Thoughts on Math Anxiety on this International Women’s Day

I open a document in Latex, a word processor used by mathematicians. I’ve typed just half a page so far and most of it is definitions. I stare at the screen for a minute or so, contemplating what should go next. I get a sinking feeling in my chest. My heartbeat rises and my hands get clammy. I suddenly feel like I’ve just consumed 3 shots of espresso in the last few minutes. I can’t deal with this now. I’ll just respond to emails instead; at least that’s a somewhat productive alternative.

The above scene, or something like it, was not uncommon throughout my undergrad career as a math major. At certain low points during those years, I felt as though all “output” that I produced determined my worth as a mathematician and, by extension, as a person. So I’d push my work to the back of my mind, put it off for longer than I should have, just to avoid that sinking feeling.

By most measures, I was an accomplished math student. I was involved in a number of research projects. I gave well-received presentations to a variety of audiences at conferences. I became acquainted with several sub-fields of mathematics, and left college with a strong grasp of what it would mean to be a graduate student, to be a mathematician. And I made lots of friends in the math world. I felt–and still feel, even while on a “break”–a part of the community, and I’ve been lucky enough to feel very welcomed and supported within it on the whole.

But something held me back from being as good a student and a researcher as I wanted to be. Some of it was a deep-seated anxiety that I wasn’t good enough. The (damaging) trope of the “mathematical genius” didn’t apply to me, I felt, yet I was constantly surrounded by people who embodied it and/or embraced it. The roots of my anxiety were more complicated than simply doubting my intelligence, though. I’m a somewhat scatter-brained, indecisive person, and I have a number of interests. And even though nothing else called my name quite as strongly as mathematics did, I sometimes doubted whether my love for the subject was strong enough when I observed some of my peers. One of my favorite things about math was working with other people, so I didn’t do as much solitary recreational math as others seemed to. I began to feel inferior for not having the desire to discuss math 24/7, for using my free time on other things besides reading graduate-level textbooks or Math StackExchange pages. I loved problem-solving and did it recreationally sometimes, but even that wasn’t something I actively sought out on a regular basis.

Over time, I began to notice that almost all of the peers to whom I felt inferior were men. Now, in my experience there is no lack of discussion about men dominating STEM fields, which is great. Over the years I’ve talked and read about many relevant issues such as impostor syndrome, “mansplaining” in mathematics and elsewhere, and the benefits of all-female learning environments for women in STEM.

That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t address a fundamental problem that discourages a lot of women in particular from continuing on in mathematics: a general air of competition among mathematicians over not just who is good at math, but who’s the most interested.

The constant pressure to prove yourself not only as capable, but as unfailingly interested and engaged, is mentally exhausting. I wish we would all just admit to each other more that math is hard and often unforgiving. That it beats us down just as much, if not more, than it gives us joy and inspiration. I don’t mean that we should get in negative feedback loops with our friends–I’ve fallen into that pit, too–but I think there is a way to support each other and acknowledge our shortcomings and frustrations while helping each other to overcome them.

The above paragraph applies to everyone, but I’m gonna talk about women again for a sec. We tend to talk about graduate school in mathematics as being only for people who live and breathe mathematics, who love it with a fiery passion. However, it’s much easier to love something when you feel you are good at it. And–I don’t think I need to cite any sources on this–men tend to have more confidence trying new things, bouncing ideas off of people, making assertions. It’s only natural that that increased confidence leads to more positive feelings in general towards the subject and to an increased quench for knowledge. As with anything, positive momentum keeps you going. And men tend to have more of it.

So the next time a well-intentioned person suggests that maybe I’m not meant for grad school if I’m not head-over-heels in love with math, or that proving myself I can do it shouldn’t be a factor in my decision, I’ll tell them this: my relationship with mathematics is as complicated as any long-term relationship–with any person, or interest, or what-have-you. I don’t expect my love for math, buried under the baggage that has piled up over the years, to magically bubble up to the surface one day and solve all my problems (pun). And I’m under no illusion about how difficult graduate school will be. But I’m going to try damn hard to push through. Because mathematics needs more women. Because I know my potential hasn’t been realized yet. Because one of the things that makes me the happiest is when my male peers talk about a female professor with respect.

