Comment due on the OpenLab Monday, October 2
“I’m bad at math.” This is something I’ve heard from a number of students over the years. It’s devastating to me to hear anyone say this about themselves… let alone my own students… in the middle of actually solving a math problem.
Here’s a big secret: I’ve said this about myself. I have a Ph.D. in math. I write math research papers and get invited to give fancy math research presentations. I’ve taught hundreds (maybe thousands?) of students math in my career. And I have said this about myself tons of times over the years.
Here’s another (not-so-big) secret: I’m bad at pushups. I don’t have a Ph.D. in pushups! I can barely do one pushup! I’m, like, definitely, objectively really really bad at pushups! But it doesn’t make me feel bad when I can’t do a pushup. I really don’t care. So what’s different about math?
There is something unique about math: it can make all of us feel bad about ourselves sometimes. The wife of my good friend (who got his Ph.D. in math the same week I got mine) says this: “You mathematicians… if you do understand something, you think it’s because it’s obvious and easy… if you don’t understand something, you think it’s because it’s impossible and you’re too dumb. When do you ever get to feel good about yourselves?” Doing math can be very humbling. (If you’ve never been challenged doing math, let me know and I’ll find a challenge for you.)
There are lots of intersecting reasons that so many people think they’re bad at math, even when they’re not…especially when they’re not. For example, do this right now: do a Google image search for “mathematician.” Scroll until you see someone who looks like you. Can you find anyone? I haven’t seen all of your faces, but I’m willing to bet none of you look like this bro:
Choose one of the following prompts. Then write a response of about 5 sentences and drop it in the comments below.
- Read an article on “math anxiety” (for example this one). Math anxiety is a real thing and there have been tons of articles written on it! Summarize the article. What parts of it resonated the most with you? What is a situation during which you remember experiencing math anxiety in your life? Were you able to overcome it? How? Have your feelings about math changed as you’ve gotten older?
- Go back to the results of your Google image search for “mathematician.” Find a picture of a mathematician who looks like you. What is their name? Research this person’s biography and summarize it for us. What did you find most interesting about their life? What is a question you would ask this person about their life if you could?
- Okay, let’s get personal! Have you ever thought, “I’m bad at math,” yourself? Have you ever said it out loud? How often does this thought come into your head? In what circumstances? What do you do when it happens? Have any of your friends or classmates ever said this about themselves to you? What would you tell your friend if they said “I’m bad at math” to you? What do you think makes people think they’re bad at math? What do you do to challenge these thoughts? How can we support people when they feel like this? (Bonus: respond to someone else’s comment on this prompt; be nice.)
If your response is too long for a comment or if you want to include pictures (especially for prompt #2), feel free to submit your own new post. Use the category Bad at math and copy the link into the comments below.
You will earn participation credit for your comment.
Back to pushups
I mentioned in my introduction that I run a lot. Only recently have I tried to incorporate strength training into my program. I’m still pretty weak, but I’ve come a long way! I still can’t really do a pushup, but I’m starting to get better at planks at least and, honestly, I’m really proud of myself!
So here is one more question for you: why do you think am I talking so much to you about pushups in a math class???