A form of comfort

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in , | Posted on 1:14 PM

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This is likely to stop as I get further up in math courses: yesterday, as I was slogging through a 39 page lab report, Open Office crashed and I lost several hours of data analysis. Swearing like the blue collar worker I used to be, I decided I needed a break and walked back to my bedroom (it was that or throw something).

On the floor next to my bed was a Calculus book, and on one of the dressers is a book on differential equations and a book on discrete math. My first urge was to pick up the Calc or differential equations book and read it for comfort.

I've noticed a change in my thinking over the last semester; at the beginning of the semester, math caused me considerable anxiety. Tests still make my heart hammer a bit in my chest, and my statistics teacher isn't helping with his running commentary on how dumb we are, but I find that the part of me which loves to problem solve finds solving problems in my home work very satisfying. I find that I am starting to get some fluidity and fluency in the language that is math, and it is very enjoyable.

It also appeals to me because it promises defineable solutions and a framework for understanding problems which has a more clear, previously defined scope. I realize that this will not be true of later math, but there's something deeply satisfying about dealing with a system with more clearly defined methodology. There is a correct answer, for the most part, which is derived from a system which has limits.

I have some sympathy with the desire to avoid messier systems; many of the modes for analysis I learned in the Humanities had considerably less rigidly defined terms and a great deal less certainty and potentially inarguable clarity. In order to work in the Humanities, you have to have great tolerance for uncertainty and equivocation, something which, as of yet, has not been a part of the math I've learned. I am finding math comforting because I can finish a problem, for a sense of accomplishment, and be done with it.

However, there is something in the Humanities which math has not yet shown me, and that is the ability to make some sense out of chaotic systems. Many of the men I know who study math (in my university) have little to no tolerance for chaotic systems, and attempt to apply the rigidly defined principles of math to chaotic social systems, get angry that they can't make much sense out of these systems and conclude that these systems are useless, worthless, impossible to understand and stupid to boot (or some mix of the above). They will sometimes generalize to people who study those systems.

Sometimes they'll be right; I've seen some pretty silly things in the Humanities, and not self-consciously silly, either. But the urge to write the whole thing off becomes a problem. It causes some people who study math to write off the greater part of humanity, and/or to write off some of the systematic critiques which are a product of the Humanities, like feminism.

Feminism is a relatively new discipline in colleges, but not a totally new one; it's a twentieth century discipline in the academy, but over two thousand years old in practice (there were female teachers of math and rhetoric in Ancient Greece, who commented on the relationship between their culture and the lives of women.) The theory for it changes, the same way society changes, but has a fairly robust body of associated social critique and experiments, of which the stereotype threat experiments are an example.

And it is, in some ways, a comforting discipline, because it offers a theoretical stance which validates the experience of women, and later people of color and people who are not straight. It's worth remembering, for other people who find math comforting, that part of the urge to simplify is affected by social conventions about who is talented at math, who can understand math, and the (justifiably) social capital given the discipline and persons able to study the discipline.

Sometimes, hiding in that comfort with a well-defined discipline, is a comfort that people who are good at math are better than everyone else, and just coincidentally happen to be mostly male, because men are better than women at this skill set which makes some people better than others.

Rather than unthinkingly reason that way, I often want to say to men who think like this that they deny the comfort they enjoy to others, and make a relatively small pool of persons that much smaller. Extrapolation outside the borders of the definitions for the discipline, something which persons who know those definitions should definitely know better than to do, only artificially narrows potential set constituents.

And I want to say, "Don't deny me this comfort, for the sake of amplifying your own."

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