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My Automathography

I’m taking Justin Lanier’s smOOC called Math is Personal, and one of our first assignments is to write our “automathography”. So here’s mine. Enjoy!

Mary’s Automathography

I love math, but I didn’t fall in love with it until college. I was good at math in high school, but I was good at all my classes, so nothing stood out about math in particular. I definitely had a fear of getting the wrong answer in math class, and I was happy to just follow the procedures given to me by my teachers. At this point in my life, I don’t think I understood what mathematics actually was. I won the conference quiz bowl in math my senior year, and it was great to get that recognition, but I graduated high school thinking I would study chemistry in college.

I soon discovered that I did not enjoy working in the lab, but that I did enjoy my math courses, so I ended up majoring in math. I went to a huge university (40,000+ undergraduates), so my first two years of math classes consisted of lectures with 300 students. Despite this, I found myself completely inspired by the professors. I was enamored with how passionate and genuine they seemed. In other subjects, I felt like the professors and TAs were egotistical or arrogant. In contrast, everyone in the math department seemed friendly and easy going. I’ll always remember when one of my calculus professors introduced Euler’s identity. His voice wavered, and I thought he might even cry when he described how this one equation related the most important numbers in mathematics.

Even those first few years of college, I was still focused on answer-getting. This quickly changed when I started taking courses like Real Analysis and Modern Algebra. In these classes, I was finally challenged to think for myself. There were no recipes to follow, and it was completely up to me to decide how to prove or demonstrate something. It was both terrifying and liberating. Math became a creative endeavor for me, and I loved it. I truly came to understand and appreciate Georg Cantor’s quote: “The essence of mathematics is its freedom.”

Besides the creative aspect of math, I also thrived on its collaborative aspect. Getting to know the other students in my classes was so much fun, and struggling with them on math problems late into the night will always be one of my favorite college memories. I also always appreciated how there wasn’t a competitive atmosphere in math, compared with most of the science classes I took. Simply put, I learned so much from doing and talking math with my peers. I became more confident and began to embody the mathematical habits of mind.

In particular, I will never forget the group I worked with in Real Analysis. The professor assigned problems every class which were due the following class (this course required more of my time than any other), so the five of us would get together almost every day, sometimes for several hours, to struggle through them. We would meet in the student union in the evenings, staying later than everyone else and having conversations about math or maybe not about math. Before class, we would meet in the math library to share any last minute insights, often getting looks from others for being too loud. Naturally, a strong bond formed between the five of us. On weekends (or Thursdays, or whenever we could no longer stand to stare at our papers) we would go out and get drinks together.

The experiences I had in classes like Real Analysis really transformed my idea of math. I learned the value of productive struggle and collaboration. I learned how to be creative in math and make it my own. I really felt mathematically strong at the end of it all.

Fast forward to the present- five years after that Real Analysis class. I am now about to start my first-year teaching high school math. I hope I don’t suck.

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