Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.


What Nerdgasms Tell Us About Learning

I’m a closet English major. I love reading. I love books. I love questioning the motives of writers and pretending there are lines to read between, even when there aren’t.

It’s no secret that I have a thing for Tolkien’s works, and a deep seeded need to bring about Roddenberry’s United Federation of Planets (which is my registered political affiliation for this election cycle, also, if the Borg show up, you’ll be glad I pushed all these kids into building space ships).

So, as that last paragraph got out of hand, I have to ask my myself: Why do these works have such healthy and creative sub-cultures surrounding them?

Lately I’ve been noticing some serious patterns (cough*math teacher*cough) in the stuff that people really get into. There’s a certain life to the Lord of the Rings.

Beyond nerdery, there’s a healthy and creative community surrounding slow food (bacon). Rock music has it, too. Hip Hop has it. Star Wars has it. Good video games have it, bad ones do not.

Science has it.


Not so much.

The pattern looks like this: There are literally millions of connections between the nodes in a good community, all of which can carry you from any point to any other point in some way that is unexpected and scintillating.

Second, the work of any individual user/reader is regarded as adding nodes to the whole, while the others attempt to connect the new points as fast as possible. There’s a level of enjoyment conferred onto the whole. Imagine a rococo concept map made out a few hundred strands of inexorably tangled Christmas lights.

Distilled, I’d put it more causally:

  1. If you can establish the intricacy and interconnectedness of a work, you legitimize the exploration of that object and its surrounding community.
  2. If you can establish the value of any individual’s creative endeavor as adding to the whole, that individual will contribute positively for the foreseeable future.

My pet system is Middle-Earth, because I’m married now, and admitting these types of things no longer negatively impacts my evolutionary fit-ness.

First condition = Met in spades. Tolkien spent his life establishing a back story for his world, and people are just now become experts in it. Every action and every character are connected in such a way that knowing that connection gives the reader more understanding of the world.

It’s just as valid to ask if Aragorn knew of Sauron before the ring left the Shire, as it is to ask if the rings from Wagner and Tolkien are the same mythological object (they are absolutely not).

You see? It’s wide and deep.

However, the second point is most critical, because wide and deep are easy. I can have a computer create a fake world with a fake history, but do those who come after, those who take in such a world, find agency in it?

Does anyone give two bananas about the intersection of Wagner and Tolkien’s riffs on Norse legend? You betcha.

Does it change the flavor and connectedness of the works? yes.

This couldn’t be more important. You gain the ineffable quaff of academia at that point, and there’s no going back; you’ve got yourself a living community.

We see the exact opposite in the realm of Math. We see what is nominally billed, by droves of lame posters, as a world of infinite possibility and command (Math! Your gateway to the stars, queue stock space shuttle image)

Students really end up with mental images of that last tepid hot dog just rolling sadly back and forth at the 7-Eleven at 3:30 a.m.

Our students know that “math is big,” (condition 1) In fact, we go through a lot of trouble to show them this. Sounds like a good thing, right? Well, at least it’s better than failing condition 1, which would mean students believe that math is severely limited to frictionless planes, and loading 3 vans with 15 people.

Where we fall off the wagon is in condition 2: Agency. Students generally feel that their contributions to math are neither contributory or valuable. Who cares about the vertex of all these parabolas? Someone already figured it out, otherwise how could the book have the answers…

When a student does ask a question, it’s often recognized that it will take several months to actually answer it, which is unacceptable because then the student won’t have memorized all 8 theorems about chords on circles — [comment redacted due to international obscenity laws]

It’s obvious that our students won’t ask questions at the cutting edge of math. They won’t be wrapping 11-dimensions into a ball, and unraveling the other 15, at least not in 10th grade, maybe.

How do we give students agency while still teaching the metric ton of content they’ll “need” later?

Ask Dan.

Go steal from Kate.

Go ask anyone from St. Ann’s.

Steal my Calculus Curriculum.

Have students create data.

Have students create the nerdy questions. The question of ranking Picard over Kirk (truth!) is barely a stone’s throw from: “What do you mean imaginary means 90 degrees? So what’s i*i*i*i?”

Shawn Cornally • October 2, 2012

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  1. Sue VanHattum October 2, 2012 - 8:49 pm

    I’ve always enjoyed math, but I didn’t play around with it all that much until I discovered some math communities. The first was homeschoolers asking questions about math (living math forum, a yahoo group). Through that I discovered math circles. Then I discovered the blogs. Math circles are definitely my home community for math.

    Since I’ve gotten involved in these math communities I’ve: written a sort of poem about imaginary numbers (to answer a homeschooling mom’s question), made up math puzzles (for math teachers at play, the blog carnival), found a great math circle topic – spot it, and gone nuts over another topic – pythagorean triples, which I develop differently than most folks do, in the way that made sense to me.

    For me, #2 has come true. (My students still don’t get all of that fun in calculus. I need to learn how to use lab instruments.)

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