Saturday, January 3, 2009

But I Do Know...

You know how Maya Lin probably figured out how many 2x4's she needed for the artwork I talked about in the last entry? Math.
Recently, in San Francisco, I saw a woman sporting a t-shirt that said, "Too Pretty for Math." If there was such a thing as being too pretty for math, let me assure you that this woman was not it. To paraphrase PJ, the only people who should be wearing that t-shirt are men who would wear it ironically. This woman was not wearing it ironically. She looked like a grumpy middle aged mom. Hoping against all hope that this t-shirt was unique in the world, I went home and did an internet search. That worked out really well. Not only did I find the t-shirt for sale, I also found a purse (ironically, it was 80% off, but that would take math to figure out). I also found a blog with that title ( not ironic).

So, what is going on here? Have we come so far that we can now make jokes like this? In High School, my counselor, despite my straight A's in trig and calculus, had me sign up for typing because "Chevron and other companies are looking for people with good clerical skills." (By the way, I've never regretted taking typing, since it has been a very important lifelong skill. I can just remember wondering why my mad skills in math and science didn't make him think I could do other things as well.) I also can remember my calculus teacher giving us a speech about how we were all lower middle class and most of the boys were probably going to be engineers and the girls would become nurses. That was a strange speech and to this day, I don't exactly know what he was driving at. These experiences probably didn't keep me or anyone else from their dreams, but they have left me sensitive to attitudes about girls and math that are still around.
Time heals all. I almost had put the yucky t-shirt out of my head when I received the Signals catalog that sells Public Television and radio related things. Teachers who buy things from this catalog--you know who you are--please think before you buy something to wear across your chest. For example, the "Those Who Can, Do; Those Who Can Do More, Teach" t-shirt is a fashion no-no. I'm pretty sure that a person who really believed this would not feel the need to wear the shirt. So, looking through the catalog, I came across a t-shirt that said, "I was promised there would be no math involved." Seriously.
Why is it okay to not be able to do math? Every time I hear a teacher charmingly say, "I'm no good at math," I wonder what they would think if I said, "I'm no good at reading."
By the way, a lot of math teachers seem to have this math phobia thing, too. Here's what's bugging me lately: I have almost 200 kids who won't use calculators, even when I insist that they do, because "using calculators is cheating."* Thanks, teachers (and No Child Left Behind). NASA, Macy's, H&R Block, plumbers and carpenters and mechanics looking for employees will really appreciate what we're doing to their future job force. Way to get them ready for the future.
I'm not asking everyone to suddenly be able to figure out tips (move the decimal once to the left and double the number you get) or determine how much carpet they need in a room, but we haven't progressed far enough with women in math to go all post-modern, so don't wear the stupid t-shirts and stop bragging about not being able to do math.

*I discovered a work-around on the not using calculators problem. What do middle school kids want to do more than anything else? Break rules! I let them use the calculators on their phones and the thrill of breaking a school rule overcomes all.


Patrick J. Vaz said...

Signals is aimed at English teachers and other vaguely "creative" and "literary" types -- you know, the people who drive me nuts because they don't teach grammar and usage but rather "self-expression". That's why Signals has the "I was promised there would be no math" stuff (as well as the twist on the usual "those who can't, teach" jab).
Having said that, I just don't know why innumeracy is OK, though I should also point out that lots of people (teachers among them) don't like excessive literacy, either. But I realized long ago that in our society the "smart people" were those good in math and science and the "cultured people" were the ones who knew about art and books, and for some reason there wasn't a lot of overlap there (I'm sure you've heard of CP Snow's "two cultures" analysis), and neither one is valued much in America, unless those interests lead to a lot of money.
So given our generally anti-intellectual culture, you can see why math isn't something students would necessarily embrace. And given our how-many-posts-are-we-at-now post-feminism, and the "I'm a diva princess!" attitude popular now, you can see why girls don't necessarily go against the tide.
Yes, it's sad and silly. Americans take a lot for granted about their place in the world.
Also, I still want my "I'm too pretty for math" T-shirt, though I doubt I'd have the nerve to wear it in public.

vicmarcam said...

