# Confessionals, boy-crazy and otherwise

First:  I did not fail the test.  Nope.  Not a failure.  Not today.  Voice of reason: Although I am happy to have passed, it was a genuine surprise.  So clearly I have no idea how to self-assess my abilities in this course.  File that away as something to think about post-celebration.

Hot X: Algebra Exposed!  By Winnie from Wonder Years.

Second: I made progress on my black-hole tendencies.  I asked two questions in class, and I bought a new book.  Yes, this book.  Yes, the cover pumps a personality quiz and “boy-crazy confessionals.”  But Winnie-from-Wonder-Years’s tone is so much more likeable than my \$400 course textbook.  The blurb promises that she “shows you how to ace algebra and soar to the top of your class–in style!”  The pep-talk to us girls (tween or otherwise) about being able to do math is a bonus.

Third: We started graphing things this week.  MY OPTIMISM IS RENEWED.  I love graphing.  I love graph paper.  I love charts and tables.  And grids.  It’s the whole reason I became a girl-scout as a kid: selling cookies meant I had control over the most magnificent, color-coded spreadsheet that a 1980’s 10-year old could hope for.  And when we planted a garden, we went the square-foot gardening route because it required a grid.  And crossword puzzles: a favorite pass-time.  So many tiny little boxes.  I use graph paper all the time, but using graph paper for its intended purpose brings a special kind of joy.

Finally: I’m not funny.  I know it.  Last week, a stranger commented that this blog was interesting but not funny.  Being interesting can be hard, so I’ll take that as a win and continue to forge ahead.  Onward and upward, everyone, mechanical pencils at the ready.  It’s a whole new week.

# The negative wind speed beneath my wings

We had our first test this week.  The last question was a word problem about the amount of pollution in the air based on the speed of the wind.  Somehow, I ended up with a negative wind speed.  Which I know is illogical and impossible (unless I completely misunderstood the LIGO announcement this week).  But the math that I had worked out to arrive at the negative wind speed looked pretty much right to me.  And so, knowing that my answer was absolutely wrong, I wrote it down anyway.  Something is always better than nothing.

It is only this week dawning on me that I might actually fail this course, which has put me into a very fast five-stages-of-grief tailspin.  At the peak of my frustration, I told a friend that I was doing everything I knew how to do, and it wasn’t enough.  She said:

• “Did you visit your professor during office hours?” No.
• “Did you seek out tutoring?” No.
• “Did you find other books to explain the same problem differently?” No.

She pointed out that I was not, in fact, doing everything I knew how to do.  Fellow math students have also suggested that I sit in the tutoring center while doing homework and that I ask around for links to YouTube videos of people working through the steps for given problems.

Honestly?  I HATE THESE IDEAS.  I believed learning math wouldn’t require as much collaboration as learning to write seems to require.  And honestly, the idea of doing math in a vacuum appeals to me. I’m not sure why, when I know how powerful collaboration can be.  For some reason, I want to be inside a black hole with math, where nothing IS something.  Or something like that.  Maybe my answer to this test question was me trying to tell myself as much.  Except I don’t know enough math to have ever orchestrated the negative wind speed answer on purpose.

This week, I need to reassess my goals with this math business.  If this project is going to last longer than a semester, I suppose I need a better plan.  Working in a black hole, as much as I like the idea of it, isn’t going to get me very far.

The curve of the banana is a parabola that can be calculated with the quadratic formula.  More at http://blogs.swa-jkt.com/swa/10326/2012/11/21/quadratic-functions-in-the-real-world/

A month into the semester, and my algebra book has not yet mentioned this critical bit: the two solutions produced by a quadratic equation are actually the points on a graph that a parabola passes through.  Not until ch 3 this week, “Functions and Graphs,” when finally: we have some pictures.  This changes everything.

