Being good at math, also female, and why I must talk about that

We all tend to repeat our favorite stories, and I thought I’d told this one to everyone I know. Naturally, my verbal shorthand led to offense. Again. Oops!

I’m good at math; my conversational skills could use work

I’m not always great at talking to people. That’s one reason for the blog. I like taking the extra time to clarify myself in writing. One major risk factor for my verbal missteps is that I routinely take great mental leaps during the conversation without bringing my audience along.

Lots of things are “obvious” in my mental space, but require explanation when I want to discuss them.

I’ll begin by stating what I thought was crystal clear to everyone I’ve ever spent more than a few minutes with:

I’m good at math.

When I say “good at math,” I mean, “I successfully completed an undergraduate degree at a competitive US college with a major in Mathematical & Physical Sciences concentrating in Computer Science.”books math texts - 1

I have studied advanced math at the university level. I succeeded in those classes, often earning good grades. I have some innate talent in this area, and I applied concerted effort to developing these skills.

All of this “my own horn”-tooting is to make clear what I mean when I say, again:

I’m good at math.”

And now we’ll carry on to the meat of this story.

We were out to dinner with friends. Being a pair of introverts 15+ years into marriage and with a couple of kids at home, we go out like this around four times per year. Usually, we invite friends over and order pizza (because I’m bad at cooking; this post is not about how totally great I am.)

Sitting around the table, waiting for appetizers, I started telling a story about home schooling my oldest son. It’s an uncommon thing, so people often ask questions about our daily activities. Many academically inclined friends are sincerely curious: What is it like, going “back to school,” in a sense, by doing it all over again with one’s child?

I was going to tell a story about helping a friend’s daughter with math.

So I began:

“In high school, because I was a girl, naturally, I was bad at math…”

I should have used the mortifying—but edifying—air quotes gesture. This is when my friend freaked out.

“Not true! It’s nonsense! Girls are perfectly capable of…”

Right! Of course! That was my point, too, but I went into the story all wrong. I can see now that I took liberties with my audience. Hopefully I fixed it with my friend, at her birthday dinner, no less. Sheesh. Way to go, me.

Let’s call this a teachable moment. I needed a reminder of something I’ve come to take for granted.

Even though I’m sure I’ve told this story before; even though it is obvious to anyone who’s ever worked with me; even though it should be clear to any person with whom I’ve held a conversation about education.

Let me reiterate that I:

  1. am good at math
  2. worked as an engineer in the (logic-based, i.e., “math-y”) field of computer technology
  3. lean technocratic and abhor non-objective criteria for advancement of platforms or people

In spite of all this, I really can’t tell a humorous yet informative story about being “bad at math” without the usual lead-up. I must always preface this statement with the fact that I erroneously believed myself to be “bad at math”…

because society;

because gender roles;

because socialization.

I saw through part of the illusion in high school, but it took years before I really got it. I believe most people—men and women—who claim to be bad at math are really the victims of poorly implemented math instruction.

Realizing math instruction was bad, not my math ability

High school was mostly boring. I was there doing time and ticking boxes so I could get into a good college to begin my real education. I wanted to be excited about school like I was about learning, but boy did the system make it tough.

I realized that science classes were more challenging to my logic-oriented brain, and I craved real learning of the sort that revved my engine.  I registered for as many science electives as I could squeeze in, graduating with eight science credits on my transcript. I was proud of that!

And yet…

…even with eight science classes on my transcript, by the end of high school, I was failing Calculus and more convinced than ever that I was “bad at math.” I could no longer conceive of being good at math, though I “knew” this fact in grade school.

I was privileged, and smart, and relatively enlightened. Still, it was that difficult to perceive the reality of what math was, how I could engage with it, or why I should.

Failing Calculus had more to do with not doing my work than a failure to grasp essential concepts, but I didn’t clue in to that until I repeated it in college. You see, I was interested in science and computers, and spoke about these subjects at college interviews, but I doubt I ever mentioned math.

“Math” was a hurdle I would have to clear to get to these fascinating, juicy fields of study. “Math” lived in my consciousness as a threat to be avoided.

Our K-12 system gives a very poor illumination of the field of mathematics

Math is presented in our schools as a skinny, rigid ladder to be climbed. There is one straight path from ignorance to Calculus, and success is measured by computational accuracy.

