Janus: a two-faced god
This post is dedicated to my husband, Scott; Don, my Philosophy of Mathematics professor from library school & my stats-loving boss, Craig. Three people that can “see” math – and have patiently helped me start to see math. Most of the time with me kicking & screaming all the way. They all have made me think about math. More than I ever would have before.
Math has two faces, you know. It has its easy going, beguiling face. The one that you can always count on it to give you 2 when you solve for ‘x’ in the following equation: 5x=10. And yes, 3/6 is always the same as ½ and then 0.50.
But it hides its other face in the shadows – it craves to be understood in ways that elude me. I know that y = mx + b is ‘slope-intercept’ – but I don’t know why. In math, I hardly ever know why. I can do it, albeit slowly and methodically, but I can do it. I don’t always understand it. I don’t ‘see’ it. It’s frustrating – I want to see it. I want to be able to look at the numbers and know.
That is the Janus that is Math.
My husband is a freakin’ smart person. Really smart. He is a musician as well (I love ‘em skinny, arty and smarty). His ability to conceptualize mathematics blows me away. He reads and composes music. I have tried to learn to understand the language of music. I cannot. Any other language – I can do it. I have an ear for language…but not the language of Music. I realized it’s a math language. I’d decided to leave the math language to Scott – he’s the math yin to my language yang.
Please Note~ bad segue ahead:
It’s 1996- I’m sitting in an ‘Introduction to micro-computers ‘class my first semester of graduate school for Information Resources & Library Sciences. The professor is talking about a ‘spreadsheet’ program called Excel.
My stomach clenches. I avoid math when possible. Math & I have always had a difficult time of it together. Good memories and bad –support math, advanced math – I’ve done it all. I’m good at plugging in the numbers and following a set of steps to solve for ‘x’ – but it stopped there. No other subject caused me such grief. “Numerical Dyslexia” is the term bandied around for my constant struggle with that two-faced god. It was especially hard because I was a good student, an advanced reader; I loved grammar, languages, history, sociology, philosophy –I loved learning – except math. Never math. I hated not understanding.
I remember sitting in that class and thinking – I’ll never use Excel. I want to be a librarian – I will never use Excel. I did some lam-o exercise using months and that was it for Excel.
Then my department hired a new professor – it caused all sorts of brouhaha – he wasn’t from libraryland… he had his doctorate in Philosophy of Mathematics. Yes, people CHOOSE to study math as a philosophy! And, I believe, this was his first teaching job EVER. I was obviously suspicious of him. His first class with us dealt with organization of information…we all waited for the Math Doctor to arrive. He did – young, tall, lanky, awkward, thick glasses, sweating profusely and darting around like a humming bird caught inside a house. A bit of a nervous stutter, disjointed sentences – I loved his class instantly. I’m all about the underdog.
He let me tease him about philosophy of math – but then he also talked with me about philosophy of math. I loved philosophy – It was almost my undergraduate degree until my parents told me they were not going to pay for me to be philosophy major… I started off in Russian & Soviet Studies, then on to Philosophy, then Anthropology I finally had to ask my counselor what degree I was closest to achieving because my parents weren’t down with my wish to be a perpetual college student –Sociology & Deaf Studies it was! Whoo hoo! Anyway – I still loved philosophy and was intrigued with the idea of math as a philosophy. So it started me thinking about math.
Post graduate school and two jobs later, I was lucky enough to land my Dream Job – as a research specialist in Public Television. It was perfect. I could wear what I wanted, I could listen to music, I had my own office, I was part of the systems department, I could start work at 6AM. Everything was perfect; except I had to use Excel. YES – EXCEL! Every bloody day. That lam-o exercise I did in 1996 in Excel, didn’t help me at all…
I now love Excel. I teach people how to use Excel – ironic, eh? I like the Violent Femmes with my Excel.
My boss, Craig, has patiently sat with me to not only teach me how to use Excel, but how to understand why I do the calculations that I do. I don’t think he quite understands how I could *not* understand math nor my need to understand it – but he allows me to rant, rave, pester, question and talk about math. He laughs and shakes his head quite a bit – but that’s the kind of teacher I need.
Scott gets to listen to me drone on about my math schizophrenia. Doing it vesus understanding it. He’s a bit like Craig – he doesn’t understand how I can ‘not see’ math – but he patiently goes over it again and again and again.
Between these three people, I’ve gained more of an understanding behind my ability to correctly compute a percent difference or calculate a rating from raw numbers. Math may not ever come to me as easily as learning Russian or American Sign Language – but it is coming. I’m getting there – and I’m dragging everyone with a math brain with me.