The Steampunk Satyricon

Monday, September 12, 2011

Mathematics: Gateway to the Merry Land of Science... So deal with your math anxiety and quit being such a big, damn wuss about it, you effing coward!!!

Photo: From Colby Keller's Big Shoe Diaries blog.
Submitted as part of the Fearless photo project.

If you want to know what the takeaway is for this piece on math anxiety, you don't even have to read past this opening paragraph, I'll give it to you up front: "Fashionable innumeracy" -- the idea that it's perfectly acceptable to be a mathematical moron -- ends here. Right now. From this moment forward, it is no longer okay to say you're bad at math. It's totally fine if you're not a genius, just quit acting like a math-shy half-wit. If you're faced with a math problem on the job, or in any situation, you can say, "Math is a little tricky for me," or, "I'll need a little help with this," or, even better, "I've got to work on my math." But fleeing in terror and declaring, "I'm bad at math!" while expecting to be given a sympathetic pass for your cowardice ends now. I mean it! Continue to shamelessly avoid math and you will be stripped of your citizenship and deported. Maybe not today, but it's something I'm working on. Seriously. I've written letters.

If you'd like to stall a bit before finally facing your fears, do feel free to read on...

Somewhere in America, there's a hairy, leather-clad biker dude who spends his days dealing drugs and doing math. That's "math" not "meth" -- although he might be doing that as well. Throughout his workday, he's probably doing arithmetic, fractions, even some simple algebra. He's probably even calculating odds in his head using basic statistics. And yet, for however long he was in school before he dropped out, he was probably one of those students who said, "Why I gotta study this [EXPLETIVE]? I ain't never gonna use this [EXPLETIVE]!" It's a classic dodge employed by people who claim they'd rather not "waste" time studying math. The truth, of course, is that math scares the [EXPLETIVE] out of them.

Math anxiety is real, but it isn't the same as test anxiety and it must also be distinguished from other more general anxiety disorders. Math anxiety is almost like a straight-up case of failure anxiety, but not quite... and, honestly, you probably don't have it. At least, not a serious case of it. Put a timed math test in front of some people and they'll get the shakes, the sweats, cry a little, then vomit. For most people, it simply isn't that bad, but the flood of feelings math anxiety induces is unique and unmistakable. It's that moment in class when the word problems, the geometric proofs and the almost unbearable pressure that comes with trying to solve for "x" make you feel as if you've just been dropped into a foreign country where you can't read or speak the language and you really, really need to find a bathroom. Or, as Sheila Tobias says in Overcoming Math Anxiety, "The first thing people remember about failing at math is that it felt like sudden death."