A Writer Conquers Her Greatest Fear

The ALEKS learning modules, a stellar example of Artificial Intelligence in action (complete with customized praise!), were a godsend for someone who never learned basics like the order of operations or how to cross multiply.

I missed you all very much.

I was here, but it still feels like I went away for nine months while completing the most significant challenge of my adult life: I climbed Math Mountain.

There was little time for anything but work and homework. Those of you who know the “I’m no good at math” story I’ve been carrying around for years, and a new support system of colleagues and friends (many of whom shared their own math battles) provided constant encouragement. I needed you and you were there, from my acupuncturist who gave me Swarovski crystal beads for my ear chakras before the final exam, to my husband and puppy, who understood when I had to be at the library or shut in a room with headphones on for hours on end. I’m so grateful!

I did us proud. Eventually. I rallied hard after flunking the first of four exams and finished with an A/B, which, using my new math skills, I correctly estimated before the scores were posted. And then there’s this:

Mind blown. The accompanying letter reads: “On behalf of the Department of Mathematical Sciences, I would like to commend you on your outstanding performance in MA1020 — Quantitative Literacy. You were selected as one of the two top students in the course by your instructor, Tim Wagner … Your performance in the class reflects a lot of hard work and determination, and I hope you feel a sense of satisfaction as you reflect on the course. I also hope that the mathematics that you learned will be helpful in future courses, as well as your eventual career.” Mark Gockenbach, professor and chair of the Mathematics Department.

My math phobia arises from a terrifying first-grade teacher and a horrible ninth-grade algebra teacher, along with the general sentiment of a time when girls were not expected to do well in math. Because I have always been a strong writer, I was allowed to gravitate toward the skills I was most comfortable with.

But you can’t avoid math at Michigan Technological University—science, technology, engineering and math—known as STEM skills—are core requirements for every degree program, whether you’re studying Communication, Culture and Media, as I am, or engineering, although only four math credits are required for my degree. I thought about waiting to take the course until the very end of my degree work. I thought about finishing my degree at an easier school. Then I decided to bite the bullet and get it over with in fall 2018. I regretted the decision many times. Especially after that first exam.

I began studying for the class in spring 2018, thanks to the compulsory ALEKS math assessment that all students are required to take to match their classes with their skill levels. I scored 7 on my first evaluation—an abysmal percentage of the 314 mathematical topics covered on the test. On my second try, I doubled my score to 14. Although there is no required minimum score for MA1020, or Quantitative Literacy, the recommended score is 46. My performance was humbling, especially since I’d raised a stink about having to take the test because no minimum score was required for the course. I’m very lucky that taking ALEKS is not debatable at Michigan Tech. It gave me a taste of what a person unfamiliar with the order of operations and unable to simplify an algebratic equation was in for. It scared the hell out of me.

For months I walked through fear door after fear door, sometimes hourly. My saving grace once the class started: a kind and skillful instructor, Tim Wagner, who explains concepts and expectations with humor, compassion and clarity, and whose own love of mathematics shows his students how beautiful and fun it can be. I’ve sprinkled a few of his playful, helpful comments throughout this essay. Michigan Tech is lucky to have him.

Pro tip: Always do the extra credit, which in this case involved using a homemade clinometer to calculate the height of the RL Smith Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics Building, or MEEM, on the Michigan Tech campus. At 11 floors, it’s the second tallest building in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Seeing problems clearly is a life skill.

Polya’s four-step problem-solving method will serve me the rest of my life. Understand the problem. Devise a solution. Carry out the solution. Review your methods and results. So elementary, my Dear Watsons, but I was shocked at how often I don’t grasp a problem on the first read. I’d write down the wrong number, or miss the easy, obvious answer entirely—because the minute something became a story problem, my mind went to the blank “this sucks, I can’t do this” mode. Or I’d just begin doing something to the equation or problem that I knew how to do—even if it would not get me to the solution. Humans all too often put their heads down and work a problem using what they have always done.

Barbara Oakley’s A Mind for Numbers likens the process to a pinball machine, as the player bangs the ball around in the same old corner, while the solution lies outside that narrow zone (My advisor, Maria Bergstrom, recommended the book and it’s changed the way I approach every course. For a preview, watch Oakley’s inspiring video on learning how to learn).

Two cats on a roof. Which one slides off first? The one with the smaller mew. – Physics joke

Flash cards for the final exam. Because we learned to use dozens of formulas and theorems during the course, we were allowed to bring one 3X5 card written on both sides to the two-hour test. Deciding what to write on it was actually more instructive than using it during the exam.

Math is replete with language. There are letters—and even exclamation points!

Quantitative literacy is a veritable math buffet: During the four-month course we studied problem solving, logic, apportionment and voting, personal finance, graphs, number theory, measurement, geometry, probability and combinatorics using the text Mathematical Excursions, which I initially purchased in the digital format and later rented, when I discovered that I learn complex material best when I’m using a physical textbook.

“Divide by zero and the world explodes.” – Tim Wagner, instructor and doctoral candidate at Michigan Tech

The estimated amount of daily homework time was an hour and a half. It took me two to three hours every weekday, and up to six hours per day on weekends, because I lacked the basic computation skills like simplifying fractions, rounding decimals, working with negative numbers, et al. It was frightening to consider how much I didn’t know, so I tried to not think about it, or to dwell on the terrifying first-grade teacher and horrible freshman algebra teacher who were instrumental in convincing me that I was not good at math. I watched so many Kahn Academy videos that I felt obligated to donate. Michigan Tech also extended my time in the ALEKS module so I could continue to practice basic skills.

