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Like someone who could do math - Lindsey Kuper [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Lindsey Kuper

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Like someone who could do math [Nov. 24th, 2008|07:11 pm]
Lindsey Kuper
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Back in undergrad, I used to get excited when I got a grade better than a D on a math test. I did badly on exams right on up through linear algebra. In retrospect, it wasn't that I disliked math, and it wasn't that I wasn't trying. It was more like the whole thing was in a foreign language, one that I didn't even know how to ask "¿Cómo se dice...?" in.

I understood some of what went on in linear, but things didn't really start to come together until I took combinatorics. I kept waiting for the incomprehensible part of the course to start, as had happened in every other math course sooner or later. It kept on being comprehensible -- hard, but comprehensible. Then, one day, I went to my professor's office to ask a question about something or other, and an amazing thing happened that I'll always remember: she treated me like someone who could do math.

After that, I began to make a point of hanging around the department lounge with my combos book, so that the other professors would see that I was still doing math despite their best efforts. The following year, I took CSC 341, which was cross-listed as a math course. One afternoon early in the semester, I went to my professor's office hours to ask a question. I ended up waiting in the hallway for a while because one of my classmates was already there talking with him. As their conversation floated out into the hallway, I suddenly realized that they were talking about the same problem I was having trouble with, and furthermore, I could understand them. I could actually understand a math conversation between native speakers! It was so exciting! I don't remember exactly what happened next, but I think that when the other student left, I bounced in there and blurted something like, "Yeah! I see what you mean about the frobnicating foobar!" Dr. Stone may have been a little taken aback.

When I could finally speak the language, it was a joy every day. And I was surprised how many computer scientists there seemed to be who viewed it as a chore. I feared that I would be mistaken for one of those people. That's one reason why when I came here, failing the theory qual was so troubling. It wasn't so much that I thought I deserved to pass. It was that I was afraid that I had blown a chance to get the people at IU to see that I actually really liked math. I wanted to yell, "No, you don't understand! I didn't fail because I don't like it! I'm just not very good at it! Wait, come back! Do-over! Best of three!"

Ahem. So anyway, right now I'm taking B501, the first graduate theory course at IU. Now, I know it's bad form to talk about grades, so I usually try not to subject anyone to it (except Alex, who just has to suffer). But given my checkered mathematical past, this is really exciting for me, and I can't keep it to myself. We just got the results back from the second midterm, and I got a 94. According to the histogram my professor posted, it was either the highest or the second-highest score in the class.

Admittedly, the strongest theory students tend not to come here. (IU's traditional strengths are in programming languages, cognitive science, and high-performance computing, and the department seems to attract the students and faculty who are already into those things -- a self-propagating imbalance which I can't think how to fix.) Still. Still. This is objective proof that I'm not so bad at this!1 It shows that at Grinnell, they weren't just being nice to me in combos and automata so that I would graduate on time or something. Here, nobody much cares when I graduate. Actually, when I look at it that way, I'm kind of glad I failed the qual, because it shows that nobody here is doing me favors. When I pass (and I will friggin' pass the thing next year!), it will be because I can demonstrate a thorough understanding of the material.

  1. Whenever I say things like this, Alex is like, "Dude, Lindsey, you're good at math. Internalize it already." But he didn't know me in 2002. He doesn't know what it was like all that time in calc II, when I wanted so badly to understand it but just had no clue what in the flying fuck was going on. Actually, part of me wants to go back and try to learn calculus again, but another part of me is scared that I still won't understand it, and then they'll revoke my math license and I'll die hungry and alone and so on.

[User Picture]From: stereotype441
2008-11-25 04:43 pm (UTC)
Your post is curiously timely in coinciding with Boingboing picking up this article: The Effort Effect, which talks about the startling discovery that when people attribute their success (or lack thereof) in an endeavor to innate ability, they stop learning, whereas when they attribute it to the amount of effort, they improve. Maybe this has some bearing on your experiences?

I know it has had a huge bearing on mine--in my adult life I have made my biggest strides in skills where I believed I had the inherent ability to do well but needed more practice (e.g. tango dancing and juggling). But in areas in which I believed I was congenitally bad (card games, of all things) I made little progress. I even made little progress in areas in which I believed I was congenitally very good (like composing music--I know I'm good at it, but I feel like I'm no better than I was ten years ago).

What I haven't yet figured out is how to shift my attitude to one that attributes success to effort. But I'm really inspired by your math success story. I find myself wondering, the transformational experience you had with your professor treating you like someone who could do math, did it cause you to treat yourself any differently? Could you feel any difference in how you mentally approached math after that? When you made mistakes after that, did you look at them differently? I think there may be a big clue lurking in there somewhere.
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2008-12-04 07:23 am (UTC)
did it cause you to treat yourself any differently?

Yeah. Mostly, it helped me see that just because one doesn't happen to understand something the first time it's explained (or the second, or the third), it doesn't mean that one is never going to understand it at all. (Conversely, of course: just because one does understand something the first time, it doesn't mean that it's going to keep on being that easy forever.)

We humans love to put ourselves in boxes: I'm good at this, I'm bad at that. You would never say, "There is no way I can get any better at juggling, so I'm going to stop trying now," because that would be ridiculous. But that is essentially what people are saying when they say "I'm good at this" or "I'm bad at that". I've started to notice that you don't hear true professionals say those things very often. You only ever hear them say "I'm working on...".
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