The STEM of the problem
Auntie Matter on insecurity and tech culture
If you have questions for Auntie Matter, please submit them at tinyurl.com/AskAuntieMatter. Some questions have been edited for length or clarity.
Dear Auntie Matter,
I'm currently dating this guy who used to win national math competitions and is overall much better at math than I am. He frequently enjoys solving math contest problems that I can't even process, and I can't help but feel inferior. Should I do anything about this, and does he think any less of me because of it?
— Feeling an Inequality
Why are you dating this young man? Is his math ability the most important reason? Or even the second, third, or tenth most important reason? I would be willing to bet that your answer is no, and that if you asked your boyfriend the same question, his answer would also be no.
If you are worried about his opinion of you, you should ask him. And if this fellow is indeed trying to make you feel lesser because his AMC score is greater, you should dump him faster than he can take an integral.
However, most likely, he will say that of course he doesn’t think you are inferior. The problem then is only your own insecurity.
This is a very MIT problem. We are surrounded by so many people who are so clever at math and who value math skills highly that it’s completely understandable to feel insecure — especially when those people are your close friends and partners.
With that being said, how can you combat this insecurity? I will offer several solutions.
One set of solutions involves communicating with your boyfriend on this matter. You can talk about how this problem has been worrying you, and ask him for reassurance, or ask him what he likes about you. And if you don’t like the role math has in your relationship — for example, your boyfriend is showing off too much for your taste, or the two of you talk about math too much — you should bring that up with him. Alternatively, if you want to understand his interest in math better, you could ask him what he likes about solving these math problems, or you could ask him to explain a few of them. Lastly, in order to make it feel more like an exchange, you can find an area where you have more skills than him and you can teach him things.
The other set of solutions comes from within yourself. You can learn to think about yourself and your math skills in a different way. I think you know, as any reasonable person does, at least upon reflection, that math skills do not equate with self-worth. That means your boyfriend is not a superior person (and you are not an inferior person) because of how many math contest problems he has solved or how many Course 18 classes he is registered for. If you can take this to heart, you can be much more secure in your relationship.
Dear Auntie Matter,
How do you find a community at MIT as a social sciences/humanities person? Many people have made fun of my interests when I've expressed that I'm far less interested in STEM than I am in economics, political science, and the humanities. I've received the question “Why did you even choose MIT?” so many times! The fact that people always talk about their HASS classes with disgust makes me feel sad. I've tried to convince some of my friends that social sciences and the humanities are interesting and important, but most of them don't care and I'm getting sort of exhausted.
Auntie Matter, no stranger to HASS herself, sympathizes. She has found success in this area and so can you.
There are two types of solution to your problem, and I encourage you to pursue both. First, you can seek out activities and groups that will attract other HASS students. Second, you can change the way you experience dismissiveness towards your area of study.
There are a surprising number of communities on campus that value the social sciences and humanities. Get involved in your favorite humanities department — they often have seminars and events you can attend to meet like-minded people, such as the Literature Department’s Literature Tea Time every Monday afternoon. If you’re a current freshman or sophomore, consider applying for the Burchard Scholars program next year. Concourse, a freshman learning community centered around the humanities, offers upperclassman courses and seminars that any MIT student can sign up for.
Communities that draw humanities students are not limited, however, to the academic. There are numerous student groups you could consider joining, including but not at all limited to: MIT’s vibrant theatre community, the MIT Educational Studies Program, Rune Magazine, and last but not least, this very publication.
You write that your friends’ dismissiveness of your interests makes you feel sad. I hope that your actual friends do not make fun of your course of study. If they do, you should get new friends, not because you don’t share interests, but because your friends should be respectful of you. You should certainly bring up with them how their dismissiveness makes you feel. You should expect more of your friends, and you should ask it of them.
You don’t just seem bothered by your friends’ opinions, however. You seem bothered by the anti-HASS aspect of MIT’s culture. This, HASSled, you have to get over. You can’t affect it, other than by demonstrating that you don’t care what people think. People just put down the humanities at MIT to make themselves feel better about what they are doing. It would be reasonable for you to think “many MIT students are incorrect about how valuable the humanities are,” but it would not be reasonable for you to take that fact personally. With all the love in the world: toughen up, buttercup.