Advice for a Mathphobe?
A reader named Amanda recently wrote me, asking for some advice:
I graduated from NYU in 2007 and have been working in LA as an assistant, but I’m thinking about going back to college and getting a second degree. My first one is a BFA in screenwriting, so naturally I want to compliment that with a BS in geology in order to be a high school science teacher. Here’s the thing: as obsessed as I am with geology, I’m terrified of actually studying it. I’m great with concepts, and applying things I’ve studied to real life.
Problem is, I’m terrrible at any level of math higher than algebra. Because I’m bad at it, I studied the -ologies in high school and have only a cursory background in chem and physics. I’m going to buy some old textbooks and try to teach myself, but I guess what I’m asking is: will my atrocious math skills render me totally and utterly screwed? Do you have any advice for someone who plans on studying geology as an undergrad?
At this point, let me note that my background is in geophysics, not geology. Moreover, I went to a school where history and literature majors were required to do differential equations. I honestly haven’t the faintest understanding of what it would be like to live or work without math.
My instinct, when presented with a case of mathphobia, is usually divided between a desire to soothe and coddle the poor soul who was obviously traumatized at an impressionable young age, and, if the mathphobe in question is a student who doesn’t think that an intro science class should contain such nasty things as logarithms, a desire to beat them over the head with a textbook. I have reprinted my response below the fold, but I’m sure some of you can improve on it.
While you might be able to find some undergrad geology programs that would let you get away without math beyond algebra, to do geology properly you will need at least trig, as there is lots of 3D geometry to think about. And this may be my bias as the alumna of a very mathy undergrad program working in a mathy subfield coming through, but honestly, I can’t imagine doing it without calculus (my undergrad degree was in geophysics, but even the geology majors at my school had to go through partial differential equations… that’s unusual, though). If you teach, I think you would be doing your students a disservice if mathphobia leads you to avoid linking in relevant concepts from their math classes.
Most geology is more or less an application of chemistry and physics to Earth and other planets, so you will need a background in at least one of those subjects as well. Since few high schools teach geology and even fewer include it in their core curriculum, you’re likely to be drafted into teaching one of the two, or some kind of basic intro physical science course, at some point in your career anyway.
I suppose that sounds a bit doom’n’gloom, but I totally don’t mean it that way! You sound like you have the passion required to be a great teacher, and if you’ve had to struggle with the math you will be able to empathize with your students as they do the same.
I’ve known several people who internalized the idea that they were “bad at math” and allowed it to limit their options in life – and then, at some point, decided to try it again and discovered that they weren’t bad at it at all, and actually quite enjoyed it. Editing for the blog version: See Jane in the Academy recently wrote a great post about how this happened to her:
I do not consider myself mathematically inclined in the least, but I do really like statistics. How did I find the joy? Well first I tried really hard not to. I was an English major after all! Then I went to grad school and was all twisted up and anxious about taking stats. But in my first class I found that I was good at it and that it was sort of fun. My professor tried to get me to pick up a cognate in statistics. I wasn’t that crazed about it, and was still committed to the idea of qual research for the topic I wanted to study. Then I got an advisor who was highly bent toward quant research. She was also pushy. And I got to see that the big goal was probably to learn the best techniques to answer the questions, rather than undying commitment to a method. And so I learned statistics. Slowly but surely, and really faster than I thought I would, it become something that I found much joy in.
Obviously I have no idea how you decided you weren’t good at math, but it sounds like a path you settled on as a young adolescent. Now that you’re an adult, you may wish to re-evaluate that.
In addition to buying textbooks I’d recommend taking a couple of math/science classes at a community college. That way you’ll get a feel for what it’d be like to pursue a geo degree without too much commitment, and the community colleges seem to be home to lots of really excellent remedial math teachers. Plus, I’ve always found textbooks to be pretty intimidating when it’s just me vs. the book, even if it’s a subject I’m mostly comfortable with.
best of luck,
Amanda mentioned in her reply that she actually does really well with self-teaching, a skill of which I am totally in awe.
Anyway… am I handing out bad advice here? Do y’all have anything to add?