Take the teacher, not the course

10 Feb

I wrote this before the term started:

One of the biggest reasons that I hate splitting a series of coursework is that you’re fighting at least three things: time, methodology, and instructor. Taking a year gap in my 130 coursework was not the plan, especially since it means picking up with a different instructor (not bad, just different–different generation => different tactics) but it is what it is. The good: all the instructors (former and current) know who I am and I’ve been keeping in touch which means I’m not in a vacuum–if I need help I’ll have it. The bad: I’m picking this up in the second half of the series which means I’m expected to know the material from the first half (information that everybody else in the class has freshly imprinted on their minds.) The ugly: Changing instructors means changing texts… My old text did things in a “reverse” order from the common presentation. Specifically, we jumped right into epsilon delta proofs and continuity arguments whereas almost everybody else and their mother starts with sequences and series, compactness, and subsequential limit points.

It’s going to be an adjustment and I will have my difficulties fighting this material. But call me an optimist–I think I can do this.

I was an idiot, and I was ignoring so many signs. Including the ones I couldn’t have foreseen.  You know that moment when you know just enough to get yourself into trouble but not nearly enough to get yourself out? That is this class for me. It’s frustrating because I started it with one of the most wonderful instructors I’ve ever known and it just about broke my heart withdrawing from his course during the second half. It was necessary. I knew it was, but I still hated every second of the process of leaving.

While I was away, in the back of my mind the entire time was this notion that I would finish the series this term and my mind would be at ease. I would be taking it with a different instructor, but one I have known informally through research presentation meetings. I have been a student for a very long time, and it shocks me still that I could be so naive: just because this individual is an incredibly nice person and proficient researcher does not mean he can teach.

I was so shocked to discover this. Disoriented even. I’d even say dizzy. It didn’t help that the classroom was in a random room of a science building, a horrid chemical smell permeating the windowless room only visible by the uncanny and unmistakable flicker emitted by fluorescent tubes. I sat in this lecture, completely numb. I have never, in my life, felt so utterly, obscenely, unequivocally, clueless. To add insult to injury, this was all information I had seen before–all of these theorems I had proven, and I knew that going in. Sitting here in this dearth of understanding… it was negative knowledge. I was undoing years of quality instruction and foundation.

I have no doubt that this professor would have worked with me. He would have bent over backwards to make sure I did well. But it would have been a lie. An artificial construction of understanding based on the premise of preconceived potential and rapport and a reputation for greatness. Lies. I have no idea what is going on in that class, though I know it all so far. From a lifetime a few semesters ago. I had to drop. There was no other way.

This is a terribly big deal to me. I took the semester off so I could come back with renewed conviction. This undermines it. Throughout everything, all of the vertigo, nausea, false strokes, home invasions–everything– mathematics has been my shangri-la. My Valhalla,  my moment of zen, my nirvana, my place of no wind. When I needed to recede into myself, mathematics let me do so without losing contact with the world. I was introspective in a way that somebody else could understand. This experience of being in a class where I have lost that connection? I have lost my tether. My rock. My center. My disorientation is complete. The dizziness comes back with a vengeance–I literally can not walk out of the classroom after the 75 minutes we spend staring at the cacophony of chalk smudges on the board. I have never been in so much pain after a lecture, so much spinning. I stop smiling, I was always the girl who smiled in class. No more. Not here. I had to drop. I had drop to preserve the one thing that consistently stabilizes my mind, in the most vertiginous of storms.

At the same time, I have been auditing the first half of this course with the most wondrous instructor. Everything that is good about this subject is embodied in this woman’s teaching presence–it is performance art on a level that Sir Lawrence Olivier would idolize if he were in the market for an educator. This is my alternative to the existential crisis of my current discontent. But it won’t become a reality until next term, complicating matters. I don’t know if I have the energy required for a full load. But I will do it. Because there is something my mentor told me long ago and only now do I truly appreciate his words: you take the teacher, not the course.

I can learn mathematics from anybody because I love it so. But I should not have to teach myself like this. Not when there is a better way. My mentor has been subtly hinting to me that I should accept the help–take the better offer. I was stupid. I was stubborn. I was wrong. And for this, I have learned my lesson. I will listen to my body this time. I will listen to those who know me better than I know myself and who love me enough to point me home. I will take the middle way to enlightenment. Now I just have to tell my instructor.

Math musing: onto ⇒ blanket bombing; one-to-one ⇒ blanket bombing with a pickier strategist. Functions: mappings of dangerous relations.

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