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Does math suck?

Not according to Danica McKellar, the author of Math Doesn't Suck, a book designed to help middle school girls get over their anxieties and difficulties with math. Not only does the book contain guides to math concepts typically taught during middle school, it includes testimonies, including her own, of how she went from struggling in school to graduating with a PhD in mathematics from UCLA and proving an important theorem in mathematical physics.

The book has drawn a lot of praise from educators for being a positive force in encouraging girls to pursue math-related careers, at a time in their lives when they may be otherwise discouraged from doing so. However, the book has also drawn a lot of criticism. Some people feel the book reinforces "girly" stereotypes. Gayle Laakmann, a Google employee, made a similar statement in her criticism of IBM's Technology Camp for Teen Girls.

Is the book doing harm in teaching math this way? I don't think so. I don't think the book suggests that girls ought to act stereotypically. Evidently, the book is doing some good, because girls who identify with the author have gotten over their math phobias and feel more comfortable with the subject. IMO, if people can be reached and engaged using thoughts and concepts they feel comfortable with, why not do so? Would it be better to give them boring math books full of uninspiring equations or theorems? I remember there was a movie in the 1970s called Claudine in which James Earl Jones "convinced" Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs that he could do math by "pointing out" that he was already doing math as he explained how he beat his friends at craps. To the extent that this reflects reality, I doubt such a kid could be reached through a dry mathematical presentation. (In my experience growing up in Queens, people were more likely to understand something they could personally relate to, such as how to compute batting average.)

However, I am curious about how DM was able to make the leap from struggling in math to doing groundbreaking work in it. Apparently, someone else was curious about it as well. She hasn't answered the question as of the time of this post. Perhaps she's too busy, or perhaps she thinks the subject is beyond the scope of the book.

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( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
jessiehl
Dec. 2nd, 2007 01:21 am (UTC)
Hmm. This is a difficult issue for me, as a woman and feminist in science/engineering who's never been very traditionally feminine.

I agree with you that it's good to engage people with concepts they feel comfortable with. The problem is that not all girls are comfortable with the same things. I would have been hugely turned off as a little girl by a website full of pink and flowery script. By creating special girl-targeted resources that are dolled up in stereotypical feminine garb, one perpetuates stereotypes about what girls are like and leaves non-stereotypically feminine girls feeling marginalized and alienated. I often felt this way as a kid observing girl-targeted efforts.

On the other hand, this book seems like it's doing a good thing. It's pretty well-documented how girls' math and science performance starts tanking when they hit middle school. The author of the book Reviving Ophelia, a psychologist who has been treating adolescent girls for a long time, suggests that this is because it's at about this age where expectations for children's behavior become more gendered (and also, that during this time girls' confidence tanks in general because of bullying, harassment, and misogyny, which jibes with my memories of middle school and the people in it).

DM's book doesn't actually seem to encourage feminine behavior, from the excerpt I saw. Judging by her website, with bits like the quiz on whether you hide your smarts around boys, it presumes that the girls are already engaging in age-appropriate stereotypically feminine behavior. And in this case, I think that's reasonably okay, because it's not targeting all girls, or girls with an interest in math, or something like that - it's targeting girls who are struggling in and anxious about math, and if the ideas that I mention in the previous paragraph are correct, the stereotypically feminine girls are likely to be the ones in this group.

I have more of an objection to the implementation (I like the idea) of IBM's Technology Camp, as described by GL. In this case, this is a group of girls who were already interested in technology, as evidenced by the fact that they voluntarily went through a competitive application process to get into this program. Judging by the quotes from the article, they are interested in substantial science and technology problems. They aren't the audience for DM's book. There's no challenge in engaging them. If I was a teenage girl and got into this program with an essay about "a USB-based application-specific device designed to help organize [my] schedule", or a biodegradable trash bag, I'd feel condescended to if the program consisted of making bracelets and candy.
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