After a two month hiatus from learning anything new, the summer session careened into view.  MATH 140: Introductory Mathematical Analysis started over two weeks ago, and only just now, today, do I have time to take a breath.  Initial observation: summer class timelines are not to be taken lightly.

This is the course in which we finish up the algebra begun in MATH 120, and we start trigonometry.  How did I not know that trigonometry was just Super Fantastic Geometry?  I vaguely remember enjoying geometry in high school, although my only concrete memory is the gift of a pencil that said, “A logarithm is an exponent.”

IMG_20160713_131948In trigonometry, we’re learning how to calculate the speed of airplanes, the velocity of tsunami waves, and the ascent of hot air balloons.  We can also calculate a ship’s bearings and a satellite’s orbit.  Of course, algebra is simmering under the surface of it all: even if I get the concept and pick the right formula, I can’t complete the calculation without stupid PEDMAS poking me in the eye again.*  But the ability to look at a triangle on the page and see movement and change in the physical world is powerful.  I am in love.

The ability to see movement and change through language is powerful too, and it’s one reason I was an English major from the get-go.  These days, I write a lot of things without knowing my words’ trajectories once launched.  This blog is one of those things.  Many of my social media posts are these things, too.  Someone blocked me last week because of a comment I made related to #BlackLivesMatter and the Dallas sniper.  Now that I’m blocked, I can’t access the comment to delete or amend it, I can’t respond, and I can’t see what anyone else has written.  That ship has sailed, and in which direction I have no idea.

Who knows what other trajectories my writing has taken or what kind of change I have effected, I hope more often for better than for worse.  But in just two short weeks of trigonometry, this power pops all over again, clearly and consistently. I am excited to have been reminded that it is sometimes possible to see a large chunk of the world on a relatively small piece of paper.

*Look! I just tried to express a relationship between algebra and trigonometry, which I couldn’t have done six months ago.  Related: I still don’t know what calculus means.

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.