I’m a mathematician. Even writing it seems a little odd. I never identified as one until people started referring to me as such a few years ago. I’ve studied and/or taught mathematics pretty much my whole life,  which you’d think would automatically qualify – but calling yourself a mathematician is hard to do. Why? Because the very idea of what a mathematician is has become a polluted mess.

“A mathematician is someone who uses an extensive knowledge of mathematics in his or her work, typically to solve mathematical problems.”

That word extensive…

It seems the title of ‘mathematician’ is reserved by many people for those at a mystical peak of mathematical powers – they solve problems like super humans in split seconds, or gain insight into approaches to seemingly impregnable problems at first glance. Their capes wrestle against the wind as they flawlessly answer a random question posed to them on the spot. Calculator Man and Wolfram Girl, nothing can stop them! You cannot catch them out, and they’ll always pick you up on your errors. “Oh but you’re assuming we’re not working in ring theory then?”. Of course they know about ring theory. All mathematicians know EVERYTHING about ALL elements of maths. You can give them an exam paper from Cambridge on an obscure module about astrophysics and they’ll soon crack it. It’s just maths right? You’re a mathematician, you can do it. We’re all our own accountants, and we could do an actuary’s job for them if we wanted, after all, it’s what we do. Number stuff. All of it.

But what if that perception is a teensy bit unrealistic? What if we’re only good at some bits of maths? What if we’ve never even heard of some other bits? What if we just enjoy doing maths? Does that make us weak? A weak mathematician, or not even a mathematician at all, just an enthusiast at best. A novice. Does this apply to other areas? Let’s see. Is a runner an athlete? They’re not high jumpers though… Do all doctors do brain surgery? At what point do I go from playing the guitar to becoming a musician? Could it be that we have slightly unrealistic perceptions of the supernatural abilities of ‘a mathematician’? We seem to be a special case, and I’m pretty sure I know where it comes from.

Think for a minute about what gets emphasised in school – from year 1 to year 13. Answers and speed, answers and speed. Timed tests, tricks and ticks. ‘This’ gets you the answer, doing ‘this’ gets it quicker. This is right, so well done – but this is wrong, so this is bad. Too slow, time’s up, so it’s not good enough. It’s good that you thought about it, but you didn’t get there, sorry pal. I’m going to point at you and you need to answer this question immediately. I’m the person at the front, I’m your teacher, I get this stuff right all the time (because I have the answers).

Well I say it’s time to reject all that. If you do maths, you’re a mathematician. This elite superpower we’ve invented doesn’t exist, so let’s stop being silly. I am not part of that. I’m crap at some things in maths, I don’t understand some things in maths, and I don’t even know about all sorts of things in maths. I make mistakes, I can do some things quickly and some things slowly, and I don’t care. Sometimes I can’t solve a problem, sometimes I can. Some days I can do everything right, and some days I seem to do everything wrong. It doesn’t matter. I’m a mathematician.

5 thoughts on “Identity

  1. The problem I find with many of my students when they come to me is their profound lack of confidence in their ability to either ‘do’ or learn ‘mathematics’. This lack of confidence is often the first and most difficult thing we need to address before we can start making ‘progress’ in the actual subject.

    I think you identify the source of this problem in your article. For every one of our students, some ‘mathematics’ will be difficult to learn, and to pretend otherwise can prevent them from gaining a proper sense of their achievement when they succeed or put any failure into a realistic perspective. On the other hand, it does no good promoting mathematics to some mythical status, the province of only the exceptionally gifted or magical. As you say its time to be realistic about what it is to do ‘maths’.

  2. Pingback: Identity | Solve My Maths Phil Wastell Freelance Tutor

  3. I like that you have chosen a lens of inclusion rather than exclusion. All language is but a model for ideas and concepts. The idea of professional mathematician and mathematics researcher does seem rather different from someone who does maths in school. But I would rather all people think of themselves as mathematicians, than for it to be a rare and remote thing. You might like this post:

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