Tim helped me shift my thinking when he repeatedly explained that he was more interested in how we approached the problems and worked the solutions than “in how well you punch numbers into a calculator.” The digital homework was not so forgiving — I routinely spent longer than I needed to on getting correct solutions in the homework modules because was slightly off on rounding to the nth place, or once because I entered letters instead of numbers. The up side to the interface: who knows how well I might have done, back in the day, if I’d been able to use video tutorials and other practice tools to formulate solutions.

The time that I had to devote to homework was also made unnecessarily arduous, with many late-night sessions, due to my considerable talent for procrastination. I’ve noticed this trait in previous coursework, but it came to the fore when confronted with my most-dreaded subject. Oakley has several strategies to combat what she calls “zombie procrastination mode.” They’re working for me.

I AM an Eight O’Clock Person.

Monday through Thursday, butt in seat by 8:05 a.m.—many times the first person in the classroom. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself for a woman whose husband was once given a sweatshirt with the legend “Sometimes I wake up Grumpy and sometimes I let her sleep.”

I grew to appreciate the morning vibe: the way the students walk and talk as they make their way across campus in the first light of a new day. In Fisher Hall Room 131, I developed a great affection for my nine classmates—four of them hockey players—and their various states of morning wakefulness, some having clearly just rolled out of bed, hair sticking out every which way. They were, to a person, as kind and positive as our instructor, which made it easier to ask the kind of questions a student who last studied algebra and geometry 45 years ago would need to ask.

I could not afford to pretend to know. There is no faking in math.

After I flunked the first exam, I frantically checked the drop deadline for fall semester. I’d missed it. This meant that if I failed the course, I’d have to pay Michigan Tech back (employees are able to take up to nine credits per semester, a fantastic benefit). And in order to earn my degree, I’d have to fork over the tuition to take the class again.

I frantically emailed my Maria to find out if a D was good enough to pass the class. It was. But what a low point in my academic career! Here I was, the student who always wants A Big Fat A, desperately hoping to slip by with a D. Maria, who’d already shared this piece about conquering math anxiety reminded me what we’d already talked about: Get a tutor. STAT.

My tutor taught me how to fight brain freeze.

I’d easily dumped the tired old argument: “Why do I need to know this stuff?” by answering truthfully, “You need to know this stuff to get your degree. Suck it up.” Still, I froze. There were numerous cold sweats as well as brain freezes, as the leaves outside the windows of the Michigan Tech’s Math Learning Center in Fisher Hall turned golden, then fell from the trees. My tutor, Jake Aguado, a chemical engineering major and president in training for the Huskies Pep Band, looked at me with compassion (with perhaps a shade of pity) at such times. He’d let me squirm for a bit, then lead me toward a line of reasoning—always guiding me to look at the reasoning behind something, rather than using rote memorization to try to power through the problems. Gradually I learned that you can’t die of embarrassment and confoundment, and that it always helps to take a deep breath and consider the nature of the problem before you put your head down and start working on it. On my second and third exams, I earned Bs. Much of that was due to Jake, his easy command of mathematical concepts and our practice with feeling my way through panic and discomfort during the tutoring sessions. The Center’s geeky, cheerful atmosphere also helped. All around me, Huskies helping Huskies.

A wall with Math on it and fall foliage outside the windows with a computer on a ledge in a university learning center at Michigan Tech.
Logging the hours in the Michigan Tech Math Center in Fisher Hall. If you need help with math on any level, you’ll find it here.

When I lost my calculator the night before my third exam, everyone I contacted in the Math Department came to the rescue, from offering to reschedule the appointment at the testing center, to opening the learning center early in the morning to see if I’d left it there, to borrowing a calculator—although everyone understood that once you get used to a particular calculator, using another would throw me off. I found it under my desk at work. Whew!

“If it’s hurting your brain, it’s exactly normal.” – Tim Wagner, MA1020

“Feel free to eat your hyperbolic parabaloid.” Geometry on a Pringles chip.

“Today is extra mathy.” – Tim Wagner

“That’s kind of an ugly formula, isn’t it?” Tim’s comments about messy permutations, the tedious plugging and chugging involved in solving apportionment problems and how he’s never really liked statistics made me look at math differently. So many branches, each with its own symbols, signs and codes.

Part of the learning was physically painful. I’d never used a scientific calculator. Getting up to speed with function buttons for square roots, sines, working with negative numbers, etc. combined with plugging and chugging for the homework resulted in a repetitive stress injury (my calculator arm is getting better, now that I’m not on the buttons for hours a day).

The flashcards and reams of paper (surprise: math uses way more paper than writing does) have been joyfully recycled. But I kept the notebook with Tim’s handouts, in case I’m called upon to help fellow mathophobes navigate the fear doors and climb that mountain. I’ll also encourage them to constantly affirm, as I did, that you can DO it. To keep my spirits up, I often belted out Rachel Platten’s Fight Song on the drive to campus:

“This is my math song, get my degree song, I know I’ll be strong … and I don’t really care if nobody else believes—’cause I still got a lot of math left in me …”

A new semester is beginning. I’m excited to get back to stories and leave the

As I return to stories, rather than story problems, I’m grateful that the hardest academic work I’ve ever done is over, and even more grateful for the knowledge, confidence and joy I find is setting a hard, worthy goal, and exceeding my own expectations.

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3 thoughts on “A Writer Conquers Her Greatest Fear

  1. Wow!! thank you for taking the time to share your struggle and the exertion it took to block defeat and find a solution to stay on your path to a degree. Proud of your determination and commitment.

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