Today is the first day of classes for me.
I’ve been teaching in one form or another for 20 plus years. I’ve survived the Great Calculus War, and even spent time in the Technology Underground engaging in acts of passive resistance against the ancienne regime. And yet the start of every term is fraught with anxiety for me: What am I going to do this semester?
I don’t know how common this problem is among my colleagues. I mention it because it underscores what I believe to be an important fact of life: Never be too comfortable. This doesn’t mean you should go out and buy ill-fitting shoes and eat kale 24/7. Rather, it means that a little discomfort is good, because the general human reaction is to try and change things to become more comfortable.
So I’m anxious about what I’m going to teach this semester. That’s good, because it forces me to look a what I’m teaching and ask myself the all-important question: Why would anyone want to listen to me talk about this subject? (I don’t have an answer for this term yet…which is why the anxiety persists)
On the other side, learning mathematics is all about anxiety too. The critical question is not whether you suffer from math anxiety; it’s what you do about it. Remember that the human reaction is to change to become more comfortable in whatever situation you’re in. For all too many people, the reaction to math anxiety is to avoid math.
And that’s fine, if you live in a stone age society where mathematics can be left to specialists. (Go ahead, ask me about paleomathematics…) But in the modern world, it’s not practical to avoid mathematics. It’s possible, in the same way that it’s possible to avoid reading. But you won’t get very far, and you condemn yourself to being a second or third class citizen.
Instead, the way to fight math anxiety is to accept the discomfort…and push through it anyway. The most important lesson we can learn in life is that we can survive a little discomfort, and when we get through to the other side, we are better for it. And soon enough, you’ll find yourself addicted and actively seek the discomfort because you know you can get through it.
Psychologists no doubt have a litany of strategies for dealing with anxiety disorders. But here’s my suggestion for dealing with math anxiety: Do a little math, every day. The good thing about math is that it’s something you can do in the clamor of your own mind as you go through daily life.
Count things: that’s the beginning of mathematics. Don’t look at the line at Starbucks; count how many people are there. If you do this often enough, you’ll start to think about more efficient ways to count: you’ll find yourself counting by twos, threes, and fives. You’ll also develop what many have called number sense: the ability to estimate quantities with reasonable accuracy.
Once you’ve gotten into the habit of counting so that it’s second nature…in other words, once you’re comfortable with it…introduce a little anxiety and start to do arithmetic on a regular basis. There’s eight people ahead of you in line at Starbucks; how long is it going to take before you get your coffee? How much is Starbucks making off the people in line? What’s the average wait time? Soon enough, you’ll be running through calculations like “If those eight people are like me and ordering a $2.35 coffee then that’s in revenue for ten minutes…”
And again, every time you get comfortable…move it up a notch.