Interview with Jennifer Ouellette, Author of The Calculus Diaries

This is another interview I was really looking forward to in anticipation of The Amazing Meeting 9 in Las Vegas last week. As a math teacher, who better to talk to than Jennifer Ouellette, author of The Calculus Diaries, a book about math for people who… well… tend to fear math.

Excerpts from our conversation are below. The remarks are entirely those of Ms. Ouellette, except for my own, which are [marked off in brackets].

I’ve edited our remarks for the sake of clarity without affecting the content.

***

On her experiences in math classes:

I had a really good Geometry teacher — that was the last time I really enjoyed math. but I remember asking him in high school the usual question: “When am I ever going to use this?” And he tried. He tried to let me know, but I thought I was going to be a writer and it would never be relevant. [Laughter]

I never liked math, but I’d always done well in it. I got straight As all through high school, and that includes my Algebra classes, but I didn’t understand what I was doing in Algebra class. To this day, I do not know how I got an A in Algebra class.

Teachers encounter this a lot. There [are] certain students — and I was one of them — … we test really well on standardized tests. We pick out patterns and we figure out what you want to hear very, very easily and it makes it hard to teach us. Teachers don’t understand that [it] actually looks like we’re learning and maybe we’re not, and that was what happened to me in math class. I knew I didn’t understand it and I was terrified of being found out. As a result, I had a huge amount of anxiety over that and it just colored my attitude towards math from then on.

[Because you could get by?]

Because I could get by and I felt there’s something wrong here. I know I’m getting away with something.

***

On her next book:

It’s gonna be quite different. But it grew out of [The Calculus Diaries] because one of the questions I had to ask myself while doing this was, “Where did that math phobia come from?”… Part of it was [that] there was a whole series of… factors that made me self-identify at some point as bad at math. There were lots of different things. It wasn’t any one thing. So I started asking questions about how we build identity and how that helps us and how that harms us, how it makes us hold ourselves back. So the next book is actually going to be looking at the science of self and identity… Me, Myself, and Why is kind of the working title.

***

On whether women have a tougher time excelling at math and why that might be the case:

It’s way too easy to just say, “Blame the patriarchy.” That is certainly part of it, though. I’m of a generation… where that was still very much an issue. And there’s also family, sibling dynamics that play [a role]. I have a brother who’s a year older and I was very, very good at music and writing and things like that. So my folks wanted us each to have our thing so they decided that my brother was good at math… and it was ironic that my brother was “good at math” when I was the one getting As…

[Was he not getting straights As?]

No! Plus, I was writing his English papers for him. [Laughter] But those little things all add up. Just little things. But the fact that numbers, perhaps, did not come as easily to me, I actually had to work a little at the math, and because I was very smart, I wasn’t used to it. So I felt, well, “I must really be stupid. I must be bad at this.”

… One of the most important things I learned was that every time I got a B, or failed at something, or felt like I failed, I learned more, because I was actually pushing myself. I realized that if you’re not slightly uncomfortable, if you’re not a little bit at sea, you’re not challenging yourself.

The first teacher who told me that changed my life.

***

On math books aimed at girls:

I love [Danica McKellar's] books. I know she’s been critiqued for “pinkifying” math, and I get that, but I think that there are girls who are pink. I have a niece who’s pink. I also have a niece who’s goth. So I think Danica is targeting an audience, a demographic, of girls who like those things. They’re girly girls. And she can speak to them and make math relevant to them in a way that most of us cannot.

I can make it relevant to Buffy fans and to people who dig zombies. So the goth group is my group… I think [Danica's] doing something very, very important. I think you need to look at who the target audiences are for [my own] book because no one book is going to serve every need.

***

Ouellette is the author of The Calculus Diaries and The Physics of the Buffyverse. She blogs at Cocktail Party Physics and is also on Twitter.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Anonymous

    I was a college level math teacher in a previous incarnation. I didn’t like it much. Every time I introduced a new concept in the classroom, someone immediately asked: “Will this be on the final exam?” I really hated that question! I kept telling them: A) Any concept I bring up in this class is potentially on the final exam, and B) math is not a grab-bag of unrelated concepts. Each concept builds on the ones that came before, and is necessary for understanding the concepts that come later. It seems to me that anyone who doesn’t understand how concepts inter-relate in this way does not belong in a math classroom.

    • Heidi

      It seems to me that a classroom is exactly the place where you belong if you don’t understand something. If they didn’t understand the concept of math building on itself, then it was your job to explain it to them.

      • Anonymous

        Which I did, repeatedly. Why do you assume I didn’t?

  • Anonymous

    If girls feel put off by the math education system, then this is something we should pay attention to. But it is important to remember that they aren’t the only ones with these struggles. In general a girl can be smart and popular at the same time, while a smart boy is seen as a nerd or geek. Girls make up over 70% of valedictorians while boys are the brunt of the “boys are dumb” jokes. I’m not saying we need to focus on one or the other exclusively, but we should at least be aware of all of the issues so we can make the best decisions in education.


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