Almost no effort is made to highlight the diversity of thinking in math, the creativity that goes into the work of real mathematicians, and the awesome power of mathematics to solve real world problems.

books math texts - 2Ostensibly, Common Core is fixing this problem. In practice, I have grave doubts.

I read a fascinating book about a year ago before I kept a handy reading list like I’ve posted on this blog. I think it was Jo Boaler’s What’s math got to do with it?. The most important takeaway I got from that book had to do with a learned, innate fear of math that pervades American society, and female Americans in particular

And guess who’s teaching our children math? In 2011-2012, 76 percent of public school teachers were female. Women sure as hell can do math, but teachers with unaddressed phobias often unwittingly pass them on to their students.

For decades, I’ve repeated something I heard and find powerfully telling:

Americans feel perfectly comfortable admitting that they’re bad at math. Women, especially, feel free to flaunt their innumeracy.

“Tee hee, titter, titter, I’m so bad at math!”

How many people are equally blasé about their illiteracy?

Virtually none.

Teacher training can make a huge difference in breaking this pattern. Vocal and visible advocacy by female mathematicians and engineers make a difference, too. I talk about my enjoyment of math, logic, and puzzles more often than I probably should, but I want people to hear me. I’d like to be one more pebble in the pile of evidence it takes to make a self-evident mountain.

I’m good at math. I’m female. I’m going to keep talking about that.

Income tax form complexity as a tool of economic oppression

When income tax forms are challenging for even highly educated people to complete

and

average Americans are not provided excellent education in personal finance or mathematics

the result is

taxation without representation.

I thought we clarified the American position on that at the Second Continental Congress in July of 1776.

Financial education is a vital issue of class and privilege.

A person without a sound understanding of his/her own finances will always be more vulnerable to the vagaries of economics, and recent history shows no effort on the part of the government, which is fueled by tax income, to level the playing field for those who can’t afford teams of accountants and lawyers.

In my public high school, we were taught how to fill out the income tax form 1040EZ in a mandatory class called Personal Finance. (That waste of academic time also included lessons on how to fill out a McDonald’s job application and how to fill out a personal check, demonstrating just how low the bar was set for students’ financial education.) 1040EZ is the simplest possible tax form one can use, however, and presumably requires the least instruction to master. And, according to the latest IRS tax statistics, only 16% of Americans filed using the 1040EZ income tax form in 2014. Its use is too restrictive for the average American, and, worse yet, some people might choose it because it is less daunting to complete, thus losing out on deductions that would return their own excess tax payments back to their own pockets.

It takes me about two days to complete our household taxes, not including time spent organizing paperwork early in the year. For at least a decade, each year there have been ambiguous points of procedure requiring extra research and some stress as I wonder if I “got it right” or might face a tax audit or penalty. If a college graduate with a degree in math* struggles to do her taxes, average Americans must also be struggling. They probably struggle more.

Paying personal income tax is mandatory, which makes it unreasonable to make them too complex to be completed without professional help. It is incumbent upon the federal government to make the process of completing an average income tax filing possible by an average American citizen. Anything else is un-American.

We could attempt to increase the numeracy and financial literacy of our citizenry. As appealing as that is, the fact that we are struggling to achieve universal mastery of basic skills like reading and simple mathematical computation makes me question the likelihood that this is practical.

The more reasonable solution is to reduce the complexity of the tax code with which all Americans must comply. Only political will prevents taking this step. I suspect that the ideal is not as minimal as Ross Perot’s flat tax proposal of the early 1990’s, but I’m positive it is less convoluted than the current U.S. Tax Code with 51 Titles (sections) and thousands of pages.

Our Republic depends absolutely on an involved and educated citizenry to self-govern. Comprehensible policies are the least we should expect from our government agencies.

The filing deadline to submit 2016 tax returns is Tuesday, April 18, 2017. Are you ready to file?

*Mathematical & Physical Sciences with a concentration in Computer Science, admittedly not including specific instruction in accounting

Children’s books that made me who I am

Many of us read frequently, seemingly constantly, in childhood. Assuming there were lots of re-reads, and an average of finishing a few books a week for the decade between literacy and the teenage years, let’s call that about 1500 books read.

10 years x 52 weeks/year = 520 weeks

3 books/week x 520 weeks = 1560 books

The math is there for those of us who automatically calculate the numbers every time we read a blog post or news story anyway…

So we read a couple thousand books in childhood, but I think we all know a secret:

Not every book mattered.

