Musings of an autodidact

Who let algebra into the room?

Algebra300It had to crop up eventually, right? I mean, so far we’ve had media content from across the sciences and educational content in astronomy/cosmology from the Big Bang through the formation of earth, a smattering of how amazing physics can be, a taste of the power of chemistry, a hint of the first signs of life, and some of the earliest beginnings of mankind, society, and¬†civilization. Of course I haven’t forgotten math! I saved the best for last. Ish. There’s more threads in this tapestry I want to introduce, but we’ll let those emerge at their appropriate times.

A funny thing happened on my way to writing the first algebra post for Rohg Skoler. As I started outlining and taking some preliminary notes, I realized something. None of the three physical textbooks I’m using for reference actually bother to include a definition of algebra. How weird is that? And while the texts try to demonstrate algebra’s relevance throughout, I feel it would be useful from the outset to let students know why they need to know this to begin with. That’s problematic when part of the honest answer is that it might not even be as necessary as we’ve been led to believe. It might even be a hindrance to personal progress for those whose paths won’t cross with algebra ever again.

Then there’s the argument that the importance of studying mathematics lies not in the ends, but in the means themselves. It’s the journey, not the destination. The studying itself serves as a kind of “brain training” which confers many of the kinds of benefits one expects to hear about from herbal supplements, yoga, meditation, and the latest diet craze all rolled into one. There’s evidence for, and there’s evidence against, and I’m not far enough into this personal pursuit of knowledge to have formed an opinion for Rohg Skoler as of yet.


All I know is that a) one of the benefits of learning the math, for me, will be the ability, should I ever live long enough, to understand the science I enjoy at a much deeper level, b) that knowing the math will make me a better and more critical reader of science, and c) I just like it. It’s fun to me. It’s even meditative. I’ve learned to not stress over the attempt at something I don’t know or understand. Sometimes it clicks, and exercises are just puzzles to be solved. Other times I can stare at the problem, feel stuck, and just…allow myself to feel stuck. No pressure. It’s a zone of its own. It’s the sound of one hand clapping. If I still don’t get something, I can go back over my notes to see if something clicks into place now that it has a problem to fit with. Sometimes that happens, and it’s a minor aHAH! moment all of its own. Sometimes I can just go back to the text, and find on a second, closer read, the necessary clue didn’t look noteworthy when I first encountered it. aHAH!

And now we have the Internet. Back in my day, we weren’t supposed to bring our fancy Casio calculator watches to class.


Being able to look up any particular topic, to whatever degree of detail now, in an instant, and having not just one, but many resources to check out, short ones, at that, because of how specific they are, and nearly always being able to find someone fairly quickly who explains the point in exactly the way you need it? That’s priceless. And when all that fails, there’s the forums. There’s like a million people, real humans who want to share their knowledge, available to take our questions and help us out because they can and we want to know.

And I’m no longer the fearful student wrestling with authority issues (math and math teachers, it was a thing) I once was.


For one thing, now I know that sometimes a textbook just doesn’t communicate an idea very well. By looking on the internet, I now know that for every idea, there’s any number of ways to explain it. It’s not a matter of “well, that’s the teacher, and I’m just me, and if they get it and think I’m supposed to and I don’t, then maybe I really am stupid.” Sometimes a particular instructor or book just. can’t. express. that. point. They might be fine on everything else, but that point might be half the next exam. That’s a lot of pressure. That’s a lot of authority issue. And that’s a lot of feeling dumb unnecessarily.

And sometimes a textbook, cold, silent, unquestionable, is just wrong. It’s the kind of text that is notoriously difficult to proofread and edit, I’m sure. A misplaced (-) here, or a space, or a simple typo can turn a cakewalk into a torture pit. Thanks to the internet, if our goal is simply to learn some particular topic or method, there’s countless problem sets available to try. As we advance around the initial stumbling block, we learn enough to go back and see that the unsolvable problem was a goof, not an indictment of our intelligence.

More to come soon. For now, just remember. This is only a blog. There’s no test. Attendance isn’t compulsory. And the rest of the stuff here is fun.


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