knotsAfter the end of classes on Friday, I attended a riveting talk by a guest mathematician who was in town for some sort of conference. He was a knot theorist, and in his talk, he introduced us to the beautiful and extremely interesting mathematical principles of knot theory and topological graphing as related to knot theory. I admit that a good deal of it went over my head, mainly because of unfamiliar terminology, but I still found it fascinating. It was a great way to spend the first hour of my weekend. That may sound like sarcasm, but it isn’t. I truly did enjoy the talk, and I truly did leave it feeling much happier and much more motivated about life in general than I ever have after having heard an inspirational speech. (Inspirational speeches, in my opinion, are quite corny and fairly irrelevant despite the fact that they are specifically trying to be universally relevant.)Despite the fact that I didn’t understand everything the speaker said, I now am interested in finding books and online articles in order to learn more about knot theory. And I almost find myself wishing that I had another semester or two left after this so that I could take more math classes and become a math major instead of a minor.

The cool elevator in the math building at my college

The cool elevator in the math building at my college

People are always surprised when I tell them that I’m minoring in math. In part, this is because I already am a double major and I’m in the honor’s program, and this situation has led to the need to take ridiculous course overloads several semesters. Adding another minor on top of all of that does seem a bit excessive. Besides that, my two majors are dance and English, and both of those fields seem to be very distinct from mathematics. At my college, it seems like most of the English majors hate math with a passion, and most people who have non-humanities majors dislike English almost as strongly. The dance program is actually somewhat of an overlap area; I’m aware of several people who have graduated with a dance/English double major in the past few years, and I’m aware of several current or recent dance students who have also taken a lot of math classes, either as a math major (or minor) or as a business major. In fact, considering how few dance students there are, it’s interesting just how frequently I have had a classmate in an upper-level academic class who is also a classmate in dance. But I don’t know anyone else who has taken upper-level classes in all three programs.

My decision to be a math minor is even stranger in light of the fact that I myself am one of those kinds of English majors who hates math with a passion. I always have. When I was little, math was the bane of my existence, and it only got worse when I got into algebra. I couldn’t wait to get to college, where I could take classes only in things that interested me and never do any math ever again. If someone had told my little-kid self or my high-school-aged self that I would voluntarily take five mathematics classes in college, (not to mention a logic class and a couple of science classes that required mathematical knowledge) and that those classes would be among my favorite college courses because of their structure and objective logic, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. Yet I somehow did become the kind of person who appreciates mathematics for its precision and its order and its sheer usefulness.

The cool stairs in the math building at my college

The cool stairs in the math building at my college

My hatred of math stemmed from the fact that I just wasn’t any good at it. This wasn’t entirely a case of stupidity; I was homeschooled and my parents used a very difficult math curriculum. They still insist that those math books are wonderful and that my siblings and I benefitted greatly from them. I still insist that those math books were evil and that they caused much emotional trauma in my childhood. I blame them for all of the problems in my life, from my social ineptness to my concerns about paying for college to the way my Achilles tendon sometimes makes a disturbing snapping noise in the middle of dance class because of an ongoing case of tendonitis. I’m not quite sure what this has to do with childhood mathematical trauma, but it surely does.

When I started college, I knew I was going to have to take a math class at some point, and I wasn’t happy about it. I took calculus I during the spring of my freshman year, and I went into that class expecting that it would be miserable and that I would do terribly. I resolved to put a lot of time and effort into that class, but I wasn’t optimistic that it would pay off. But it did. In fact, once I somehow managed to get through the first few weeks, it stopped being particularly difficult, and by the end of the term, I was consistently getting perfect scores on homework and exams. That semester was a very frustrating time for me in regards to dance, and it was very reassuring to be doing well in academics. That class ended up being stress-relieving rather than stressful. When I took statistics in fall of my junior year, it was just because I had to take one more math or social science, but it turned out to offer the same comforting stability in my life that calculus had. I didn’t do quite as well in statistics, but I still ended up getting an A with plenty of room to spare. In the meantime, I felt as if my dance and English classes were being graded on a subjective scale according to a secret rubric. It was at some point during that semester that I decided to get the math minor by taking three more math classes over the next three semesters. I took calculus two that spring and am now taking calculus three and linear algebra.

