*Jun*

*2*

*2011*

## The Sadness that Creates my Job Security

Posted by cbgw under Nerdy Stuff, Stories | Permalink | | Leave A Comment | No Comments

My students seem to think that I’m some sort of uber-nerd. While I reject that assertion, it’s not because I reject the negative connotation, but rather that I can only hope that my scholarship could reach that pedestal.

In my College Algebra class, I chided the students, “Only 25% of you got the quiz question right. It seems that you’re trying to MEMORIZE the distance formula instead of UNDERSTAND why it was constructed. The ‘formula’ has a bunch of subscripts and signs. I’m losing you in the subscripts and signs. I advocate that if you recognize the Pythagorean Theorem and if you know how to count, you won’t have to memorize a new formula.” A student asked, “It’s going to be the right number if we count the spaces?” “Yes, the formula was constructed to cause you to get arithmetically the same number as counting spaces. When part of the formula says (x(sub2)-x(sub1)), that’s just math code for ‘count the horizontal spaces.’”

Later, the textbook instructed them to manipulate (in a calculator) a kind of function that they had not seen. “I know that this is not exactly what you’ve seen before, but think about all of the similarities with the problems that you HAVE seen. Format it so that it is easy and common place.” I wrote the same problem in a simplified form. “What do you do with this one?” They answered correctly. “Okay, then do that same stuff to this one. See? You really DO know what to do with these!”

I continued, “Later this semester, I’m going to give you problems like this…” I showed them another complexity of the same problem. “…and I will expect you to identify the similarities to the simplified problem again.” We worked it together. Suddenly, the moans turned into ohs of satisfaction. One student said, “That was a LOT easier than I thought it was going to be!” I said, “THAT’S what I’ve been trying to tell you guys. This stuff can be really, really easy! Just don’t be afraid of it. Work towards understanding the construction of algebra instead of memorizing specific cases.”

The next (rainy) day, I took my kids to the indoor playground at Chick-fil-A while I used the wifi to create College Algebra course materials. Three complete strangers saw the textbook, approached me, and bewailed the course. “I hated that class! That was the worst 2 years of my life!” (This reminds me of one of my favorite sitcom scenes ever—Mad About You, Ep Moody Blues, where the stranger tells Helen Hunt, “This is my WEDDING HAIR.” I think my initial reaction to this guy was the same expression that Helen Hunt had.) “Um, I’m sorry?” I told him as I shoved another bite into my mouth to keep from pointing out that the course lasts 4 months instead of 2 years. Oh, my! Another said, “I took that several years ago. I’m SO glad that’s over! Blech!” A third said, “Oh, DEATH to that class! It KILLED me. I picked an MA program based on which one didn’t require the GMAT because I hated that stuff so much.”

Let me guess, you approached the class as a memorization of formulas that you promptly flushed out of your brains after finals? Uh, huh.

When I first started teaching, I was a little concerned that I had not picked a lucrative skill. I was afraid that people would figure out that algebra is quite easy and not need me anymore. I was mistaken. As long as people perpetuate the idea that math is hard and that algebra is exclusively memorization of useless formulas and computation of large quantities, I have job security. As long as they are tethered to the idea that algebra is a completely unattainable skill set, they will bathe themselves in fear instead of the power of accomplishment. While I jest about my job security, it’s still very sad that most people will refuse to divorce the idea that math is beyond their aptitude. As long as they do that, I cannot show them the beauty that I see in it.