Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Brains and beauty: review of Math Doesn't Suck by McKellar   posted by agnostic @ 8/08/2007 12:03:00 PM

Barbie was right: math is hard. Most people find this out in middle school when algebra is introduced, and even the smarties become humbled in college. Danica McKellar, who some readers will remember as Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years, recently published a book that's part math textbook, part motivational speech, and part "modern girl's guide to life" -- Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail. Tara Smith, who runs the blog Aetiology, recently interviewed McKellar, and has hosted several general discussions about the book here and here. (Another favorable review from The Intersection.) I want to review Math Doesn't Suck in the context of these discussions, especially the one on whether math books that appeal to girls' interest in fashion are apt to turn them into "consumerist tools of the patriarchy". (The intersection of radical feminist ideology and activist pedagogy: where outside parody would be superfluous.)

I had to kill several hours after work tonight before going home, so I perused Math Doesn't Suck at Barnes & Noble, reading carefully just the parts that set it apart from other textbooks (I'm proud to say I already knew the middle school math). First, let me say that I'm not qualified to review its pedagogical strengths -- that's best left to controlled experiments with large sample sizes, an idea that's seldom raised whenever a new educational miracle arrives. Instead I'll focus first on the lessons to be learned, and then review the book's tone, use of examples, and appropriateness for various groups.

I. Lessons learned

The key lesson to take away from this book is that we are witnessing the twilight of the days when "women in science" activists browbeat girly girls into behaving more like Amazons in some imaginary war of the sexes within the academy. Let's look at those two ideas.

First, McKellar takes an unabashedly anti-Amazon approach, some aspects of which I'll discuss in the review. Briefly though, she emphasizes the following qualities throughout: humility, gracefulness, zeal or diligence, snuffing out envy, maintaining a pleasant appearance, and self-reliance but also seeking help when needed.

Second, and more importantly, McKellar bases her book on the assumption that girls are their own worst enemies, not that the patriarchal oppressors conspire to keep them down. I know, you must be falling out of your chair laughing when someone suggests that the physically unprepossessing and emotionally retarded nerds who tend to run university math departments are the incarnation of masculinity and power, but anything goes in rad-fem ideology. McKellar instead sees individual girls acting counter to their own best interests -- that's true of both sexes, since we're riddled to the core with flaws, not being blank slates or angels -- as well as being the targets of their same-sex competitors.

It is telling that the only two anecdotes in which a girl is made to feel awful about her math skills involve female adversaries. One woman tells the story of another girl making fun of her as a nerd for scoring highly on a math test. And McKellar herself relates an instance when her science teacher pulled her aside to ask how she'd managed to score so highly, given how pretty and stylish she was. No, this wasn't a male chauvinist from the 1950s but rather a female girl-hater from the late 1980s. Rather than shaming her into downplaying her girliness, this incident emboldened McKellar to stick it to The Woman -- she didn't have to "dress like a dork" just to be good at math. (And guys, lest you think you're going to get off easily, I have a post in the works on improving your personal appearance, as befits a mature and responsible professional.)

That the true sources of present-day female underachievement have little to do with patriarchal oppression could only be a surprise to someone who just landed here from Mars. Last year there was a WSJ article on how women in the workplace tend not to treat each other well, to such an extent that a majority feel their male bosses treat them better than do their female bosses! And as far as popular fiction goes, the three greatest teen movies of the past 20 years all share the theme of female-female sabotage, and none of it due to the machinations of male manipulators: Heathers, Clueless, and Mean Girls.

Incidentally, why on Earth does Hollywood choose actresses like Denise Richards and Lindsay Lohan to play nuclear physicists and mathletes, given how dopey they are? McKellar, just to pick the most convenient example, would have made a much more convincing protagonist of Mean Girls, and is a superior role model to Lohan. OK, so that's true of anyone who isn't incarcerated or walking the streets, but you know what I meant.

II. Review

Tone. McKellar uses a very informal and conversational tone throughout, which aside from making the exposition clearer to beginning students, also has a disarming effect, since suspicious readers will probably expect a stern, lecturing tone since the book is about practicing math. One thing I learned if I need to write a popular book for teenage girls: ask lots of personal questions to the reader and use exclamation points frequently. And mention boys in every other sentence.

Moreover, the tone is always one of encouragement, like that of a cheerleader getting the student body fired up during a pep ralley. There is no condescension toward their concerns and no trace of male-bashing. And what McKellar is encouraging them to do is not to try to one-up the boys -- like, "go show those boys you can take them on in math!" -- since that "something to prove" mindset will only exacerbate their existing insecurities. Rather, she appeals to their desire for personal accomplishment. Individuals differ in their levels of achievement striving, so this appeal will not resonate with all readers, but it is worth noting that, even though there are pronounced sex differences in the means of almost all personality traits, the facet of Conscientiousness called "Achievement striving" shows no such differences in the US. [1]

Examples. McKellar has received some flak for her choice of examples: looking cute, boys, and looking cute for boys (with the occasional baking example). For instance, the ratio of lipglosses that one sister has to the lipglosses her sister has, or having girls list all the traits that each of their crushes has had and circling the ones in common ("their type") to introduce common factors. Even though the women featured in the book's testimonials talk about how they use math to speculate on foreign currencies for Wall St. firms, McKellar is not so clueless as to think that serious finance would appeal to girls who aren't even in high school. If their biology programs them to only have a few top priorities at that age, you're just going to have to deal with that constraint when trying to reach them.

