I’ve been out in social situations having casual conversations, and if the conversation happens to lead to a discussion about jobs/careers and I mention that I teach math at a community college, frequently the conversation becomes awkward. Those I’m conversing with confess that they were good at math until calculus/algebra/trig/geometry or they were never good at math. They then quickly find reasons to bring the conversation to a halt. Why is it that mention of my profession leads to such an awkward ending to what had been a delightful conversation?
In the United States, there are many stereotypes about people who are good at math and few of them are complimentary or flattering. In addition to the assumption that those who excel in math are male, we’re called nerds, geeks or dorks. We are assumed to be lacking in social skills, and rarely are math majors considered to be stylish or fashionable. It is sometimes assumed that we lack basic hygiene. When I was in college I heard comments like: Why don’t those math majors/professors ever shower or wash their clothes? Do they even own shampoo? Do they know how to use deodorant? There are even jokes dedicated to these stereotypes.
Do you know how to tell a introverted mathematician from an extroverted mathematician?
An extroverted mathematician looks at your shoes when he talks to you.
And perhaps the most damaging of all, some people also think that those of us who are “good” at math look down on other people, that we see ourselves as being much smarter and more capable intellectually.
As a math instructor, all of these stereotypes are working against me when I meet my students and try to get to know them as I attempt to help them to learn mathematics. My students enter my classes with many of these stereotypes in mind, and that’s the lens through which all their interactions with me are viewed. What’s even worse, is that many students don’t want to discover that they can excel in mathematics, because they don’t want to see themselves, or have others see them, as attached to these unflattering characteristics.
I don’t naturally fit many of the stereotypes. I’m female. I bathe and wash my clothes regularly. I’m not a social butterfly, but I converse easily in many social situations. I’ve never seen myself as a great intellectual, because school was never smooth sailing for me. I had to work at it to be successful.
But, I must admit, I’m historically not very fashion conscious.
However, like it or not, my students’ first impression of me is linked to how I look when they first meet me. I’ve come to realize that I have a very short window at the beginning of the quarter to help my students see me as a person, and not as the stereotype that they assume I will fit.
A few years ago, my older daughter wanted to dye her hair purple. So we went out, got the dye and on a whim I added a purple streak to my hair as well. When I had that purple streak in my hair I noticed that my students responded to me differently. They seemed to be more at ease. They asked more questions and more of them visited me in office hours. Could such a small change make such a big difference?
While I haven’t stuck with the hair dying and I’m unlikely to start wearing make-up, I do make an effort during the first weeks of the quarter to have an outward image that contradicts the stereotype. I keep my nails nicely manicured and I pay attention to my clothing choices.
There is a part of me that definitely feels that this shouldn’t be necessary. I put countless hours into thinking about how to design lessons that will help them to digest the content, planning homework that will reinforce what they’ve learned in class, and assessments to determine whether or not they’ve met the course objects. I’m not an entertainer; I’m an instructor of mathematics. The students are there to learn, and how I dress and whether or not my nails are painted doesn’t change the content that I have to deliver. However, it does seem to change their willingness to engage in the classroom. The reality is that without that engagement, all the other work doesn’t matter.