Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


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.


  1. 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.

    This statement seems to come out of nowhere and certainly isn’t supported by my own experience. If you want to say that this is true of the people you’ve interacted with, say that, but to turn it into this kind of blanket generalization suggests that not only you think this is true, you think it ought to be true, that nobody smart enough to be interested in technical fields ought to be wasting their time trying to effect social change. And when you say that, you come across as being just as condescending as the people who are being condescending to you.

    - Kirsten — 11/17/2004 @ 7:37 pm

  2. My (first year student) version of above conversation:

    Her: what are you studying?
    Me: science and engineering, though I’m thinking of dropping engineering.
    Her: But we need more women in engineering!

    Which I find pretty funny since I’m dropping engineering to study physics.

    The other side of the coin:

    Him (middle-aged, italian? bloke): What are you studying?
    Me (thinks: I’m not explaining the science/eng.-dropping eng thing again…) Um, engineering, pretty much.
    Him: What, a man’s job?*
    Me (suppressed laughter)

    If only I hadn’t been at work, and/or he hadn’t been a customer.

    *word-for-word. I swear.

    - Zoe — 11/18/2004 @ 7:27 am

  3. Kirsten, I thought that my qualification that “it’s been my experience” made it relatively clear that I was talking about interactions I’ve had, and I chose my words carefully when I wrote that I lack the temperament for activism; I honestly can’t see what’s either prescriptive or condescending about either. Honestly, my main reaction upon seeing/reading about people who fundraise or canvass or organize rallies is I could not do that, because [above] require personality traits (as opposed to a limited intelligence) that I just don’t have. The same seems to be true of a majority of people - and almost every young adult female - that I have physically encountered in two universities and an academic summer program. And, in my experience, conversely: the women’s centre at my old school, for instance, had career counselling available; a female friend of mine dropped in there once, and mentioned that she was looking for experience in her field, physics. They turned her away; apparently they were equipped only to help wannabe social workers, lawyers, teachers, and such - though they sure did think that it would be good to have women in less traditional fields.

    Zoe - regarding “but we need more women in engineering” - GAH. Why don’t THEY go into engineering?

    - Moebius Stripper — 11/18/2004 @ 2:28 pm

  4. Interestingly, in university faculties that are not traditionally targetted towards females (engineering, physics) and even in not-traditionally-female uni clubs (football, motorsport), the student committees who run these things are generally overrepresented in females. In fact, my engineering society committee is almost all female.

    It must be the superior organisating ability, personability and meddling tendencies of females :P

    - joanium — 11/18/2004 @ 3:37 pm

  5. This discussion might benefit from my perspective as a twentysomething male graduate student. This is how the conversation may have gone, if I had been your interlocutor:

    me: Are you a student at the college?

    moebius: Actually, I teach there.

    me: (eyes bulge) Really? What do you teach?

    moebius: I teach math.

    me [Thinking: Hmmm, she’s pretty cute. I wonder if she’s single? If so, could I get away with asking her out?] Oh, that’s cool. I minored in that in college.

    - twentysomething grad student — 11/18/2004 @ 6:17 pm

  6. I don’t get these kinds of reactions at all. I can’t remember any time someone has said something so stupid to me. But I think that’s because I scare the crap out of people likely to say such things.

    And then, when I tell people now that I’m doing actuarial work, they say “What with the what now?”

    - meep — 11/18/2004 @ 7:46 pm

  7. I find these discussions fascinating, because I had the odd experience in elementary school of being socialized to believe that girls were actually the ones who were ‘naturally’ better at math. Somewhere around fifth or sixth grade, by what I presume to be random chance, I and five or six other girls sped through the usual math curriculum and sat around twiddling our thumbs waiting for the rest of the class to catch up. Since there were several of us, our teachers created a separate advanced group, and we continued on at our own pace. I should add that none of us were all that exceptional in other ways - we were smart kids in general, but there weren’t any math geniuses in the group, and as I recall we were all generally inclined towards the humanities overall. What’s interesting is that we simply assumed that this was a consequence of the fact that girls were naturally better at math than boys, because this was the evidence that we had before us. (None of the kids in the advanced group were boys, and in fact the only kids I ever saw struggling with math were boys.) What surprises me in retrospect was that no one ever countered this view - our teachers never appeared surprised that we were talented at math, and no one seemed to think it was unusual that all the girls were in an advanced group. So I just took it to be customary, and it honestly wasn’t until college that I realized that the traditional assumptions are quite the reverse! Astonishing how powerful those assumptions can be.

    - Jodi — 11/19/2004 @ 3:40 pm

  8. O.o I found this site by accident, but just saying hello. Do they really act like that? I think it takes a lot to teach at all, let alone math one of the most hated subjects in school. ^^

    - Jen — 11/19/2004 @ 4:00 pm

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