HF322 Bill

I wrote this last week about HF322, a proposed bill in Minnesota that would allow governments to sue protesters for the cost of police at the protests. I figured I would make it public here. I sent this to the members of the committee that discussed it last week (Civil Law and Data Practices Policy), the authors of the bill, and my district repesentative, Paul Thissen. I got a positive response from Thissen, which was cool though unsurprising as he is the only Democrat to whom I sent this.

Some are saying the bill is unlikely to be signed by Governor Dayton and may be a distraction tactic. I’m new to fighting legislation, so I don’t really think strategically in that sort of way — but even if it is a distraction tactic, I feel like we can’t take our eyes away from it for a second.

I’d like to note a couple things: (1) the below letter has been amended slightly since last week, particularly to reference the fact that the Women’s March — given the numbers that turned out for it — was unpermitted, so to make the argument that police only target peaceful unpermitted protests is unfair. And (2) in saying that the DAPL protest had more white people, I don’t want to ignore the fact that there were a lot of Native protesters there. And, obviously, there has been a lot of violence inflicted on DAPL protesters by police elsewhere, particularly at the center of the action in North Dakota. I more use this protest to compare to the similarly sized, similarly noisy BLM protest, because BLM protests seem to be the specific target of HF322. In fact, all the protests cited by authors of the bill as examples of unlawful protests were BLM protests.


To Whom it May Concern:

I am greatly concerned with the introduction of HF322 into this legislative session, and I am writing to urge you to oppose this undemocratic bill. 

Minnesota Statues 609.705 and 609.74 are highly open to interpretation and would leave room for HF322 to allow lawsuits targeting virtually anyone exercising their right to protest. An assembly can be deemed unlawful even if, as 609.705 states, the assembly is “without unlawful purpose, but the participants so conduct themselves in a disorderly manner as to disturb or threaten the public peace.” Based on what I have seen in my own personal experience protesting, I am concerned that what is and is not considered “disturbing the public peace” varies widely between protests. It is likely that HF322 would result in lawsuits targeting certain groups disproportionately more than others.

To elaborate, this past September I went to a Black Lives Matter march in downtown St. Paul that had about 150 protesters. We marched peacefully through the streets to St. Paul City Hall. While outside the building, no one in the group was engaging in unlawful activity and the demonstration was in no way disturbing the public peace. After half an hour or so at that location, around 20 police officers surrounded the group on either side and threatened to make arrests if we did not exit immediately.

By contrast, I attended a similarly-sized Dakota Access Pipeline protest in November outside the Army Corps of Engineers at which there was a noticeably larger percentage of white protesters. I don’t remember seeing a single officer there. The Black Lives Matter and DAPL protests were very similar in noise level and size, so the lack of police at the latter was an obvious difference. The difference in police response was even more striking at this past weekend’s Women’s March, which drew a very white crowd and at which police were present but this time largely supportive of and cooperative with protesters.

There are obvious issues of racial inequity here. One might make the argument that police only target peaceful protests if they are unpermitted. Frankly, though, the Women’s March was unpermitted for the number of people who showed up — 5 times the permitted number — and no one seemed to mind. Based on both personal and anecdotal evidence, I have come to the conclusion that protests are treated unequally by law enforcement not because of noise level, size, or location, but because of who is protesting. HF 322 would only serve to worsen this obvious inequity.

Lastly, I’d like to reiterate and expand on why I consider this bill to be undemocratic. I am simply unconvinced that HF322 would not threaten peaceful protesters given how police have responded to peaceful protests in the past. The right to peacefully protest is and has historically been fundamental to our democracy. I urge you not to adopt this bill.


Michelle Mastrianni

In Your Corner, Behind a Screen

We’ve all had discussions and internal debates about the downsides of Facebook and social media at large. It often becomes trendy and alternative to reject these platforms, and I’ve tried once or twice. Instead of spending that time on more productive or creative things, I just ended up watching a bunch of gymnastics and diving videos instead.

I use Facebook in part to stay updated on Minneapolis happenings, and through the “events” section I’ve found volunteer opportunities, cool shows, and other events that have enriched my time here. But — though it’s a little uncool to admit this — I do like getting glimpses of what’s going on in people’s lives, too. And recently, sappy as it sounds, I’ve been feeling a lot of pride as I watch several old acquaintances and friends find their voices.

I realize it’s not for everyone to post thoughts publicly, or to share details about their lives, their struggles, their inspirations. People can certainly go overboard with this and give it a bad rep.

