There’s a lot in this world about which I am not stupid: practically, I’ve navigated life more or less effectively so far. But more and more often I notice am annoyed that there is someone at the table who professes to know more about [X] than I do. And the more I am expected to know, the more I question what I think I know. Maybe this is why I am enjoying the math classes: I’m allowed to be stupid* there. I am supposed to be stupid there.

Years ago, a professor was describing the idea of “lines of flight” from 1000 Plateaus, and he said (loosely paraphrased) that it means running headlong through a mountain rather than intentionally trying to go around it. His example was a 3¢ bank fee that you disagreed with. Rather than protesting and not paying it, which would ultimately benefit the bank, you should write a separate check for the 3¢ every time the fee is due. If we all wrote separate checks for these tiny fees, we could cripple the bank by costing it more money to process the fee than the fee itself is worth. Don’t avoid the fee. Force everyone to look at the fee in excruciating detail. Maybe this is what I’m doing with my own mathematical stupidity: running headlong into it and gazing on every horrifying crevice. To what end, I don’t know.

All of this to say: I have finally passed MATH 140: Introduction to Mathematical Analysis. It took me three tries, and I wasn’t entirely sure that I had passed until final grades were posted. I’m registered to take Calculus in the fall. Also, I’m getting better at finding textbook deals, so the book this time was only$180, and I bought the Student Solutions Manual up front, too–that might have saved me last semester, if only it had been “required” and not “recommended.”

The velocity of my stupidity is picking up steam. Maybe even accelerating?

*My use of stupidity is loosely based on what I vaguely remember of Derrida and Ronell. Probably stupidly misinterpreted.

I’m preparing for the WIDE-EMU conference in a couple of weeks which has a theme of “What does writing want?” My colleague and I have chosen to tentatively answer this question with, “Writing wants reluctance.” For me, I reluctantly write about math (here, on this very blog). As part of the “Phase II: Respond” pre-conference work, this particular post details some of my reluctance toward the writing-via-math project in which I am engaged. This post ends with a plea for your input on my actual presentation at WIDE-EMU.

Reluctance 1: Majoring in math. When I decided last year to enroll at the institution where I teach English and to declare myself a math major, I did not have a very clear rationale for doing so. If I wanted to learn something new, why not attend a seminar in my own field that I could add to my CV? Why math? And if it had to be math, why not join a MOOC or audit a class? The best professional reason I had, as a composition instructor, was that I wanted to better relate to my students by remembering what it felt like to be uncomfortable in a classroom. Humanities classrooms (English, Spanish, history, philosophy) have been my go-to happy places for a long time, so I needed a subject that I had avoided academically. And I needed to feel the same kind of stress, commitment, and humility as students with a lot (only their entire futures) riding on their coursework. Enrolling as a degree-seeking Math major is well outside my comfort zone, costs money, and puts my real transcript at risk: three factors that make this a relatively authentic experience.

Reluctance 2: Blogging. The decision to blog about my math journey had a clearer rationale. I frequently ask my students to write publicly, I require that they share drafts, and I offer points for engaging in reflection. But many of them are as uncomfortable writing about my assignments as I am writing about math: I don’t know how to write about math. I don’t know how to relate basic math to the things I do know. I don’t know who my audience is, what they already know, or what they want to read. My attempts to make it “meaningful” are kludgy, stilted, and sophomoric, and posting these attempts online has been mortifying. And I have all of these doubts with every single post, despite the fact that I am an enthusiastic student and am thoroughly enjoying learning basic algebra. I hit “publish” with reluctance, every single time. For many of my students, the experience of writing publicly in a composition course probably feels similar. I’m not sure how to address yet the affective and effective role of reluctance on this writing, but I can feel it at work. Further down the road, I will work on expressing that more clearly.

Reluctance 3: Asking for help. I am approaching my few minutes at the front of a room during WIDE-EMU as my chance to give a “classroom presentation” in which I reluctantly-enthusiastically try to explain, in a meaningful and interesting way, a basic mathematical concept on which I have a tenuous grasp and that somehow relates to writing (maybe magnetic reluctance?). If you have any suggestions, requests, words of encouragement, or cautions, please feel free to comment on this blog post.

PS: I passed my first test of the semester and have almost-a-B in MATH 140 right now. Hooray!

The summer math class ended in disaster, or what I (as a teacher) might have previously called “a teachable moment”: I dropped the class on the last day possible because I tried to build success on the foundation of a Bad Plan.

I ended up with this Bad Plan for Good Reasons. These Good Reasons may sound vaguely like excuses. But they’re not. Totally not. I’m detailing them here because they make me feel good.

After registering for Math Class, I was invited to teach one of my favorite classes during the summer session. How could I NOT teach this class?? I love this class. It grew into two sections. And three concurrent summer classes, whether teaching or taking, is too many.

Then, I was awarded a research grant to visit Ukraine during the fall. A colleague who speaks Ukrainian offered to travel there together, but she was going the week before the summer session. How could I NOT go with a native speaker who could help me translate?? So I flew home the day Math Class started and drove right to campus from the airport, jet-lagged and delirious.

The week after this summer circus began, I was invited to participate in an edited collection directly related to my research. This was great news. How could I NOT agree?? But it included several summer deadlines, lots of intense thinking, and a few wine-infused conversations.

On top of all these Good Reasons, I was facing the Known Obstacles:

Summer classes pack 15 weeks of content into 7 weeks of time.

The class was held from 6:00PM to 10:00PM. PM. The middle of the night.

Math takes me a long time.

Math just really takes me a long time.

Lots of time.

