Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

11/17/2004

Little Miss Math Teacher

File under: Righteous Indignation, Those Who Can't, XX Marks the Spot, Talking To Strangers. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 6:17 pm.

The following conversation wouldn’t be noteworthy, were it not for the fact that I’ve had it a good half a dozen times in the last two months:

Female Stranger: Are you a student at the college?

Me: Actually, I teach there.

FS: (eyes bulge) You do? What do you teach?

Me: I teach math.

FS: (eyes bulge, voice becomes high and squeaky) Really? GOOD FOR YOU!

I’ve gotten this from a bank teller, from the woman who sold me my cell phone, and from a good number of people on the bus. Certain details, such as the timing of the bulging eyes and the squeakiness of the voice, vary from person to person, but the “GOOD FOR YOU!” is constant. Not “I’m impressed” or “oh, interesting, I’ve never known a college math teacher,” or even the standard “I could never do math”, but “Good for you!” as though teaching college math is a milestone on par with making all gone with my brussels sprouts or graduating to big girl underpants.

Sometimes, they clarify that it’s because I’m a girl that it’s so good for me that I’m teaching math. Having stricken “I grade my students’ test papers in menstrual blood, too!” from my list of possible replies, I tend to remain silent or say something noncommittal. I think that my conversational partners are offended that I don’t beam in pride, as our chats tend to end right there. Perhaps they haven’t figured out yet that not only can girls teach math just as well as boys, we can also be just as averse to condescension and paternalism as boys. Any twentysomething male college math instructors or researchersd here had, one a regular basis, complete strangers express pride at their choice of employment? Hell, any young men here ever get verbally patted on the head for their life choices?

(My parents and older relatives are exempt from my indignation here, as they were actually there when I made all gone with my brussels sprouts and graduated to big-girl underpants and are allowed to be proud of how far I’ve come. All others, take heed.)

I know that these strangers mean well, and that they can’t help being idiots, but every single time someone focuses on the fact that I’m a female working in a male-traditional field, I find myself half wishing that I had chosen a job in which my presence were seen as a contribution to my field and not as a political statement. If I had the temperament for feminist activism, I’d get involved with that, but I don’t, which is part of why I inhabit instead the politically bland world of graphs and equations. I’m not an ambassador for womankind. I stand in front of a math classroom with the same skills and for roughly the same reasons anyone else stands in front of a math classroom, and ignoring those reasons in favour of pointing out that women are such a rarity in their field harms the cause of having women taken seriously in a myriad of fields - it doesn’t advance it. Doubly so if, in the process, you treat the woman in question in the same way you’d treat a six year old. Good for you!

Part of the problem, I think, is that it’s been my experience that the set of people interested in technical subjects (as something to study, not just as something that it’s cool that other people are studying) and the set of people interested in social activism (as something to do, rather than just as something that’s cool for other people to do) are nearly disjoint, particularly among females. Consequently, those of us , such as myself, who ally themselves with the former camp are interesting but otherwise strange and mysterious to the latter - objects of a psychological experiment conducted behind glass. The latter know all about women, but know squat about physics or math or engineering, and they talk about what they know. Okay, you’re enumerating curves on Hirzebruch surfaces via lattices of dual subdivisions, and I’m sure that’s very nice, but OMG YOU’RE A WOMAN AND YOU’RE DOING MATH and that must be like SO WEIRD, let’s discuss that.

No, I’d rather discuss enumerating curves via lattices of dual subdivisions, thankyouverymuch, but I appreciate your concern. Now go away and leave my profession to the people who are interested in it.