A well-known calligram about the Eiffel Tower by Guillaumme Apollinaire. See more at http://www.galleryintell.com/artex/poems-peace-war-guillaume-apollinaire/

Coincidentally, this week my own students and I read the part of Foucault’s The Order of Things where he mentions “the beautiful calligrams dreamed of by Linnaeus” (135).  A calligram is a piece of text written in the shape of the object it describes.  It’s often associated with poetry, but it’s also tied by definition to pictures.

Botanist Carl Linnaeus attempted to use calligrams in his scientific descriptions of plants: “the order of the description, its division into paragraphs, and even its typographical modules, should reproduce the form of the plant itself.  That the printed text, in its variables of form, arrangement, and quantity, should have a vegetable structure” (135).  Linnaeus felt that his classification system would be better represented if he used the lines on the page as both text and image.  The idea of overlaying a mathematical, formulaic grid onto language in order to suss out buried meanings and connections is nothing new.  Centuries later Lacan would try something similar (in my mind, anyway) by creating mathemes: graphic representations of his ideas that you can now buy on tee-shirts.

“The Treachery of Images,” Magritte  (http://collections.lacma.org/node/239578)

In a separate essay called “This is not a pipe,” Foucault discusses Magritte’s paradoxical painting as another type of calligram “secretly formed, and then carefully undone.”  He writes that calligrams “bring text and image as close as possible to each other,” and usually the calligram erases the binary between: “to show and to name; to figure and to speak; to reproduce and to articulate; to intimate and to signify; to look at and to read.”  In Magritte’s work, says Foucault, through the contradiction and the conflation of the words and image, this is an act of mischief.

The graph of a quadratic equation seems to be a mischievous  variation on the calligram, one that conflates the idea of general and specific, of a formula to be applied universally and of a specific diagram of a particular banana.  Seeing the equation and its result together simultaneously forms and undoes their relationship, at least for the uninitiated (as I am), at which point we are (I am) surprised and delighted to find the correspondence.

And a parting question for those who are already fluent in quadratics (can you say it that way?). I imagine that having both the equation and the graph is a bit redundant, the way Neo sees the Matrix code and the agents simultaneously, so once fluent, does the act of plotting the graph continue to generate any meaning, laughter, or surprise?

# Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally: That’s an order.

We have begun working with quadratic equations.  I am failing this miserably, but I think I have discovered the root of the problem:  the Order of Operations.  This is the fundamental set of rules that dictates 5 + 6 x 2 equals 17 and not 22.  I realized last week that when overwhelmed by an equation, I start with the parts that look easy (so I do all the addition first, for example).  The Order of Operations says no, no, no, you can’t do it that way, and it makes my answers non-negotiably wrong.

Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally: Parenthesis, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction.

Until today, I believed that basic math skills were grounded in axioms (self-evident propositions) and theorems (things capable of being proved).  But in studying up on the Order of Operations, I found that it is a convention.  Granted, it’s a widely accepted, super duper important one.  But at its heart, a convention is simply “an agreement or covenant between parties.”  In other words, I’m failing math because of a spit and a handshake.

If a convention is simply an ongoing agreement to a set of (arbitrary) rules, then the Order of Operations is just math’s grammar, a study of “the relations of words in the sentence, and with the rules for employing these in accordance with established usage.”  My field of writing and composition has largely abandoned the right/wrong binary of grammar in favor of multiple grammars representing marginalized voices.  My biased impression is that basic math has, conversely, tightened its grip on this binary.*

Math and writing used to have multiplicity more in common.  In Hidden Harmonies: The Lives and Times of the Pythagorean Theorem, I read that Babylonian scribes may have “thought of values differently arrived at the way we think of variant spellings: there is no ideal that ‘color’ or ‘colour’ better realizes” (36).  And the authors then write that the algebraic Babylonian culture “was founded on recipes, which are always modified by locality and detail” (41).

I have to tell you, I love the idea that my test answer isn’t wrong–it is simply my shiraz to math’s syrah.  Come on, Aunt Sally. Let’s carve out a little space for my particular dialect of quadratic equation.  We can discuss further over a glass of wine.

*This might be because so much of the homework is done online with inflexible, automated grading systems.  The computer is a harsh mistress.