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Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Recently, I was forced to add a text messaging package to my cell phone plan. My incoming texts have skyrocketed in the last few months, as more and more of my loved ones rediscover the joys of the telegraph. I must admit, there are situations where I find the technology useful. Perhaps I'm sitting in class and I can't talk or I'm at work and I shouldn't talk. Yet even as I send my conveniently packaged alphanumeric messages sailing through the stratosphere, I am not a real texter.

I write my messages in plain English. Occasionally, I will exchange 2 for to or too, or 4 for for. (That was fun to write.) But that's pretty much it. I never LOL or talk to my BFF. It isn't that I look down on the abbreviation process. Far from it, actually. I admire its speed and efficiency. Fluent texters can condense essays into a few acronyms. Despite what many language mavens or old fogies might think, there is nothing inherently wrong with streamlining communication. Oh, and if you currently find yourself disagreeing with me, I'm going to go ahead and point out your hypocrisy. Laser, robot, sonar, scuba, TGIF, snafu, RSVP. If you have ever used any of these words, heck, if you've ever used a contraction, you too are butchering the Queen's English.

If you are a mathematician, you certainly have no room to talk. Imagine what math would be like without all the symbols and notation. (This isn't rhetorical, I actually want you to imagine it.) There was a time when symbolic algebra didn't exist. There was an era when quadratic equations were expressed plainly in words. For example, I could ask you to draw a square such that the magnitude of its area added to the magnitude of a single side is equal to six. That is equivalent to saying x squared plus x minus 6 equals zero or x^2 +x-6=0. (The square would be 2x2.) In recent years, we've taken to calling these word problems. There are no symbols to manipulate or mathematical abbreviations to remember. It's simply a question written out in our language of choice. Ironically, these simple problems cause math students the greatest trouble.

The difficulty stems from the down side to abbreviation. Sure it's fast and efficient, but you do lose a certain something in the process. Imagine reading a Shakespearean sonnet in text messaging. It probably wouldn't carry the same meaning. Actually, it would probably never happen. The commonly used texting lexicon, while great for casual conversation, is not designed for expressing new or interesting ideas. Symbolic math suffers from the same problem.

Last semester, my most challenging class turned out to be Intro to Statistics. My professor was Egyptian, and there were hidden language difficulties. You wouldn't notice it at first. His accent was thick, but not impenetrable. He was perfectly fluent, at least when it came to his discipline. After awhile, I noticed something. He was essentially reading the math straight from the board, simply pronouncing the rhetorical equivalent to the symbols he was writing. There were no metaphors or personal anecdotes. No stories or comparisons. Because of this, I struggled when it came time to apply what I was allegedly learning. I grasped the equations, but not the math behind them. In effect, I was struggling with the word problems.

And you're telling me this because? (Refer to title of post for irony.) I'm simply saying that the same breakthroughs that made long division and calculus possible, also make math too easy to compartmentalize. It becomes an oversimplified model, so efficiently streamlined that it no longer represents the real world, which is exactly what students complain about. Of course, they complain about the word problems, too, but then those little buggers are never going to be completely happy.

So what's the point of all this? Simply that we have been the architects of our own demise. And the only solution is this. More word problems. Less symbols. And for god's sake, if you have something to tell me, quit doing calisthenics with your thumbs and just talk to me on the phone.