By Benjamin Braun, Editor-in-Chief, University of Kentucky
“How many of you feel, deep down in your most private thoughts, that you aren’t actually any good at math? That by some miracle, you’ve managed to fake your way to this point, but you’re always at least a little worried that your secret will be revealed? That you’ll be found out?”
Over half of my students’ hands went into the air in response to my question, some shooting up decisively from eagerness, others hesitantly, gingerly, eyes glancing around to check the responses of their peers before fully extending their reach. Self-conscious chuckling darted through the room from some students, the laughter of relief, while other students whose hands weren’t raised looked around in surprised confusion at the general response.
“I want you to discuss the following question with your groups,” I said. “How is it that so many of you have developed negative feelings about your own abilities, despite the fact that you are all in a mathematics course at a well-respected university?”
If this interaction took place in a math course satisfying a general education requirement, I don’t think anyone would be surprised. Yet this discussion repeats itself semester after semester in my upper-level undergraduate courses, for which the prerequisites are at least two semesters of calculus and in which almost every student is either a mathematics major or minor. I’ve had similar interactions with students taking first-semester calculus, with experienced elementary school teachers in professional development workshops, with doctoral students in pure mathematics research seminars, and with fellow research mathematicians over drinks after dinner. These conversations are about a secret we rarely discuss, an invisible undercurrent of embarrassment and self-doubt that flows through American mathematical culture, shared by many but revealed by few. At every level of achievement, no matter what we’ve done, no matter how much we’ve accomplished, many of us believe that we’re simply not good at math. Continue reading