But I look at acquaintances from high school, for example — women in particular — who once came across as cold. Who were defined by little more than the friend group they were in and their perceived intelligence, because that’s how Staples worked. Who succeeded in hiding their struggles by remaining silent. And since then I’ve noticed more of them speak out. I’ve watched them use artistic and professional platforms to make important statements and to talk about the things they’ve gone through. I’ve seen them begin to grow out of the stereotypes once placed upon them by their peers and discover new interests they maybe didn’t know they had years ago.

Of course I’m proud of my college friends, too — shoutout to women in math — who continue to overcome personal and societal barriers and share little bits of their journeys along the way. But there’s something especially gratifying about seeing a genuineness, and a level of humanity, in people you never quite got to know because your paths crossed at a moment in time when you both were too focused on superficiality and survival. And with people I did know well, I’ve had the pleasure of watching them work through issues that once plagued them, find supportive new friendships, find their footing in new cities and new experiences.

My statements in this post certainly aren’t meant to imply that a few years of growing up and leaving home cured hundreds of Westport kids of all the things the Westport lifestyle drilled into our brains: the competitiveness, the obsession with hierarchy in all forms, the inclination to want to keep up appearances. There’s still a lot of that. And we’re still so young, working to figure everything out. But I appreciate the opportunity to see different sides of people, to read their writing, to notice a new maturity accompanied by a combination of increased self-esteem and humility. So thanks, Facebook, I guess.

La La Land

Last night, I started typing a long YouTube comment about the movie “La La Land,” realized I had enough to write something more substantial, and here we are, on the first post this blog has seen actually published since I created it. With all that’s happened in 2016 both in the world and in my own life, it feels a little irksome that this is about a whimsical musical. But I find myself having a lot of feelings about the music in the movie, and I also feel more than qualified to write this given the sheer number of hours of my life I’ve spent in voice lessons, performing, watching musicals, singing songs from musicals, thinking about musicals, thinking about music, thinking about vocal performances… you get the picture. May my next post — if there ever is one — touch on something a bit more consequential.

I saw La La Land about a week ago and enjoyed it overall. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are unquestionably good actors and have a ton of chemistry. The film has a dream-like, colorful quality that reminds me in the best way of one of my favorite short-lived TV shows, Pushing Daisies (RIP). From what I can tell, the movie portrays well the lives of struggling artists and the difficult choices with which they are often faced: to “sell out” in some way or to pursue their dreams authentically. (People with other careers can relate to this, too.) La La Land bursts with emotion throughout, (spoiler) capturing particularly well the conflict of feeling that Stone’s character Mia articulates towards the end of the film when she says “I’m always gonna love you”: that feeling of knowing you’ll forever have an intimate, unshakable chemistry with someone even if the relationship just can’t work out.

La La Land does a lot of things well. But it has some issues — I’m focusing on the music in particular in this blog post — that undermine its accomplishments and that probably could have been avoided if, as a friend of mine put it, we weren’t so fixated on having the “ideal” white hetero couple in the starring roles. Before I get to my main problem with the movie, I want to voice a separate (though also music-related) complaint. The movie portrays modern day jazz-influenced music as soul sucking, noisy, and lacking in artistry, and suggests that the free jazz of the 50s and 60s leaves more room for creativity than does today’s jazz fusion. It describes jazz overall as something of a dying genre. I certainly think it’s important for older styles to be preserved, studied, and performed, and I don’t think anything is a better teacher than jazz improvisation for improving upon musical intuition. It would be sad to see jazz clubs like “Seb’s,” in the film, die out. All that said, modern-day jazz music is as creative as ever. Take Robert Glasper or Jacob Collier, who have both done some really cool stuff with technology. They are products of our time, producing unique and innovative sounds through which their jazz training shines.

Anyway. Beyond its somewhat flawed commentary on jazz music (also, wouldn’t it have been nice if the woman, and not the man, was the brilliant musician??), my main problem with La La Land is that it is a musical, and neither of the leads can sing. And I’m surprised more people aren’t acknowledging this, given the exceptionally high praise it has received otherwise.

I usually get frustrated with people who find baseless issues with a vocal performance in order to feel better about themselves or criticize singers for generic “poor technique.” But at the most basic level, Stone and Gosling don’t even have good breath control. Neither has the innate talent and vocal intuition to make up for their clear deficit in training.

