Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Cultural Portrayal of Math

I have a 4-inch, 3-ring binder full of overhead transparencies that are comic strips poking fun at mathematics. It was, unfortunately, not very difficult to amass this impressive collection, which grows weekly. Most of the comics draw on the readers’ mutual understanding and experience that math is boring, difficult, or unpopular. I show them in class. My students laugh lukewarmly at the punch lines (after all, the jokes are tepid and predictable) but laugh louder at me laughing at the comics themselves. To me, the comics themselves are the jokes. I acknowledge the sentiments of the cartoons, but simultaneously laugh at the absurdity and narrow-mindedness of their presumptions. Since I teach AP students, most of my students can relate to my histrionic, hyperbolic laughing.

But what makes math the perfect fodder for unrelenting cameos in jokes and comic strips to begin with? I believe that the appearance of math in the strips is a perpetuator, if not a partial cause, of the cultural acceptance of math as an undesirable activity.

In most of the comic strips, there are two central themes: those who can do math, and those who cannot. It is interesting to note the differences in the portrayal of each of these types of individuals. The first case is by far the more rare variety (Foxtrot for one), whereby the character succeeds at doing an outrageous math problem, to the amazement and bewilderment of the other characters. They are usually odd in some matter (appearance, social ability) and are quite nerdy. This causes a collective chuckle among the readers, “Yah, I remember a guy like that in my school!”

The second theme is more prevalent, whereby the character is “undone” by mathematics. He is usually working on, again, an outrageously difficult, dry, boring, and unimportant question . . . and failing miserably. Again we all collectively chuckle out of our ability to relate to the levels of frustration and anxiety these problems can cause. The joke becomes a type of catharsis for us. These individuals, invariably, are portrayed as normal human beings, or perhaps even “cool.”

What about television? How much are they contributing to the degradation of mathematics? Can you think of any math characters on TV? Until recently, with the premier of CBS’s “Numb3rs,” the only roles that even come close to being interested in math and/or science were Alex P. Keaton (Family Ties) and Steve Urkel (Family Matters): both were nerds. Thank goodness they had good families that didn’t judge them and nurtured them. Urkel’s character was downright pathetic, especially in contrast to Eddie the athlete, whom everybody liked. Who would you rather be? Alex P. Keaton, although not as nerdy as Urkel, when compared to his beautiful, dumb sister Mallory, came across as being unique and different, but not necessarily someone we would want to aspire to be. Finally, in “Numb3rs,” we have a semi-cool math professor helping out his older brother to solve crimes for the FBI using mathematics. His character is portrayed as being passionate, good social skills, good-humored, and dresses like all the rest of us. Aside from his occasional preoccupation and self-absorbed blocking out of the world, his character finally give mathematics a viable role in reshaping our cultural beliefs about it. But are people watching this show? Is it too technical for the average person? Is it too far a deviation from what they expect someone doing math to look like and act that they believe the show is not credible? It will be interesting to see if the show is renewed for a second season!

Let’s look at mathematician roles in movies. A Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting, Pi, Sneakers, The Mirror has 2 Faces, just to name a few, are some of the more popular movies in which a mathematician is the main character. The interesting thing to note is HOW all these mathematicians were portrayed in their role: socially inept, nerdy, genius, insane! How inspiring this must be for those searching for their niche in life. Had John Nash not be schizophrenic, A Beautiful Mind would never have been produced. The fact that he won the Nobel Prize, in itself, would not make a very interesting story. It was alluring to producers because he had mental illness. A prevailing American myth is that there is all successful mathematicians suffer from mental illness. The movie, then, for those with little experience with actual mathematicians, became a movie, not about John Nash, but about the mind of a mathematician.

Unfortunately, successful mathematicians are geniuses, and the genius strand and the mental illness strand are closely related. Our culture, although respect the mathematicians ability, fail to fully acknowledge his genius as a positive, because is often portrayed so tightly with mental illness and social ineptness.

What are the consequences? Will young students be drawn to a field or subject where those in it are consistently portrayed as wackos or geeks? Are our young students capable of drawing their own conclusions about stereotypes? Once a mathematical door is closed, it is very difficult to open it up again. Until popular culture changes its view, I doubt that math will ever break out of its infamous, unpopular role. I believe small steps can be made from within the ranks of the math profession itself. Perhaps it is the job of the “normal” lovers of math to provide alternative representations of the extreme cases students see and read about. But are there enough of us out there with access to and the ability to influence young students? Perhaps “Numb3rs” is a start to increasing them.

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