In a recent casual conversation with a friend, when I expressed interest in studying a particular topic, his reply was:
“But there’s a lot of math…”
And I realized that this reply was intended to tell me (a hapless not-mathematical female) that this would not be a topic of interest to me. It’s quite possible that he was right, but it got me thinking about math and my own personal math-history.
When I was in 5th grade I received a C- in Math on my report card. My parents were shocked and angry, as was I. It turns out, it was a typo and my grade was a B (whew), but it scarred me for a long time–because I felt insecure in a numbers world and at some level I thought that I probably did deserve that lower grade.
My undergraduate degree in Biology required two years of Calculus, which was torture for me, as had been my years of high school math (the only exception: geometry–I loved writing proofs). I suspect that my aversion to math was a combination of two things: sheer hatred for rote homework problems and some lingering cognitive issues caused from the chemotherapy that I’d undergone just prior to high school. To pass my Calculus courses I ended up memorizing the problem sets for the exams, because I could not grasp the concepts. I’m still disappointed in myself for doing that, but I was so desperate to graduate…
And then I didn’t think much about math again (other than simple household calculations like doubling recipes and measuring fabric) for more than a decade.
And then I took the GRE for graduate school, without even reviewing the math portion, knowing that it didn’t “count” for someone entering the Humanities.
And then I got a higher score on the math section of the GRE than I did on the Verbal section.
And since then I’ve come to realize the elegance of numbers, and to learn that I’m actually pretty good at math. For me, quantitative data is slowly edging out my attraction to qualitative, which is certainly why I’m so drawn to the digital humanities, which tend to combine both approaches to research questions. Numbers, number patterns, number visualizations…they all fascinate me (and statistics–I love statistics!). They aren’t a chore, they don’t swim around meaninglessly in my mind. Instead, they have a beauty and an order that is quite appealing.
And…I suspect that if I were to do things over and be back in my undergraduate years again, that those Calculus classes would hold attraction for me. Perhaps they would even be fun.