The Janus that is Math

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.


About Rutabaga the Mercenary Researcher

I'm a research librarian for Public Television, story teller, bike commuter, baker, music fiend, lover of reading & books, mother, wife, friend - and many more descriptive adjectives and nouns.
This entry was posted in Humor, Math, Music, Philosophy, Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

57 Responses to The Janus that is Math

  1. List of X says:

    Sounds like a perfect present for you would have been a math or Excel textbook in Russian 🙂
    Но, конечно, только в том случае, если c русским языком проблем нет 🙂

  2. Oh it’s simply fantastic. I love it. I majored in Mathematics for my B.A. and minored in…wait for it…Philosophy. 🙂

  3. Bryan McNab says:

    Love it !! I have the same love hate relationship with math…

  4. Soul Walker says:

    I was never very good at seeing math either and then ended up doing firing calculations for cannons for years. It was hilariously ironic.

  5. Dawn Nunn says:

    Great post. I should show this to my 7th grader who thinks math will never be useful.

  6. Maryann Graziano says:

    OMG, I have also had a “love/hate” relationship with math. At times it has been the bane of my existance; a necessary evil. I always thought there was “something wrong with me” (well there is but that is another topic.LOL) I didn’t see math like the teachers did. A “shortcut” was the kiss of death for me. I knew it until they showed it a different way. I always got the answer right, but never did it the way they did, and so in those days you were just wrong. I was even told by my geometry teacher that I’d never “get” math. But my brain had other ideas. Incorrect math calculations would sneak up on me when I looked at a balance sheet or studied a group of numbers. In an instant, I knew something was wrong. My brain told me something was wrong. But the frustration came with “what WAS wrong with the numbers?”. Over the years I had learned to distrust numbers, so whenever my brain told me something was “wrong”, I would, at first, dismiss it. But time and time again I’ve been right, so I’ve come to trust the innate ability I have to “see math”. My math wiz of a hubbie (yes, I married one, too), marvels at my ability. The great thing is, he’s the detective to figure out where the error is, I just tell him there is one. So math and I have come to an “understanding”, albeit a cautious one.

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