A cool wall in the math building at my college

A cool wall in the math building at my college

It’s too soon in the semester to be making judgments about how well these classes are working out for me, but I feel like things are promising. After struggling in calculus two, I’m not counting on getting spectacular grades in these upper level classes, but then again, my schedule is so much lighter now than it was then, and I’m a year older and smarter, and I’m sure I gained some mathematical proficiency by fighting my way through that course. In fact, my calculus two professor encouraged me towards the math minor because he thought that I was sufficiently competent to do it. So now I have found myself living in a world where advanced mathematics are a major part of my everyday life and I am learning to solve problems that would have terrified me out of my wits not long ago.

When I started studying from my linear algebra textbook for the first time, it struck me what it is that I’m doing. The book occasionally uses phrases like “later in your career”, as if anyone who’s taking that class will go on to be a mathematician or something. Of course, math majors don’t take that class in their second semester of senior year; they’re more likely to take it as juniors, and then they still have several higher –level math classes to take. Those are classes that I’ll never reach, and so my linear algebra book isn’t really talking to me when it defines its audience as future professional mathematicians. Still, these math people are my fellow classmates. I’m taking classes that would be well beyond the scope of my abilities or interest if it wasn’t for the fact that I just couldn’t resist the urge to take on one more thing.

The cool ceiling window (aka Solar Lumination Portal) in the math building at my college

The cool ceiling window (aka Solar Lumination Portal) in the math building at my college

That doesn’t really answer the question of why I would be a math minor. After all, my career plans don’t involve math, and if all I wanted was the sense of logical comfort that I don’t find in an English class, I would have been better off not taking the extra math classes and finding logical comfort in some aspect of life that doesn’t involve the stress of tests and grades. Maybe I was also motivated by the desire to get as many majors and minors as possible in order to feel smart and successful, but I don’t think that played a very large role in my desire to minor in math, because I am well aware of the fact that things don’t work that way. People who graduate with double majors are no more intelligent or accomplished than people with one major, and throwing a minor into the mix doesn’t really make me a better person, either. I think I had another motivation for going for the math minor. It’s that math is hard and it’s made me very unhappy at times, and I can’t let it win.

I would like to point out that this is an incredibly awesome book. It explains simple principles of interesting mathematical topics, such as probability and topology, that aren't generally taught at a grade school level, and it does it all with a tone that is sympathetic to the math-hating child who nonetheless finds it fun to play with numbers.

I would like to point out that this is an incredibly awesome book. It explains simple principles of interesting mathematical topics, such as probability and topology, that aren’t generally taught at a grade school level, and it does it all with a tone that is sympathetic to the math-hating child who nonetheless finds it fun to play with numbers.

I generally enjoy helping my younger sisters with their math. There are several reasons for that, including the obvious facts that they appreciate it and that it makes me feel like I’m clever. The main reason, though, is that I have survived those very same math books, and so I am glad for the opportunity to go back and gloat in their evil faces. My poor innocent sisters now must suffer the same hardships that I did, but here’s the cool part. When I’m helping them with their math, I have the privilege of saying that the math book is stupid, pushing it aside, and doing the problem my way. When I was little, I was never allowed to say that the math book was stupid, and my parents got mad when I insisted that the math book was to blame for my failure to understand certain concepts. But now I’m allowed to look at the book and say, “This doesn’t make any sense. No wonder you don’t get it. No wonder I didn’t get it when I was in this book.”  And then comes the part where I call the book stupid and explain the problem my own way. There have been a number of times that I have succeeded where the book has failed in explaining a concept to my sisters. In other words, by figuring out how to do math, I am defeating my old enemy, the odious math book. I think that’s good motivation for getting a minor in mathematics.

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