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.

The unexamined wife is not worth living

Almost everyone has a mom—and thank heavens for that! So it’s easy to remember what your mom did, and think you know what I do as a stay at home parent. Making assumptions about how I ought to spend my time is also popular; everyone is an expert on the shalls of house and home.

  • I shall keep an immaculate home
  • I shall cook tasty yet healthy meals every day
  • I shall nurture and guide my children to grow into superior adults
  • I shall keep myself up by exercise, diet, and fashionable dress

Cleaning supplies 12.40.36 PMFortunately, the only negotiation that matters over my job description is between my husband, my kids (as non-voting constituents), and myself. As with most complex topics, I consider every presumption ripe for investigation, and every given, suspect. A modern life differs markedly from historical norms, and the contemporary house offers its occupants radical improvements and newfangled problems to negotiate.

Maybe I don’t get the clean towels folded and put away before they’re used again, but I manage the finances and do our small business accounting and taxes; I’m not a good nor cheerful cook, but I’m doing a bang-up job educating an unorthodox middle school student according to a curriculum of my own devising.

Occasionally, I’ll still encounter a form where checking a box labelled “homemaker” is my best match. It’s kind accurate, in the sense that my being available at home goes a long way toward defining the atmosphere and function of our collective family life. This is the most traditional role I assume: I am the heart of our family home; I set the standards.

Homemaker snuggles up awfully close to housekeeper, though, and anyone who’s passed through our doors is probably aware that I approach household chores with an attitude of “maintain basic hygienic standards whilst avoiding as much cleaning as possible.”

If I’m brutally honest, I’ll admit that my self esteem is tied up with the state of my house. Sometimes, the mess bothers me. On the other hand, I’m philosophically opposed to the notion that a woman carries the full burden of a presentable home, so I fight to reject this sense of shame. Besides, the latter position requires less frequent dusting.

Our social circle includes several stay-at-home dads. While their daily efforts to simultaneously manage children and keep a tidy home are similar to mine, none of them seem to internalize failures in this area the way I do. Undoubtedly, these men have their own, equally irritating, internal critics and crises, but they don’t appear to see themselves reflected in the same distorted way by their kids’ messy rooms.

I have a creative friend who excels at caring for her family, but she doesn’t always conform to a Martha Stewart meets Donna Reed standard of motherhood or housewifery, and she feels a failure. How can this be when her husband, children, and pets are healthy and happy?

I know and love fellow stay-at-home moms whose lives are replete with Pinterest-worthy projects and well-ironed linens, home-canned organic produce and hand-knit baby clothes. These efforts are valiant, creative, nurturing, and worthy, but they are not the only valid expressions of the good wife or mother.

Instead, I would suggest setting one’s own course of purposeful actions based upon deeply held values, carefully considered. Externally imposed societal expectations are sometimes valid, but sometimes mere figments.

I hope it rings crystal clear in every post that I write: I am in no way seeking to redefine roles for anyone but myself. If I am nudging you, the reader, it is only to think for yourself, seek for yourself, and then define for yourself your own goals and ideals.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.

What about the unexamined wife?