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CLeaR Fellows 2017 – Associate Professor Caroline Yoon

Similarities (and similes) in writing and mathematics

Associate Professor Caroline YoonI feel for my students when I hand them their first essay assignment. Most of them are mathematicians, who chose to study and teach mathematics to avoid writing essays. But in my mathematics education class, and in the field more generally, essays are our academic currency—the medium through which ideas are traded and exchanged.

Mathematicians face some challenging stereotypes when it comes to writing. Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, sums up popular perception when she states: “Writing isn’t like math; in math, two plus two always equals four no matter what your mood is like. With writing, the way you feel changes everything.” Writing is seen as ephemeral, temperamental and context-dependent, whereas mathematics is enduring, universal, and context-free. Writing reflects self, whereas mathematics transcends it—they are essentially unlike each other. This characterisation can discourage mathematicians wishing to write, especially when combined with similarly coarse dichotomies such as left brain | right brain, creativity | logic, art | science, and indeed, female | male. Together, they suggest that writing is outside the natural skillset of the mathematician, and that one’s mathematical training not only neglects one’s development as a writer, but also actively prevents it.

Where does this characterisation come from? It’s profoundly unhealthy for the discipline of mathematics education, as it prevents some mathematicians from contributing who might otherwise have a lot to offer. Can it be challenged? Overthrown? Is there a meaningful sense in which we can argue that mathematics is like writing?

I will spend my CLeaR fellowship highlighting similarities between mathematics and writing in three ways:

1) By examining three mathematical processes that mirror the writing process: problem solving, proof, and modelling. I argue that mathematicians who are adept at these processes have unique writing advantages, which should be leveraged when they engage in academic writing.

2) By designing and offering writing workshops for mathematics education students (i.e., four re-designed writing tutorials for MATHS302, Teaching and Learning Mathematics, and three writing workshops for postgraduate students), which build from mathematical metaphors and competencies they are familiar with.

3) By writing and performing poetry as part of a madcap interdisciplinary scheme that explores productive links between academic and creative writing across the disciplines.

When designing learning environments for students in mathematics education, I am acutely aware that writing plays a gatekeeping role in my students’ success. Most of my students come to mathematics education having trained first as mathematicians; many admit they “hate writing”.

For these students, writing has played a marginal role in their mathematical training, typically only called for when writing good copies of their assignment solutions to hand in, or writing more than is mathematically necessary in response to an examiner’s directive to “Explain your answer”. In both cases, writing is performed after thinking has been completed, and serves as an inert record for an adjudicating other. It is dead in two senses: it does not add to the writer’s mathematical knowledge, nor the reader’s, who already knows the answers and reads the writing simply for the mechanical business of allocating grades. It is “the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom” (Plato). It is a final communicative flourish, rather than a thinking necessity.

As a consequence, many of my students delay writing until the last possible minute, expecting to “figure out” what they want to say before attempting to communicate it in writing, just as they figure out a mathematical solution before writing it up in legible longhand. Unsurprisingly, the writing is typically poor, the ideas underdeveloped, the end result significantly below what they are capable of. My goal is to help students learn to use writing as a tool for structuring their thinking (Ong), much as they do when “working out” mathematical solutions with pen in hand, rather than simply an inert self-expressive medium for intact ideas.

I see the mission of enhancing students’ writing competence as fundamental to my discipline of mathematics education: It is not just a matter of ensuring students reach their academic potential, but a matter of democratic participation, where diverse interests and experiences are essential for creating workable educational solutions.