It’s generally agreed that one of academia’s most hated fields is Mathematics (and this is coming from someone studying economics, aka “the dismal science”). For the longest, and I mean longest, time, I would agree. Math is weird, it’s complicated, it’s obtuse, it’s difficult to grasp, and most heinous of all, seemingly inapplicable in some cases. For the longest time, I believed that.
I was never a math kid, through most of grade school I was a science kid, really one part science kid one part music kid; later into grade school I decided to drizzle in a healthy portion of english kid and then right towards the end sprinked in a bit of econ kid, maybe a bit too much, in hindsight. But what was never in the recipe, was mathematics, the purest science, and most grade schooler’s nightmare. To be quite frank for the majority of my grade school career I performed below average in math. I had to take Algebra 1 twice, and most of the time barely scraped in terms of grades and to this day there are still concepts from my formative mathematical years that haunt me (lookin’ at you radical rules…). However in 7th grade was an anomaly, a blip in my pattern of subpar math performance, Ms. C. My seventh grade math teacher was, in her own way, an anomaly as well. She was loud and sarcastic and sometimes made digs that went a bit too close to home, but even more oddly, I did well in her class. Granted at the time my parents had enrolled me in one of those after-school supplemental learning centers (think Sylvan, kumon, etc.), however I had been getting good grade in Ms. C’s class before I started all that, and my grades only went up a few percent on average. Ms. C made class fun, engaging, and interesting, and I remember coming out of the class disappointed that I wouldn’t have another shot and learning with her.
After seventh grade I went back on trend, rough grades, barely passing (except for my second run of Algebra 1, which I did well enough in), I took a summer geometry class (which I, of course, barely passed), and finally landed on the tail end of Algebra 2, the end of my state mandated mathematics education. At this point I was left with a decision, struggle through further math (I would’ve had to take an intermediate class between Algebra 2 and pre-calc), or quit – I also happen to see that computer science, and particularly an intro CS class, counted as math classes… you can guess what happened next.
Cutting my pure mathematics education short in favor of computer science is one of my few true regrets in life. As it turns out programing isn’t just rapidly typing as a black screen covered with constantly changing green numbers and letters cycles through meaningless jargon, it involves complex algorithms, logic, and math. Yes, you heard (or should I say read) me, math, that and a dash of “WHAT DO YOU MEAN FILENOTFOUND ERROR, IT’S RIGHT F***ING THERE” and “huh, so thaaaaats why my entire program is broken. Ok, time to start from scratch”. Misconceptions aside, my abandonment of mathematics was, in all metrics, a mistake. When I made my fateful move to India, I had to jump back into math because I hadn’t been swimming in the sea of math for what was basically an eternity, I ended up in the kiddie pool. I placed below average, and until the end of that year, wallowed in my own shame. That was when my parents got me (read: forced me) to start working with a tutor for the SAT, if you can’t tell, it was for math. Enter, Mr. R.
Mr R. is what one would imagine when thinking of a mathematician. Frail in frame, pale skin, wispy white hair, and a boisterous eccentric attitude. He wasn’t the easiest man to work with, nor was he always the easiest to understand. At first, working with him was a slog, I’d spend two afternoons a week, hacking away at problem after problem. I wouldn’t math really ever “clicked” while I was with him, per say. It was a lot more like trying to get an old machine to work. You have to keep working at it, turning handles and forcing rusty gears, sometimes you need to change a part or two, but finally, it begins to work. The gears slowly start turning, everything comes together until finally your old machine is whirring as if it were new. That is how math with Mr. R went.
Fast forward past my SAT (if any of y’all are wondering what my math score was, I pulled a 750, not too shabby if I do say so myself), past a week of mountain survival training, a kickass speech delivered overseas, and a tearful high school graduation. Fast forward past a crazy summer, and a crazier first semester of college. We now arrive at what started this introspection into the nature of mathematics, calculus II, what is generally considered the hardest of the three calculus courses.
Calc II is a bit of an anomaly in the realm of my math education. Generally speaking I tend to like classes I do well in. I enjoyed seventh grade math with Ms. C, and (admittedly after a bit of getting used to) I enjoyed SAT math with Mr. R, but calc II was class that I both struggled in, but also thoroughly enjoyed. For those of you who listen to the Sleepdrunk Podcast (if you don’t I highly recommend it) you will know of Joseph Hart my, now former, calc II professor, a man described by rate my professor as “hot”. However, devilishly handsome looks aside, Mr. Hart was also a fantastic math professor, he was laid back, passionate, and generally invested in the class. He made the class interesting, he kept it fair, and he always cared about the students, even though the class had an abysmal attendance rate – i’m talking maybe 5%, if that. However most important of all, he made the course incredibly interesting. Between talking about how the shape of a slack chain is a catenary, not a parabola, or how you can define any real number as an infinite sum of other numbers, or how the number line in the context of the leading coefficient of a parabola is actually a circle with poles at infinity and zero, even if I only understood half the stuff Hart said, I was almost always acutely interested in it. In all fairness, however, I am the type to get interested in random intellectuals foibles that generally don’t actually have an impact in my day to day life (such as how the phenomenon of temperature of below 0 Kelvin is contradictory but also somehow exists). Calculus II opened this gateway of inquiry for me, it made math this fascinating landscape of possibility, it unveiled this hidden world that exists all around us, and in everything we do. And to be quite honest, lots of graphs look cool, and I like that.
So then why is it that more people aren’t interested in math the same way I am, the same way mathematicians and general intellectuals are? Why is it that math is such a dreaded and reviled subject, a subject that so many struggle in? After my years of education I think it comes down one simple thing, teachers. To paraphrase Joseph Hart “math is often taught as rote procedure, and honestly I think that’s a shame, because life isn’t rote procedure, so why should math be?”. While those might not be his exact words I feel that his meaning is quite clear. Math is a funny sort of art. Now you might take this with a degree of skepticism of roll your eyes, and rightly so. 2+2 is always four, and the square root of 81 is always 9, but then again if you strike a B flat key on a piano a B flat will always ring out, and if you press a paintbrush with green paint to a canvas it will always leave a green mark. All art forms have a set of fundamental axioms which define it; it’s about when and how these various fundamental parts join together. That is what makes art, that is the space for creativity. Math is no different, it’s the combination of the various fields of math, of parabolas and ellipses, sequences and series and so much more which paint a grandiose portrait of the world around us. All it takes is a good teacher to pull back the curtain on this magnificent painting, show us how to make one of our own.
Alavi – Sleepdrunk host and Blog Contributor