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Extra Credit Assignment: Write your math autobiography. It needn't be as long as mine, but do go into some depth. Possible topics: good & bad experiences, how you feel about math, why, strengths/weaknesses, a math topic you enjoy, what helps you to learn math, … Must be typed. If you’d like, you can send it by email to svanhattum@ ...

Sue VanHattum’s Math Autobiography

I loved math when I was young. I remember playing school with my younger brothers, and teaching them math I'd just learned in school myself . My mom took us to the library every week, and I read every children's book on codes and ciphers in that library. So the first 'grown-up' book I ever took out of the library was on codes and ciphers.

Why did I like math so much? I think my family life was a bit chaotic, and math had an internal structure that I knew would always be consistent. And I didn't have to believe what someone said, I could know the right answer as well as the teacher did. I liked that.

In 9th grade, I was taking algebra, along with many of my friends. One day, most of them weren't in class. I asked at lunch, and found out the teacher had let them work independently, in a room off the math teachers' office. I knew I should be working with them, and told him so the next day. He said: "Well, you have trouble getting your homework done, I don't know if it would work." Maybe the intensity of my response is what convinced him to give me a chance. I made sure I got further than anyone else, and I loved working with friends, figuring it out for ourselves.

I went to the University of Michigan, and was put in an honors math class. Although I was excited about it and thought I felt confident, I had a dream that someone told me that there was a mistake, that girls weren't allowed in that class. (!) I worked on math about 4 hours a night, usually studying until 2am. Even with all that, I ended up with a very disappointing B-. I hadn't taken a trig course in high school, and everyone else in the class had taken both trig and calc already in high school.

The next term, I was less motivated and had lots of other distractions (falling in love was one of the many...), and I ended up failing. I took a year off school, and when I came back, I considered switching to another major. But nothing else called to me, and I was able to pass that class (with a B) when I retook it. So I slogged through a BA in math at U of M, but I left there feeling like I really didn't know much and didn't enjoy doing higher math.

When I began teaching (part-time) at the community college in Ann Arbor, I knew I'd found my true calling. To get a full-time position at college level, I'd need a masters degree. At that point I would have preferred a masters in computer science, but Eastern Michigan University didn't have that yet. So I took a deep breath and started in. I didn't expect to enjoy myself, but I was delightfully surprised. I liked almost all of my classes at EMU. My favorite courses were in logic. The math was fun again, once it was slowed down a bit, and my joy in it returned.

I liked it so much, I thought I'd get a PhD. I went to UCSD for that, and found it just as unpleasant as U of M, so I decided very quickly to quit. I moved to San Francisco and got work with a non-profit Internet provider doing tech support. It wasn't until 5 years later that I finally got back into teaching (and back to Michigan). I taught for 6 years at Muskegon Community College. I loved my work, but felt stifled in the town. [Actually, my main reason for leaving was that, as a lesbian, I was not able to adopt there, but I don't want to include that story in a first-day handout.] I applied for positions in Ann Arbor and in the Bay Area. I started here at Contra Costa College in 2001, and it feels like a perfect match. I think maybe it was meant to be.

I've had lots of fun these past few years, playing with the math while I look for ways to make it clearer for my students. I’ve also had the joy of watching my 6-year-old son learn number concepts.