March 22nd, 2011 / 2:20 pm

I tried to teach a math class

I decided it would be better to TA a math class than to teach a creative writing class, so I called the math department at Brown and told the person who answered about my predicament–I’m in the writing program, I need funding so I have to teach, but I don’t want to teach in my department, I’d rather assist with a math class, would this be possible?

The person who answered transferred me to a different person who arranged for me to meet with himself and some graduate students. They would ask me some questions and, based on how I answered, allow me to teach in their department.

I went to the meeting. There were three of us; we met in a graduate student’s office. We chatted for a few minutes, and then I was asked to please explain the quadratic equation and the binomial theorem. I said things that I thought sounded coherent, and then I was asked to turn toward a large, flat screen on the wall behind me.

At first the screen was black; then it slowly became populated by a scintillating pattern of many colors. I watched the pattern move around the screen for several minutes–it would form in one corner, then move by some mechanism of the pattern to a different place on the screen, where it would disassemble itself and disappear. Then it would begin to form again, but in a different place than where it had disappeared.

It went on shifting and shimmering around the screen, and I got the feeling that I was maybe watching the spread of bacteria, or a self-organizing pattern like the ones that make themselves in Conway’s Game of Life. I didn’t want to say anything until I was sure of what I was seeing, but what I was seeing kept forming and reforming in different ways, so all I could be sure of was that as soon as I saw something, it would change.

Then one of the graduate students asked, What is the equation that describes this pattern?

I said something like Uh or Um. Someone turned off the screen. The man who had arranged the meeting left the office quickly. The two graduate students snickered and whispered. I apologized for something, I wasn’t quite sure what, and left.

I guess I will teach writing.

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  1. wily_codger

      Haha,you got owned

  2. Gus

      Whats the equation????????????

  3. Kyle Minor

      I liked this post. I’d love to hear more about your time at Brown.

  4. André

      Fibonacci sequence?

  5. skauffy

      My roommate used to be a math student and whenever I made the mistake of asking what he’s up to in class he’d start name dropping all these principles and equations that he must know I don’t know, and if I ask politely to explain he’ll only explain with more terms I don’t know and so I have to do a lot of nodding and sneaking out of rooms. He switched to mechanical engineering pretty much because it’s impossible to talk about math with non-math people, and math people seem to really like showing off. Seems like math is lonely.

  6. alex crowley

      Math isn’t any more lonely than writing, really.

  7. alex crowley

      You’ve gotta find out what that equation is!

  8. skauffy

      Probably true, but at least we write in the same language as we speak with, or we’re writing about people, and there’s an imagined audience. Like writers can write about loneliness, whereas mathematicians…

  9. Anonymous


  10. deadgod

      patience + will – noxious attitude = educator

  11. skauffy

      Nah just saying I have sympathy for math people is all!

      Didn’t some dude call mathematicians the “one true artist” or something, I always thought that was somehow true..

  12. Tim Horvath

      That’s too bad. Would’ve been pretty cool if you’d been able to teach it, if they’d been able to meet you partway so that you could assure students of your competence and bring a fresh perspective, deliver unexpected metaphors and analogies. Among the structural issues in higher education that could use some remedying, the tenacity of disciplinary boundaries is a big one. Math is music and writing is music and physics is time and time is literature and please try to convince me that Godel, Escher, Bach wouldn’t be the basis for a fairly respectable, rigorous but aesthetically searching curriculum.

  13. Anonymous

  14. phill

      And it was all going so well until the end. Ignorance is not stupidity, I wish you’d found out what the equation was. They missed out on a great chance to learn.

  15. M. Kitchell

      man that math department sounds like DICKS. seems to me like getting someone outside the inclusive realm of a subject to teach said subject to a group of freshman students who clearly have nothing invested in said subject would actually be a REALLY GOOD WAY TO APPROACH THINGS.

  16. Anonymous
  17. Mark Woroby

      how r u and yer brother doin anyway? lol