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Personally Speaking/Doing This Well

“Will this be on the test?” “When am I ever going to use this?”: questions that arise naturally from a student’s desire to put effort towards things that will improve their lives. But, in a math class – especially when portrayed in popular media – they’re questions that focus too narrowly on the immediate application of the math at hand. The truth is that math is far more than a problem on a test, far more than a tool to be used on the job.

Indeed, math is about more than numbers and signals. Math is about thinking well.

We should ask about purpose. We should question the value of the activities we engage in and the subjects we study. I hope that we also ask, “What are we doing here?”

I have more questions for my students: questions like, “What is the purpose of a liberal arts education?” For those students who realize they are attending a liberal arts college (and at first, not all do), there is some understanding that our intention is to become more well-rounded, to know a greater breadth of things. But it is not just this knowledge that is our goal; rather it is to learn to think in a variety of ways. I am glad that I get to teach math to music, English and communication majors, because math is the greatest tool I have to teach critical thinking. I am glad that my math majors get to take courses in composition and drawing. For their instructors, their own disciplines are their best vehicles for teaching critical thinking. Because of St. Norbert College’s liberal arts tradition, our students learn to be better thinkers from a variety of perspectives.

I ask, “What do you think I [your math professor] expect you to remember from this class 20 years from now?” Answers vary. Depending on the course, some students will mention one formula or another, or some problem-solving process. Recently, a particularly clever student mentioned “relationships” between classmates, and with the professor. I liked this answer because it felt deeper and more meaningful than some equation that could be found with a quick web search. Mathematics, after all, is a study of relationships.

Occasionally, students expect that my class (or any math class) will teach them math that they will use every day of their lives. Maybe it will. Probably, it will not. Few of us encounter a quadratic equation fluttering into our backyard every evening. Few of our careers see us differentiating rational functions daily. Even I do not do these things every day, and I am a professional mathematician. As I have told students, “If, 20 years from now, the thing you have gained from this course is a formula, then both you and I have done this [gesturing wildly to indicate all of our time at the college] wrong.”

So, what are we doing here (in this class, at St. Norbert College, within this lifetime)? This is a question we should continually grapple with, and the college experience provides a wonderful opportunity to probe for answers. For the time that you’re a student in my class, I hope that we return to this question as we grow as thinkers and as humans.

In one of my courses, I teach about exponential functions. Except, I don’t, sorta. I teach about poverty and high-interest payday loans. The traditional classroom applications of exponential functions are figuring out how much money you will have in your savings account in 10 years or estimating how many bacteria will be in a petri dish one hour from now. (Fun fact: They grow in roughly the same manner! Though, one much, much slower than the other.) But, what if we also discussed how savings accounts can persist generation over generation, creating wealth? Or, let’s take that a step further and discuss how some folks in the United States were, for much of this country’s history, not allowed to have savings in a bank gaining interest, and so they have been barred from the opportunity to accrue the generational wealth that others enjoy.

While we are talking about exponential functions, why shouldn’t we learn about payday loans, whose cost of repayment also grows exponentially – and at monstrously high rates. We can study mathematical formulas for exponential growth and also have deep, meaningful conversations about how obviously impossible it must feel to repay a $500 loan, two weeks later, at an interest rate of 338 percent.

We can study math and justice simultaneously. We can strengthen our brains, and use those brains to tackle society’s major challenges. It is my hope that that is what we are doing here. Students, that is when you’re going to be able to use this!

Oct. 31, 2022