The only thing incomprehensible about mathematics is that it’s comprehensible.
That’s the first question I ask my math students.
The second question is, “Why?”
It doesn’t matter the grade, although now I am teaching at the post-secondary level at a community college. Many of these students haven not even passed the placement test to start at a college-level math class. Asking these two questions are the part of my job that I love the most. It brings the grim reality of the bad reputation that mathematics carries on its shoulders. But, it also presents me with the challenge.
This semester, more than half of my Basic College Mathematics students raised their hands with no hesitation. (I swear I hear the faint roar of an angry mob echoing throughout the room.)
Yes, there are those students who are enrolled at this college to save money on tuition, or lucked into my class in order to fulfill a scheduling conflict at another university. Occasionally, there are a few older students who have enrolled in college courses to keep their minds sharp as they age. They are usually not the hand-raisers.
The owners of the palms wildly waving in front of me are most likely students are not here by choice. Many of these students have opted to enroll in college because it is the thing that they hope will save their lives. They are the first in their families to even attempt to earn a higher education in order to break a cycle of poverty. They have been rejected from other learning institutions. They have no trust funds or scholarships. They are trying to change careers, or fighting to keep their current jobs by earning required certifications. I’ve even had the rare student who is taking classes in order to avoid jail time for some minor offense, and wants to prove his commitment to bettering himself to the courts.
More importantly, what these students all have in common is having performed poorly in mathematics in the past. It is no surprise to me that so many hands are in the air, literally waving like they (just) don’t care – because they probably don’t.
The questions are important, though; They bring a sense of solidarity to the students. (“Oh, you hate math? ME TOO!”)
Is this the reason I ask students to identify their mutual hatred for my class? Nope. It’s to show the students that I understand them. I hear them, their classmates hear them, and they are not alone. I do not expect them to pretend to be excited to spend the next 13 weeks just getting by. They are important to me as people, who are not going to be judged based on their past performance or attitude in math class. We are all going to start again. Together.