SENSE by Stanislas Dehaene is also good, but it's quite dense reading. For parents, try BEYOND FACTS AND FLASHCARDS by Jan Mokros.

Courtney, I can't believe my lack of passion during school, either, but Mandarine has done a terrific job of explaining why that happens.

And Litlove, spend two days with me. I could get you to, if not love math, at lease LIKE it a little better.