Adopting a Protective Identity

Some people deal with mathematical difficulty and shame by adopting an identity includes being “bad at math.” This strategy is much-reported among mathematicians and mathematics educators. Back in 1975, Mitchell Lazarus, writing in the Saturday Review, summarized the response to this from mathematicians and mathematics educators: “Even those who are otherwise proud of their education tend to speak up freely about their mathematical ignorance. They can say, ‘I’m terrible at math,’ almost with a hint of pride, as if being poor at mathematics somehow is a mark of good taste in failure.”* Essentially, what people write about this phenomena is that people should be more ashamed of their mathematical difficulty than they are. That tells me that the adoption of this kind of identity may be an effective protection from shame. Instead of feeling shame for poor performance in mathematics, the person adopting this strategy is able to turn poor math performance into a positive shield. The identity itself can even be framed positively, for instance when people say “I’m an artist/people-person/writer/etc — I’m not really good at math.” That positively aligns the person with an identity that inhibits mathematical skill, protecting the person from shame.

I am a mathematician, and when people I have just met find out what I do, many of them immediately confesses to me how bad they are at math. What a perfect way for someone to take charge of their own safety in a new relationship! The person tells me right up front that I should expect nothing from them mathematically, and so spares themselves the possibility of me engaging them in a mathematical discussion, as well as ensuring that this “flaw” doesn’t come up later when it might compromise our relationship. I see this as an adaptive strategy. It used to make me frustrated, until I realized that I could also use it as an invitation to have a conversation about our responses to math individually and as a society!

To be sure, as a response to shame and mathematical difficulty, this strategy has some drawbacks. Adopting an identity that relies on perceiving oneself as bad at math would seem to preclude mathematical success and power. For a teacher like me, this is problematic because I really want people to be able to use the tools that mathematics has to offer powerfully (that is, when and how they want to). And even when students state up front in a class that they are poor performers, using a protective identity, I will still sit in judgment of them as their teacher at the end of the semester because it is part of my job to assign them a grade. One of the strategies that I use as a teacher to loosen those protective identities while protecting the students from the negative effects of judgement is to build strong relationships with my students, and give students access to me as something other than an arbiter of correct mathematics.

* Lazarus, 1975, p. 46. See http://www.unz.org/Pub/SaturdayRev-1975jun28-00046.

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