I actually kind of like Stone’s raw, untrained voice in the first half of “The Fools Who Dream” — it sounds nervous and tentative, which is appropriate given the context of the song. But it doesn’t really work anywhere else. I cringed when Gosling started singing “City of Stars” and when Stone finished it, not quite getting all the intervals in the melody. I didn’t come away from the film singing any of the songs or feeling much desire to listen again, and I’m positive I would have if better voices had been singing them. I also wonder what might have been had there not been some restrictions on the actual writing of these songs due to the leads’ ranges and vocal qualities.

There aren’t actually that many songs in the movie, so each time they start singing it just feels awkward — like “oh, right, I forgot this is a musical.” The film’s instrumental music is great, but the musical numbers feel out of place, and smoother voices would have made the transitions more comfortable. Pushing Daisies (which I mentioned earlier) had a musical number every once in a while; they were infrequent enough that they sometimes caught you by surprise. But many were sung by Kristin Chenoweth, who played a lead role in the show and who is a talented Broadway veteran. So they ended up being enjoyable and memorable scenes rather than confusing additions. That wasn’t the case in La La Land.

While it would have been relatively easy for a trained singer to sound raw and inexperienced (if that’s what the directors were going for), it is impossible for untrained singers to develop much skill in a matter of months. And actors with more vocal skill would have made more things possible in this film. Given the amount of vocal talent that exists in the world and the time and effort that many people put into developing their voices, it is kind of insulting, honestly, that Emma Stone’s and Ryan Gosling’s voices are front and center.

This problem extends beyond this film alone, which is probably why I have so many feelings about it. Remember Music and Lyrics, with Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant? Maybe not… good for you in that case. It was embarrassing. The Phantom of the Opera is painful to listen to because it sounds like Gerard Butler is destroying his vocal chords throughout. Mamma Mia has Meryl Streep, whose singing does not come close to her acting. Into the Woods has Meryl again (though I like her better in this) and Emily Blunt, whom I love as an actress but who clearly hasn’t sung much in her life — and she’s portraying Mary Poppins in an upcoming remake of that musical as well.

I get it. These are famous actors and the goal is to make money, etc etc. But, again, it’s discouraging to see what could’ve been phenomenal art sacrificed to have the perfect straight white couple in the leads. That comment applies to previous musicals, but particularly this one, given the amount of other stuff it does well.

I’m just surprised by the utter lack of awareness or discussion about how bad the singing is in La La Land. Some have said Gosling’s and Stone’s imperfect voices are what makes the movie great because they portray a fragility that accompanies the characters’ unstable lives. But instead I just got the feeling that the film didn’t quite know what it wanted to be. If La La Land wanted to be a musical, it would be hard to argue that it wouldn’t have benefited from stronger voices. And as I’ve said, other aspects of the movie did not shy away from perfection — the picturesque settings, the clothes, the dreamy scene where they’re floating together through the air. We understood the fragility of their lives through their dialogue and their expressions; they didn’t need weak voices to match. “A Lovely Night,” for instance, was supposed to be a flirty song that culminated in a sense of excitement and anticipation for a possible new relationship. The instrumentation was bold and grew throughout. Their voices couldn’t keep up.

As someone who has put a lot of hours and thought into developing my voice and an ear for good singing and good musicality, seeing comments from people gushing over this number and “City of Stars” on YouTube feels almost defeating. I guess this all touches, in some sense, on how it feels to be an artist, which ironically is what La La Land is about. The more time you put into practicing and learning about your art, the more you feel it is unappreciated by the average person. I lived with 3 dancers last year at school, and I simply didn’t know enough about dance to be very discerning or insightful about their art. But I learned a thing or two from voicing my thoughts occasionally about certain performances and hearing their opinions in response. I think that — particularly if you call yourself an artist in any way, shape, or form — it is your job to be inquisitive about other types of art when you experience them.

Still, I’m not trying to condescend to people who express enthusiasm for less-than-perfect art/music/what-have-you. I do it regularly. I love unabashed enthusiasm for and participation in anything creative: it adds so much to our humanity, and it can often lead to further discovery and learning. However, a big-budget musical like La La Land — with many other things going for it — was not the place for this type of mediocrity. And the cacophony of praise for that mediocrity, with few dissenting opinions or acknowledgement of the problems with the casting, is unsettling.