However, the author does not take such a cynical attitude toward young girls' concerns: she is glad that they are enthusiastic about femininity, and the examples show McKellar's unashamedly pro-girly stance where many a "women in science" activist would have treated young girls' priorities at best as outdated and in need of social re-engineering, and at worst as something the girls should feel embarrassed about. It's worth noting that all of the testimonials include pictures of the women: all are clearly above-average in physical attractiveness and enjoy dressing stylishly and making themselves up.

Appropriateness. Well, obviously the book will bore and turn off the half of the teenage population that has a Y chromosome. Still, looking just at girls, McKellar has clearly written a book to benefit bright girls, and this should be kept in mind when recommending it for use. The author herself graduated summa cum laude from UCLA, co-authored a proof in mathematical physics, and though she is too modest to blab how high her SAT score was, she mentions that her sister got a "near perfect" score on the LSAT, attended Harvard Law School, and is a "high-powered lawyer" in New York City. Before UCLA, the author attended the elite Harvard-Westlake High School in Los Angeles. It shouldn't be any surprise that two sisters should correlate so highly in intelligence, given its moderate-to-strong heritability. Also, sprinkled throughout the book are testimonials from women who felt queazy about math in secondary school but who now use math every day at, for example, Manhattan investment banks.

Conservatively, we may estimate the mean IQ of these women at 130, and more likely around 145 (or 2 to 3 standard deviations above the population mean of 100). These are the girls who will effortlessly assimilate the myriad tricks and strategies that McKellar provides -- anyone who thinks that merely expounding on a neat trick, and even walking the student through the trick using many examples, will cause them to learn it has never taught students of average or below-average IQ. Due to regression toward the mean and just chance, some children of bright parents end up mediocre in intelligence, and having tutored some of them, I can say that their parents' wealth and power can't do squat to make their kid smarter. Of course, if there is a proven IQ-booster (aside from, e.g., providing better nutrition to deprived children), it is a very well-guarded secret.

To her credit, though, McKellar does not drape her work in the frippery of quixotic egalitarianism. Again, most of the testimonials are from very smart women, who we know were very smart to begin with, and who just needed to get over their mathphobia if they wanted a career in investment banking. I didn't keep score, but I believe that bourgeois professionals vastly outnumbered academics in these testimonials [2], something that McKellar does not feel apologetic about -- rightly, as most smart girls don't want to grow up to be nerds but "high-powered" professionals.

As an aside, this freedom of choice for smart girls certainly accounts for some of the variance in the percentage of Nobel Prizes won by women in the pre- and post-women's liberation periods. Once women were allowed to enter the professions, they won fewer "hard" Nobel Prizes, indicating that some of the female scientists and mathematicians of the past would likely have preferred to practice medicine or law, but had no other choice than to conduct research. McKellar, her sister, and most of the women from the testimonials are cases-in-point: they are all great at math, yet only one has chosen a career as a research scientist.

The author herself majored in math at a prestigious university, graduated summa cum laude, and shares credit for a math/physics proof -- how much more positive encouragement could she need if she truly wanted to be a research mathematician? She just prefers what more women than men prefer to do with their lives: to work more with people than objects, and to help and nurture more than to figure out how things work. Hence her career as an actress and tutor / life coach.

One gripe I do have is that, even bearing in mind that only smart girls will benefit from the book, the very first topic treated is the prime factorization of integers -- something that would frighten away most smart adults who haven't seen math in awhile. Later she shows how to tease the greatest common factor of two integers out of their prime factorizations. Here I think McKellar's math nerdiness got the better of her: the most boring branch of math for most people, even math and science nerds, is number theory, and prime factorization offers little practical use in secondary school math to compensate. This could have the effect of scaring away some girls who would otherwise have pounded through the remainder of the book, which focuses appropriately on the basics of pre-algebra.

In sum, don't take this book at face-value -- it's not going to solve an educational crisis, attract more than a handful of girls into research-based careers, and so on. Indeed, no book will be a philosopher's stone that alters human nature in that way. On the other hand, for what such a book is capable of, Math Doesn't Suck passes with flying colors. It is best suited to bright young girls who simply need a good kick in the rear to get them over their mathphobia. The tone and use of examples are excellent, bearing in mind who the real target audience is. And most importantly, for all of her outward feminism, McKellar -- as well as Tara Smith, a former cheerleader -- has laid the first stone along a route away from orthodox "women in science" activism. You can disagree with some of what they'd say, but you feel you are interacting with good-faith, rational human beings instead of someone whose emotions so overwhelm her thought processes that she would get nauseous and nearly faint upon hearing contrary viewpoints in a dispassionate discussion.

So, who out there is going to write the companion volume for young boys?

[1] See my review of the relevant meta-analysis here, appropriately enough in the context of women in science.

[2] There was one student of neuroscience, and I think that was it. There was also a petroleum analyst.

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