Friday, March 07, 2008

John Carney accuses Math of sexism

Math 55 is advertised in the Harvard catalog as “prob­ably the most difficult undergraduate math class in the country.” It is leg­endary among high school math prodigies, who hear terrifying stories about it in their computer camps and at the Math Olympiads. Some go to Harvard just to have the opportunity to enroll in it. Its formal title is “Honors Advanced Calculus and Linear Algebra,” but it is also known as “math boot camp” and “a cult.” The two-semester fresh­man course meets for three hours a week, but, as the catalog says, homework for the class takes between 24 and 60 hours a week.

Math 55 does not look like America. Each year as many as 50 students sign up, but at least half drop out within a few weeks. As one former student told The Crimson newspaper in 2006, “We had 51 students the first day, 31 students the second day, 24 for the next four days, 23 for two more weeks, and then 21 for the rest of the first semester.” Said another student, “I guess you can say it’s an episode of ‘Survivor’ with people voting themselves off.” The final class roster, according to The Crimson: “45 percent Jewish, 18 percent Asian, 100 percent male.”

I fondly reminisce about my freshman weed-out course, Chem 207. All the pre-med hopefuls and engineering frosh converged in Baker Lab for the lectures and "prelims" (major exams before the final exam), to try to finish in the top 16% of the class and get that 3.5 or higher mark for the class.

It was so stressful for we 18-year-olds that they actually had Ithaca police cruisers on watch over the Stewart Avenue and Collegetown bridges for gorge jumpers, after we were done with those tests.

Half the class--on the bottom half of the bell curve--got stuck with a 0.0 - 2.5 grade, and most of those had to get out of the pre-med or engineering track by their sophomore year. Fortunately, one could always bake some cookies, toss some salad for a 4.0. That, or clean out barns/stalls/kennels. Just kidding, those 2 schools are the best in breed in the country, unlike my school which barely cracks the top 10.

Of course, I would bet serious money that we could take Georgia Tech, Urbana-Champaign, USC and UMich in a brawl measured by problem sets, experiments, projects, or pay. The Ithaca of NY is not so much like the Ithaca of Greece; from October to April, it's positively Spartan.

And there were plenty of women who flourished and are physicians today. Probably ten for every female engineering graduate.

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