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Friday, April 28, 2006

Math is Killing Me

When I think about being a kid, part of what I think about is boredom. Because you are so subject to other people’s plans and whims, you are often bored as a kid. And the older you get, the more control you have over your life, and ideally the less often you are bored out of your skull.

As an adult, I’m almost never bored. I’m always busy, and most of the things I do, even if they’re occasionally unpleasant, are not boring. The past week has been an exception. Boredom has made a comeback, sitting its big grey ass down on top of me and squashing all the air out of my lungs. In the past week, I’ve sat through no less than four math classes. Calculus classes, more precisely.

Why in the name of all that is holy would you do that? You may be asking yourself. Not by choice, I assure you. I am on a Math department search committee at my school. Why did the head of Math ask me to be on this committee when I know nothing about math or the teaching of math, when I haven’t been in a math classroom since I was seventeen and I dropped my Pre-Calc class after first semester senior year (once my college applications were safely in)? Probably because I have a reputation as an excellent teacher and a colleague who brings intelligence and common sense to all of my professional commitments. (And who is humble as the day is long.) But now that I’m on this committee, I fear that none of those qualities will help me have anything remotely useful to say about which of our highly qualified candidates to hire. I can spot a good English teacher a city block away, and I would feel confident assessing the skills of a History teacher or even a Biology teacher. But Math is a language I don’t speak, a country I visited only briefly and have no memory of due to the fact that I was drunk off my ass when I arrived and was promptly thrown in jail, where I remained ‘til I was blindfolded, led to the border, pushed out and told never to return.

But now here I am again, suddenly, disoriented and entirely out of my element. The search as a whole is not too bad. The candidates are all friendly and enthusiastic, and the interviews are interesting enough. I am fully able to focus and engage while listening to someone discuss their philosophy of teaching math or outline their preferred methods of classroom management. I’m taking notes, I’m assessing, I feel like I will have something to say about all of this when the time comes. It’s the teaching demonstrations that are hard for me. I am transported back to my own high school days, sitting in Math class struggling not only to comprehend what’s going on but, more crucially, just to pay attention.

And suddenly, even though I’m not being graded, it’s all much more important. Teenage me sitting in class, obviously disengaged, daydreaming, writing notes to my fellow slackers, reading something totally unrelated to Math, maybe catching a quick, upright cat nap? Nothing too unseemly there. Me as an adult, a teaching professional, a trusted member of a search committee, sitting in the teaching demonstration, mouth slightly agape as I stare blankly out the window or at the wall? Or worse, struggling with my temptation to take some papers out of my bag, shuffle them in with the handout on differential equations I’m supposed to be following, and read through the poem I’ll be reciting to my students later or a response essay I’ve already graded or the fucking memo on fire drills I probably never would have otherwise read? Not good. Not the behavior of a responsible educator.

I am trying though. I’ve been drinking a little extra coffee on those days I’m scheduled to observe a sample lesson. I’ve been making strenuous attempts to focus. I have been resisting the abovementioned urges. And though I am truly bored out of my blessed skull during every Calculus class I sit through, I am nonetheless gaining a new appreciation for Calculus. It seems more interesting than all the Math classes I took in high school. From what I can gather during my fleeting moments of lucidity, it seems like Calculus is more about figuring out how to create tools to solve a given problem than just being handed the tools to solve it. Which, in theory, is interesting. There are even moments when I wonder whether it might not be worthwhile to take a couple of Math classes again, to get to the level of Calculus just to get a sense of what this important branch of mathematics is all about, to exercise my brain.

Then I think What, are you fucking crazy? Once this search is over I will never again put myself in a position where I have to even think about any math more complex than the math I use to do my taxes! And those, my friends, are the thoughts of a truly rational person.

2 Comments:

Blogger jpn said...

I just have to comment about math classes, given that it's been not quite three years since I FINALLY GODDAMN IT finished my bachelor's degree at the age of 54, at least in part because every time I started thinking about going back to complete my degree some asshole administrator would cheerfully inform me that they didn't really care what my SAT math scores were in 1966, I definitely was going to have to take a bunch of algebra and other math classes in order to fulfill the requirements at their particular institute of higher learning. And SO, against my will and better judgement, despite still-painful-after-decades memories of failed high-school math classes, I girded my loins and took several semesters of math and studied my ass off and got --- oh my god! a 3.8 average! Yes, yes, yes! I CAN do this stuff! I'm NOT stupid!

And you know what? Three years later, I've forgotten every bit of math I learned, and I don't give a rat's ass --- I've never needed the math I tried to learn forty years ago in high school, and I'm betting nothing's going to change about that in the future. So much for all those teachers who tried to convince me it was critical knowledge.

Don't get me wrong --- for some careers I think it is critical. And I think everyone should come out of high school knowing a hell of a lot more about the real world of finance than is the case these days. So teach balancing a checkbook, and how to figure out what a mortgage is really going to cost --- and find some way not to make it boring for the majority of us who don't find it fascinating in and of itself.

Oh, and by the way --- you have all my sympathy for your boredom and pain. I think you've gone above and beyond, as they say...

7:20 PM  
Blogger Esereth said...

You know, sometimes I just look up from whatever I'm doing, suddenly hit by the joy in realizing that I will never ever have to take another math or PE class again.

It's like realizing you're breathing through your nose after having it clogged for a week. Heaven.

8:01 PM  

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