I wanted to go on and on even more about this, but I felt sorry enough already for my community of three readers.
You are right about the too much literacy thing, and it really bugs me, too, but it is different because I'm talking about the amount of knowledge that gets you by day to day here. In other words, in my mind, reading a newspaper article is the equivalent of being able to figure out the miles per gallon your car gets, while reading and thinking about the themes in a work by one of the great writers is the equivalent of appreciating Euclid's theories.
The two cultures idea strikes me as especially odd when I think about all the interesting things that people can do that take an appreciation of culture and math and science. People who design bridges and buildings and lighting and sound and art works like mobiles and quilts need a lot of math, but also a lot of understanding of our cultural history. Darwin might be forgotten today if he hadn't been able to write his ideas.
I can go on and on (and apparently I have).
I'm trying to figure out how I can get you that t-shirt without anyone profiting from my purchase. I can't figure that math on that one.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Ethical shopping -- it starts with chickens, and ends with T-shirts! (Well, I guess that's not really the end. . . )
By "literacy" I meant more "being able to understand and criticize what you read or hear, especially if advertising/political speeches", but you make a good point about the daily necessity of math. I could reduce my financial troubles considerably if I knew how to add.
Please feel free to go on and on -- it's interesting to your readers (or, let me put it this way, you never know which parts you're suppressing would be interesting to readers) so why limit yourself unless you feel you're just repeating yourself? Besides, it empowers me. ;-)

Anonymous said...


First time reader...first time caller...
So, if using a calculator is cheating - what is using a computer?
Super-Cheating? The next time one of your students says this you need to hand them a slide rule.

Oh, and on ripping off the tee shirt idea - it's easy just flaunt the copyright and make your own. I suggest spacing it poorly and running out of room at the end.


PS - Is it OK if I read your BLOG?

vicmarcam said...

Actually, what I say to my students is, "Could you measure the length of this room, please?" "Oh, no! Put that ruler down! It's cheating." It's not quite equivalent, but they kind of get the point.
I hope Matthias is from a district where test scores are so high that teachers don't feel the need to freak out about calculators.
Anyway, Wendell, I think you might bring my readership up to five or six, and of course you are welcome. Just ignore all those horrible things I write about you.

dduarte said...

About 5 years ago I decide to declare a "no tolerance zone for mathphobia" in my classes. The minor amount of algebra and trig required in lighting is well within the grasp of HS students, and I am teaching kids with SATs in the 90th percentile. I grew tired of the smiley "I don't do math".

Every fall I get a few "but...", and then I give them the option of going to the tutoring center to keep up. Once I stopped tolerating their math excuses, it subsided.

Unknown said...

You tip 20%? Is that standard now? (serious question, because my students ask me and I've been telling them 15%).

Other than that, I can only add that English teachers are probably the worst when it comes to not doing math, and it's not just an American thing (I don't know if that makes it better or worse).

vicmarcam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vicmarcam said...

DD: Thanks for commenting. I actually was thinking of you when I was writing this, wondering if your job was made more difficult because you teach in the arts (at least most kids expect there'll be some math in science) or less difficult because you are teaching kids who have passed somewhat difficult math classes.

Marin: You weren't supposed to notice it was 20%. I just thought I'd do my part for the hardworking waiters of the world. 15-20% is the standard.
Interesting about it not just being an American thing. I find it somewhat gratifying that maybe we can't blame the American education system, but I'm sorry that the attitude is global.

Unknown said...

Oh, I couldn't say that it's global, just that Canadians and British people do it, too. It might be because of the city I live in (everybody is in tech or finance), but I've only ever met one Russian who "couldn't do" math, and she always asks me to explain math stuff to her so that she can understand it, too. Which is sort of the opposite of what you're describing.

Unknown said...

Maybe it's also worth pointing out that, when I ask people why they don't do math, or tell them that that's dumb (well, it is!), most of them have a story about one teacher who ruined it for them. I almost did, too. So now we're back to blaming the education system.

But I think there are people out there who could say the same thing about reading, so I don't know why it seems to be more widespread with math.

ellyodd said...

Ever heard of dyscalculia?