How many books are there from your childhood that still sneak out and surprise you on occasion? There are those we couldn’t bear to let our own kids miss out on, and others we swoon to imagine them reading. (Or maybe only degenerates, or prudes, like me read stuff at that age that still brings up a blush?)

I still find myself caught up short in the middle of my day by distinct memories of scenes from books I otherwise can’t recall. There was a book with catfish crossing a street, but that’s all I remember…

Little House on the Prairie

I don’t believe I would be the woman I am today if it weren’t for some books. The Little House on the Prairie series comes immediately to mind. I know I read it over 50 times, and once re-read the entire series (minus the upsetting locust chapters) on one winter snow day.

1984

I think 1984 is the book that took my innocence. You’ll find that listed on my all time favorites book list, too, but it’s a bittersweet favorite. It kindled my dark fascination with dystopian fiction, and perhaps colored my worldview more than it should have.

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies was the novel that made me realize a great book was literally a great book, not a teacher’s great excuse to annoy kids.

The Melendy family books, beginning with The Saturdays

The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright (of the Melendy family series) is one I’m joyfully sharing with DS2 right now.

Picture books

My mother tells me that my first favorite book was Whose Mouse Are You? (Kraus) I remember Corduroy (Freeman) and The Snowy Day (Keats) from those early years, too.

There must have been early readers in my youth, but none of them left an imprint.

My grade school memories of reading include a sense of outrage at the red-taped-line between the lower two shelves (for first and second graders) and the better range of books above. I discovered, and adored, the “real” Mary Poppins (Travers) books, The Story of Doctor Dolittle (Lofting), and James and the Giant Peach (Dahl). I remember devouring every available reference book about holidays and celebrations in other countries and the one Spanish language book on my elementary school library’s shelf.

By upper elementary, I’d moved on to Agatha Christie and the selection of Reader’s Digest Classics my parents had on hand, in part just to provide the bulk of reading matter I required, but also due to a fascination I still have with British drawing room culture and The World as it Was (Before the War(s)?)

Somehow, I’ve ended up listing all the classics on every list, but perhaps there is a reason they are so popular. I can remember titles for a few non-classic titles:

The Girl with Silver Eyes (Roberts)

Key to the Treasure (Parish)

Behind the Attic Wall (Cassidy)

Are these great books? I couldn’t say. They still stand out, thirty years later, as memorable books, and there’s something to be said for that.

Never say never

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Mathematical symbol for infinity, which is probably not how long you will love your boyfriend

It has been brought to my attention—as usual, by my own husband—that I have an anomalous social behavior.

Who could’ve seen that coming?

The current habit, seemingly made popular by pregnant teens on the Montel Williams Show in the past millennium, of declaring one’s certainty with mathematically impossible percentages, is causing me a daily struggle to be understood.

“Montel, I’m 120% sure I’m not the father!”

My husband asserts that my insistence upon using mathematics only in accordance with the standards and rules taught to me in school is leading to confusion when I explain my opinions to normal people.

If I think it is extremely likely that I will do something, I will give it a 99% probability. After all, nothing is ever really certain in life. I could have a car accident on my way to deliver the school bake sale items, or I could drop dead from an aneurysm while waiting to make the deposit at the bank. If I tell you I am 99% certain I’ll do something, you should feel pretty confident that it is going to happen. Any failure to act will be due to an act of God or some sort of wildly improbable scenario.

“Well, Montel, I’m 1000% sure he is the father! No, 2000%”

So when a situation comes up where I know some aspect of my schedule or my calendar is likely to impede forward progress on a task I undertake, I will give a more realistic assessment of my likelihood to get things done.

“Can I help with the class phone tree? I have to arrange for childcare, so I’m 75% sure I can help out.”

When you decrease your stated probability of participating to a mathematically feasible range, you will likely find people react with confusion, or they feel insulted, because, like grade inflation, most people think they are “certain” when they really are not. One comes across as noncommittal or disinterested when using language more carefully than is the norm.

I’ll admit to occasional bursts of enthusiastic declarations of certainty, but I very often reel them back mere moments later and amend my statement to something more accurate.

The point may fairly be argued that, by refusing to conform to the cultural norm, I am, in fact, the one who is failing to communicate. So be it. I’m 90% certain that I don’t care.
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Originally published Sunday, May 22, 2011 on iWeb