Various people have asked me recently about my mathematical autobiography assignment, about which I have previously tweeted, so I decided to put it on my blog here for easier reference.

Caveats: This idea is not original to me (but I don’t remember who I heard about it from first). I originally wrote my own autobiography maybe two years ago now, and I think it could stand an update.

Those things said, I really enjoy the responses I get on this thing. It’s really remarkable how much people are willing to share with me, and how much it helps me quickly build rapport with my students. It allows me to deeply understand who they are when they come into a math classroom — a complicated space for many people!

But most importantly, I think, it helps signal to my students that there’s going to be something different about this space. One student wrote me a thank-you card at the end of the term one year, in which they said something like — and you’ll forgive my inability to quote directly because the card’s in my office — “From the very first assignment I knew that this class would be different, that it was okay for me to be myself here, and I’ve never felt that in any other math class.” This sounds uncomfortably like I am tooting my own horn, but like, honk honk, this assignment can be incredibly valuable to you and your students, especially those who come to your classroom from various minoritized backgrounds. You can have these kinds of amazing experiences and connections too, if you want.

Okay, so with no further ado, here’s the instructions I put on Canvas:

Your first assignment in this course is to write a short mathematical autobiography. Here’s mine, as a sample: [link to a Canvas page]

The purpose of this assignment is to have you reflect on your experiences with mathematics. This will set the stage for all the (possibly different) ways you will experience mathematics in this class. The autobiography will also help me know how you feel about mathematics, understand where you’re coming from when you come to a math class, and create a course that will be useful for you.

Describe your history as a learner of mathematics. You might include things like: some experiences with teachers (in any grade), good and bad teachers and what made them good or bad, how your attitude toward mathematics has changed over the years, why you like it or don’t like it, what feels good about doing math or learning math or teaching math, what makes you nervous, what is exciting for you, what you’re looking forward to …

As far as length: if you’re only writing two or three paragraphs, there’s more for you to think about; if you’re writing three pages, you’re overthinking it.

And here’s my own mathematical autobiography that I provide as an example:

I’ll start my story at the beginning of my undergraduate education. I started at Salt Lake Community College as a physics major — I’ve always liked the ability of physics to answer fundamental questions about how the world works. However, I came to realize that it wasn’t really the physics I liked, but instead, the language that the physics was spoken in. I realized that fundamentally, I liked math.

An important component of this realization was Cindy Soderstrom, an excellent math teacher at SLCC. She had a way of making math concepts visible in everyday contexts, or of inventing contexts for abstract math concepts (an asymptote is just an electric cow fence). What’s more, she was excited about math, and about teaching math, and her enjoyment was contagious. I found myself wanting to teach math the same way, because of all the prior experiences I’d had with math teachers who were less enjoyable, less fun, and less interesting.

My first actual experience teaching math came as a one-on-one tutor at the University of Utah. I discovered that I’m good at diagnosing what people aren’t understanding, and at figuring out how to help them figure it out. I continued working as a tutor in the tutoring lab at the U and enjoyed helping lots of people figure out and enjoy mathematics.

Usually when you do a master’s degree and you’re going on to do a Ph.D., you have to pick a certain field of mathematics to specialize in. This was really hard for me! I didn’t want to spend my whole career shut up in an office just proving a bunch of theorems about a really specific thing — what I really liked was teaching, and what I really wanted to spend my time thinking about was how to teach better. I was complaining about my dilemma to a colleague, and he told me that there was actually such a thing as Ph.D. programs in math education. This was kind of a dream come true!

I ended up at San Diego State University, where I learned a lot about how people learn things in general and how people learn mathematics in particular. I had lots of interesting experiences studying how people thought about things they were learning, read lots of interesting articles about other researchers’ experiences, and got to teach students math in lots of interesting contexts (including a 200-person lecture, which was wild).

Most importantly, I learned that *there’s no such thing as not a math person* — I saw people who never believed they could do well in a math class change their minds and learn a lot of stuff. It’s certainly true that there are people for whom math naturally comes a little easier, but that’s true of everything — drawing, singing, driving, cooking, writing, picking clothes that match, etc. etc. All of these skills are things people can develop with practice, effort, time, and help.

After I graduated from SDSU, I started teaching at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, where I continued to develop and refine my teaching style and learn new and interesting things about how people learn mathematics. I came to Westminster last year because I’ve known for a long time that it’s a place where great teaching happens, and I’m so excited to continue to learn how to teach math better.

Hope that helps; please let me know if you have any questions!