Friday, August 17, 2007

Turnabout is fair play

Lo, the semester is nearly upon us!

I've spent the morning working with several of my colleagues from across the university in preparing for the pilot Writing Assessment study we're all working on together, so writing in mathematics is of all topics foremost in my mind right now.

I realized as I was driving home that since one of the first tasks I'm going to ask of my Calc I students this coming semester is to write a brief reflection (perhaps an impromptu paragraph) on what math means to them and how it makes them feel, it would only be fair if I were to provide my own extemporaneous thoughts on what math means to me.

Thus, today's post will simply be a 10-minute freewrite on the topic of mathematics, and what it's meant to me in my life.

I've always known that I wanted to do something related to mathematics. Statistics, maybe (I at one time wanted to be a statistician for the Atlanta Braves...that shows the power and influence of TBS on someone growing up in the middle of nowhere Montana!), but mathematics, sure. For a little while, maybe, I dallied with palaeontology (what little boy didn't love dinosaurs?) and cartography (a little bit of math there, for sure), and astronomy (coming of age at a time when Carl Sagan's Cosmos held sway)...but math won out.

It was in my blood, I think: what else could have made me count out the variouis piece of sorts of dog food that I found in Candy's bowl? (Yes, I did this...I'm happy to report that I was quite young when I did it.) What else could have compelled me to pepper my speech, at the age of 10, with proclamations like "according to my calculations"?

Once I accepted that math had its hold on me, once I became comfortable with the fact that my destiny was somehow pre-ordained, I became a lot more comfortable with who I was.

College...yeah, college gave me a lot of choices, but none that I recall ever consciously taking: I went to the University of Denver, close enough to home that I was still in the same world as my parents, far enough away that they couldn't jaunt over and see me every weekend. Why DU? I think the reasoning went something like this: "DU has a strong engineering program [it does, and did]. Therefore, since math and engineering are intimately related [this I knew back then, but I doubt I could have elaborated it on any further than that], it must be that DU has a strong math program. Socrates is mortal and all that crap."

It turns out that I was...well....yes, and no. DU's math program was a relatively small one, but stocked with folks I've come to appreciate as above average teachers and researchers. I was lucky, in some ways, that things turned out as well as they did, I think.

It was a good place to be, at any rate. Being a small program, the majority of the classes above a certain level had to be taken as randomly-strewn "topics" courses...or as independent studies. But the smallness, thus limiting my choices of courses, also meant that I got much more one-on-one instruction with some fine teachers.

Then there was grad school...oh, too much to say. I realize as I'm writing this that I'm straying away from my original intention: what does math mean to me? Well, that's how freewriting goes, I guess...what does math mean to me?

It's a language.

It's a way of life.

It's fun.

It's exciting.

It can be terrifying.

It can leave me lying awake at night, pondering the epistomological questions it raises...and the metaphysical what extent am I "faking it"? I ask myself can one "fake" mathematics? What does that mean? Does that mean I'm merely making up the rules as I go along, and as long as I'm careful enough to write the rules so that they accord with the rules everyone else has written so far and as long as they accord with each other, it's all good, it all makes sense in the end?

In that sense, I guess...

I don't know.

I feel warmed by mathematics. It's familiar to me, I don't remember a time without it, and I pity people who can't appreciate it. Or don't appreciate it.

Pity's a strong word, maybe that's not what I mean, but in any case, my ten minutes are up.


Anonymous said...

Please don't pity me. I don't like nor understand math. I'm glad there are people like you who make it enjoyable and attainable. Also, you got my daughter out of the deal so I don't need to be pitied. I need to be thanked.

Anonymous said...

I can't count the number of times I've yelled at TBS because I thought I was going to watch Saved By The Bell or some other show, but had to watch the Braves instead! But I guess it wasn't so bad being as I am half from ATL and therefore a Braves fan.

I'm glad I was able to help, for a while I thought I might have just been a waste of time, but I hope things will work out well. It sounds like the students will be doing a lot more writing. Gross. I'm glad I'm out! Or else I might have gone crazy (even more then I already did).