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  • Maggie McHugh

I'm not a Math Major... and how I never got there

So, I'm not a math major. I teach secondary math, but in college, I decided to get an English major and a math minor, both of which were certifiable in the state of Wisconsin.


People often ask me why I chose English over math. I usually give some b.s. line about how there were less credits to be an English major and math minor than vice versa. So, as a smart mathematician, I chose the path of least credits.


Although that is true, it is the easy answer. That's the one I purport because it gets a quick laugh and moves the conversation on to a new topic.


The truth is much deeper.


The truth is buried underneath a mess of educational experiences that go back to 8th grade... and even earlier. The truth is a complex, nebulous, ever-evolving tale that has been told and re-told about women in mathematics for years.


{Sidetrack that will get back on point} I recently participated in a training on diversity, equity, and inclusion with specific attention to racial identity. The host led us through a series of exercises that helped us navigate our stories. Like so many others, she said, "There is power in telling your story."


So, I find the need to tell my math story. It is much longer than a blog post, so I may need to make a series of blog posts to dive deeper into these events, but for now, I'll just outline a few major events:

  • Earliest memory-- 2nd grade multiplication. Played "Around the World". The goal was to "beat Maggie". I was humiliated when this boy beat me. 0x2. Won't ever forget it.

  • Jump to 8th grade--Tracked into Algebra I-- male teacher. I was put in the back of the room even though I liked to sit up front. I was told not to raise my hand because obviously I knew the answer and other people needed to answer. The 8th grade Algebra teacher left before the end of the year. We had a long term sub after that.

  • Freshman year of HS-- I was put into "Regular Geometry", not "Honors Geometry"--male teacher. Humiliated. I even took a test to get into Honors. I passed. I didn't change my schedule because I didn't want to be even more embarrassed by joining the class late. I also feared I really wasn't good enough for Honors.

  • Sophomore year of HS- Took Honors Algebra II. Scared of male teacher so I hardly talked. (If you know me, this is hard to believe... like seriously hard to even fathom!)

  • Junior & Senior years of HS-- Took Pre-Calculus & Calculus. Began to enjoy math because I had a compassionate female teacher. She gave me the advice to re-take Calculus I in college if I planned on being a teacher because she wanted me to learn deeply.

  • Freshman orientation of College--Told academic advisor I wanted to teach both English and Math. Advisor told me not to struggle my first semester of college. Put me in "easy" classes. Did not put me in math.

  • Second semester of College--I took Calculus I with a great professor. I connected with students around me, formed study groups, yet didn't feel challenged. Most of the semester was review. I felt "successful" because I aced everything. Set me up for some major failure ahead.

  • Second semester of Sophomore year of College--I took Calculus III. Failed the first exam. Miserably. Like, a complete F. I had gotten a few B's on tests prior to this, but never, ever a complete F. I had a complete crying melt-down in class. Could not handle myself. Decided then and there I would only minor in math because I obviously wasn't good enough to major in it.

  • Last math class of College-- I had this new professor for Math Methods. Our first class we went outside and did this "create a perfect square" activity using only nails and string. I was challenged. I mean, I can make a square. Just give me a ruler. Began a new path toward perhaps seeing math in a different light. Too late to become a math major.

  • Jump forward five years-- I was offered a position in the Math Department of the college I went to for my undergraduate. The condition of this job was that I had three years to obtain my math major-- another 4 classes. I took two classes. I changed jobs after two years into my current job. I never finished my math major.

Okay... that was a LONGISH outline. Yeah. Whenever I say or write "short", never believe me. I call up friends and say, "Do you have 5 minutes for a quick convo?" Twenty minutes later and I've talked their ear off about some random idea that now has grown into a somewhat tangible idea. So yeah, short and quick do not mean the same thing to me as most people.


So, my math identity story is mapped. Now to dive deeply. See upcoming posts as I go into depth on some of these bullet points, mapping out how they shaped the math person I am today.

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