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.

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.