Math Anxiety and Me: A Tale of a Lost Opportunity

Numbers have never been my friends. I remember weeping over my “math” (really, arithmetic) homework in fourth grade. The assignment was to fill in a twelve-by-twelve grid with the multiplication table. I was in my room laboriously multiplying each pair of numbers when my father came up and found me. He pointed out that I could easily fill out each column by simply adding the number at the top of the column to the number in the current cell as I worked my way down (5 times 1 is 5, 5 times 2 is 10, 5 times 3 is 15, etc—each time I am simply adding 5). It was astonishing to me that I could do this task with simple addition, and I was actually sure that he was showing me a way to cheat. I took the hint, of course, and was quickly finished, but I never shook the feeling that numbers were opaque, frustrating, and needed to be approached by devious means.

In seventh grade I discovered logic, and it fascinated me. I spent a lot of time thinking about logic, paradoxes, syllogisms, and oxymorons. I didn’t know that this was a field of study, or that I would be able to find books on this. I just played with it myself and enjoyed the sort of thinking it made me do.

Some of my greatest moments of suffering in school were in math class. I was totally unengaged, had no intrinsic interest, and had mostly unpleasant teachers. When I think of high school math the image that comes into my head is of Mr. Groninger, a large, sagging, grey man who droned on and on and never seemed to notice me or my disaffection. My High School grades in math were pretty good, but won at the cost of drudgery.

During my High School years we adopted a pet monkey, and late in High School my career ambition was to be a primatologist. This was the culmination of a series of career ambitions: first, at five, a witch; second, at nine, a vertebrate paleontologist (I loved the bones at the anthropology museum); third, as a teenager, a doctor. I remember when I was five lying in bed designing the piece of hardware that would be needed to fasten my child’s umbrella to the stick of my broom—but why I did not become an engineer is a story for another day.

Between my junior and senior years in High School I got a summer job working for a young primatologist, Tom Struhsaker, at Rockefeller University in New York City. I lived in my grandparents’ guest room and spent all day, every day punching cards, putting my supervisor’s data on the activity cycle of vervet monkeys into machine-readable form. The following summer, the summer of 1969, I was back again, but this time he handed me a book on Fortran, gave me the formulas necessary to perform statistical computations on the data, and sent me over to the computer area. The Control Data computer filled a whole large room, and I remember my astonishment when I learned that when the university obtained the computer, a man came with it, issued by the company. I don’t remember being unwelcome there, though I was probably the youngest person and the only female around. But the space was made for the computer, not for the people, so it wasn’t really a place you could hang out.

I taught myself enough Fortran to perform the calculations my supervisor needed, and I actually enjoyed myself and got a sense of satisfaction. I was doing something useful in a field that interested me, and what I liked about programming was that I never had to do any arithmetic! I got to do all the thinking about how to set up the problem, and then the computer took care of the unpleasantness of calculation. It was an experience I remember with fondness. At the end of the summer, I even duplicated all the data cards on my own time, partly to have a record of all my hard labor, but also so I could continue to work on the data set in college.

My first year at Harvard, I took calculus, chemistry, and a primate behavior course with one of my idols, a primatologist whose books I owned and had read. Wipe out! I did not do well in calculus, despised chemistry (lecture course of 500, no visible relevance to things that interested me), and could not raise a glimmer of interest from the Great Primatologist, despite writing a paper for which I used the data on vervet monkeys. Oh well. I was interested in philosophy and sociology and got a far warmer welcome there, so I crafted a joint major and had a good time with my classes from then on.

Right after college in 1974 I worked at the Boston Children’s Museum as an intern. I was one of a crop of interns, all or almost all female, and I volunteered to work in the computer area because none of the other interns could imagine doing so. The museum had a PDP-11 and one guy, Bill Mayhew, who sat all day in a closet sized office. Bill put some special programs on the computer that only I could access, so that when I was working with kids I could use things other than the idiot-proof software that ran on the public access computers. I had a good time and the kids and adults, most of whom had never seen a computer before, were amazed.

When I decided I wanted to go to graduate school, I had been out of college for three years or so, so I thought I better brush up a bit before taking the Graduate Record Exam. My scores on the math section of the test were actually higher than my verbal scores (a first for me) because that’s where I’d put my studying effort, and because I finally had a reason—an extrinsic reason for sure, but a reason nonetheless—to study math: I really wanted to get into a good graduate school.

As a first year student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, I got the top grade in the introductory statistics class. But I still remember a discussion with the instructor, as we walked down the hallway after class. He told me he didn’t believe in this “math anxiety” stuff and thought it was all a lot of silliness. But I, his female star student, considered myself someone with math anxiety. To me, though, statistics was about looking beyond number to patterns, and using data to answer questions I was interested in. Finally I understood why I was studying what I was studying in the number-world, and I wanted to learn it because it was a tool I could do something with. The professor was not a good teacher for people without an intrinsic interest in and aptitude for math (in other words, for most of the students who go into a planning program) but he had two really good section teachers who became longtime friends.

I also took a macroeconomics course from Nobelist Robert Solow. Because he was teaching MIT undergraduates, about 80% of the class was equations. I zoned out. But after the math, he would always say in English what he had just said in mathematics. I got an A in the course, without ever writing an equation, because I had understood the material in a different but valid way.

So what’s the moral of the story? I was pretty good at philosophy, programming, and logical thinking. I hated “math.” I think I learned a lot of the  skills relevant to many computing fields by doing things other than math. I think I could have been a good programmer, though perhaps not a good computer scientist. Can we afford to risk losing people like me by insisting that math and computer science are joined at the hip?




Filed under computing, gender, learning, mathematics

3 responses to “Math Anxiety and Me: A Tale of a Lost Opportunity

  1. Linda Ferreri

    I ran across your blog and had to laugh. I haven’t thought about Mr. Groninger in years. I had the same experience you did. When I took the GMAT, I was surprised to find that my math score was better than my verbal. I’d thought of myself as bad at math. I think you’re right about motivation. I wanted to get an MBA and PhD so math seemed a lot more meaningful.

    Anyway, I’m enjoying your blog.

    Linda (Lyn) Barlow Ferreri, PHS ’69

  2. anders

    That is interesting because I have the opposite of math anxiety. My great aunt says that my great grandparents had the attitude that math was one of the few respectable profession for women. So my mom was a clear achievable example of mathmatical ability. No matter how bad the teacher, I always saw math as my birthright (and it was fun to daydream about instead of paying attention in class).

    • Natasha

      This post resonated with me completely. I grew up in a household with a very famous statistician who was very impatient with my fundamental math questions. Math and, by extension, chemistry and physics were sources of great anxiety, since the teacher was impatient with my questions also. I was asking the big questions and he just wanted to make sure I did the computations correctly.

      Even though I took a programming class in college, it wasn’t until I was teaching in a library adjacent to a very cool computer lab that I got the programming bug(pun intended). Students were learning MIT’s Scratch to illustrate understanding of “The Odyssey.” My son got me started animating using Scratch and after that I was only one step ahead of the students I was helping. I think it was the ability to create something beautiful that motivated me. Programming was a means to an end.

      Did I ever get to the point that I felt that programming was intrinsically beautiful? Probably not.

      Teaching knitting to children I try to apply math principles to expand their creativity and problem solving ability. To go beyond a pattern and design requires experimentation and calculations are the the only way to do it. My reasoning is that if they are enjoying the creative process maybe they can skip the anxiety because they see the end product of their calculations.

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