Reading Math Autobiographies

Following an idea suggested by Stan Yoshinobu, I had my students in Math 1100 Math in Decision Making write short mathematical autobiographies. If you are interested in the specifics, the assignment is here. Tonight, I finally finished reading and commenting on all 63 of these. (It took me far too long to do. Partly because I am over-scheduled, and partly because I wanted to comment meaningfully on each one.)

I learned a ton from reading these. I want to keep the contents confidential, but I think it is fair to share a bit about what I learned without taking any quotes.

  1. Paper after paper described a relationship with mathematics through the lens of a relationship with instructors. It was very clear that the students don’t really experience the subject as much as they follow a person (or not).
  2. Many papers discussed openly a negative attitude for the subject. But almost as many expressed quite positive feelings. I was a bit surprised by this, and it made me glad I did this assignment. And even those papers expressing negative feelings also said that they were willing to make a new start.

I won’t take any quotes from student papers, but I feel perfectly comfortable sharing those things I found myself writing over and over again as comments on papers. Perhaps that will give you a feel for what I learned.

  • We will not race.
  • I have chosen topics for this class which are likely new to you. I picked them because I thought they were interesting, and I hope that you find them interesting. Perhaps you can use this as an opportunity to re-evaluate your relationship with math?
  • We won’t cover much “every day math.” My understanding is that people have no real trouble learning what they need to when it comes up in context. Instead, we will do things that are new and interesting.
  • By the nature of college, you will have to show a lot of independence in this course. Most of the learning will happen when you work outside of class. But don’t let that stop you from asking questions! I like talking about mathematics.
  • Feeling frustrated and confused is totally normal when doing math. I feel that way all the time! I have come to recognize that feeling confused just means that I am in a place where it is possible I could learn something new. Maybe that could work for you? Still if you feel really frustrated, don’t hesitate to talk with me.

I would certainly do this again.


5 thoughts on “Reading Math Autobiographies

  1. I was just on a Ph.D. committee for an education student who was studying math anxiety. From her literature review, I basically concluded: “At least 90% of math anxiety is caused by math teachers who are jerks.” So this agrees with your observation that your students view mathematics through their relationship with their instructors.

  2. Ha! I wish I could use this as a course requirement. I train so many teachers… “Sorry. You cannot go student teach. It turns out you are a jerk.”

  3. Should be fixed now. I tried to link directly to the file on the course web page. Maybe the url I copy-pasted was a temporary one?
    Anyway, it should be better now.

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