Looking at all this now, it’s obvious that I should have dropped the class right away. My math instructor could see it. He was very kind and after a five-quiz failure streak, he gently suggested that I could consider dropping so that my transcript wasn’t saddled with an F. He suggested that I come by his office to talk about my math goals, because maybe there was a better way for me to achieve whatever it is I’m hoping to achieve. He said I could continue to attend class even after dropping, so that when I did re-enroll into a long semester, I would be as prepared as possible.

Hearing the news that, despite your best efforts, you are very likely to fail is not easy. Delivering the news is worse. But in a world where a single course costs over $1,000 and an F can cause immeasurable problems in a competitive job market, it feels irresponsible not to have this conversation. I’ve discussed Bad Plans with several students over the years because I could see the writing on their walls much more clearly than I could see it on my own. As a chronic Bad Planner, I feel more than a little hypocritical offering others advice on this topic.

I do know, though, that failure for a Bad Planner is relative. Did I fail to meet the requirements of the course? You betcha. But look at all the other things I got done while I was fretting about failing math. Many of us do our best work when we’re looking at it peripherally. And that means the risk of failing whatever we’re looking at head-on.

The fall semester starts next week, and I’m again enrolled in MATH 140. Have I learned anything from this summer’s teachable moment? Debatable. I am again over-committed in a dozen other ways. And I am again underestimating the time commitment. Because technically, I’ve already taken this class once. And this time, it’s in the morning. And I have 15 whole weeks. So I’m pretty confident that this semester will be a success. It just might not be a success when it comes to math.

Mercifully, the semester has ended. People keep asking me (because I keep bringing it up) why I took a math class. Originally, I wanted to better understand some of my favorite theorists and writers. While that’s still true, I don’t know now if it’s entirely true. I’m not at all sure why I’m doing this. With all the time I spent on this course, wouldn’t I have been smarter to do something overtly career-related? Maybe. Probably. I don’t know.

In January, I planned to work ahead so I could linger over important concepts and make astounding connections. But that never happened. It was all I could do to keep up with the basics. I had too much else going on. Everyone does. A writing student wrote something similar in his reflection on my English course. In fact, he described it as “crushing.” I empathize, but I also disagree: a particular course is not crushing. It’s just one variable within a larger societal structure designed to present “crushed” as our natural state of being. (In other words: If my course hadn’t crushed him, something else would have.) Same goes for math. And even when a course is pared down to make room for lingering, students (including myself) will likely absorb that extra time into other, more tangible and measurable commitments.

Despite the difficulty in assessing a good linger, I nonetheless believe in its value. A thoughtful reflection can far outweigh the more easily quantified skills. And so here’s mine:

From the perspective of teaching and student-ing:Doing math problems together in class is super helpful. Sitting on the back row is, generally, the bad idea I always knew it was. Offering to help a student during office hours has huge impact, even if the student never actually comes to office hours. Test anxiety is real, and “eating a good breakfast” doesn’t help. Grading math tests seems to be as labor-intensive as grading essays.

From the perspective of learning: THIS WAS SO HARD. It was a lot of trial-and-error, repetition, and memorization. I’m not advanced enough yet to understand the whys, the causes, or the “meaning” in most of what we learned, and that made it even harder to commit a formula or process to memory. Note to self: You felt the same way when you were learning to knit and could only make square things. Eventually, you did knit a sock. Be patient.

From the perspective of math: With only the very tippiest tip of the iceberg under my belt, I see now that basic math is not the tight narrative I was expecting. I knew the advanced stuff would be hairy and imaginary and unpredictable, but I was naively expecting to find a solid foundation in this basic algebra class–I guess because the last time I tried to learn algebra was in high school where ideas are often presented as immutable Truths. Instead, I see math has the same bunch of tiny little truths with which postmodernism has littered the humanities. I should have known: it’s always turtles all the way down. Not to be overly dramatic, but this is causing some existential angst to flare up. Note to self: Take a breath. The world isn’t any less stable than it was this time last year.

What’s next: I have passed MATH 120a: Algebraic Methods somewhere between the skin of my teeth and the hair on my chinny-chin-chin. In the upcoming summer session, I’m taking MATH 140: Introductory Mathematical Analysis. Despite the awesome course title, I think it’s really just Algebra II since we’re using the same book as 120a. My (likely faulty) expectation is that 140 won’t be as difficult: I won’t have to do so much legwork to get caught up, and the math classroom won’t feel so unfamiliar. However, it’s 15 weeks of material done in 7 weeks. So we’ll see. I’ll check in here during the first week of July.

Last semester, I took a statistics class with the excuse that it was job-related. The truth is, though, deep down I have always been in love with math and ashamed to admit it. In high school and college, when one is required to make life-long decisions before one really knows what life-long should and could be, I chose the English direction rather than math. I believed (wrongly) that this was an either/or choice.

But statistics opened a fissure. Math is everywhere: Borges is all about math. Badiou is all about math. Libraries are all about math. And that’s just the easy-to-list stuff. So this semester, I formally declared myself a math major at the school where I teach, and I have enrolled in College Algebra. This is my first math class since 1987*. I have to take another basic skills class after this, then four semesters of calculus, and THEN I can start the “real” math major classes.

I should have probably started with an even more elementary class, but my ego (and checkbook) didn’t want me to. So only in week two, I am already struggling to keep up. I am a terrible student. This is going to be a long journey.

Someone suggested that I blog about it. I don’t know who will want to read this, how often this topic has been done, or even what I will have to say. But I think it’s a good idea. I make my students blog and “reflect.” So a little practicing of the preaching is in order. Who knows what this might add up to (<- see what I did there?).

*Except for stats last semester, and a little foray into developmental math a few years ago.