February 16 Day 710: Precision of Language

This is the eve of an important due date: rough drafts of my students’ final projects in Matrix Algebra are due at 8 am. They will spend a good portion of tomorrow’s class in a peer review exercise.

I tell students that writing mathematics is like writing poetry–every word has a purpose and is chosen with care. Notation and jargon should be defined and used sparingly– they must add value to the treatment of the ideas. The gruesome details belong elsewhere — instead include big ideas with breadcrumbs so that the motivated reader will be able fill in the gaps or reproduce the results. It reminds me of “precision of language” from Lois Lowry’s The Giver in that we strive to communicate exactly with no room for misinterpretation — but not in a dystopian way.

These recommendations will make more sense tomorrow when students provide feedback to each other. For many, this is the first time they have been asked to write a paper in a mathematics class. I often hear statements like “I took math because I don’t like writing.” Despite initial grumblings, these projects have a lasting impact. It’s one thing to be able to solve a problem but completely another to connect course content to interests and explain those connections to others.

I use Tim Chartier’s When Life is Linear as a launching point for projects. There is usually something to inspire everyone in there.

Published by Jenny Quinn

Mathematician. Mother. Wife. Leader. I am a professor of mathematics at the University of Washington Tacoma. Mother of Anson and Zachary. Wife to Mark. President of the Mathematical Association of America.

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