Day in the life St. John's College Santa Fe The Program

The Experience of the St. John’s Math Class

What comes to mind when you think of math?  Problem sets? Dry textbooks? Maybe Khan Academy? 

You probably aren’t thinking of papers, collaborative projects, philosophy, or detailed discussion. You probably never thought to ask what a point is, how the stars move, or how mathematical methods came to be. And you most likely have never read (and I do mean actually read) Euclid, Apollonius, or Newton in a math class. 

There are several important things that make math at St. John’s truly different.

Shedding the mystique, here’s what a typical math class is like at the college: The homework typically consists of reading though proofs and usually working through them on your own, with friends, or with a math assistant. Geometry, logic, algebraic manipulation, calculus etc will probably have been part of it, but perhaps you with also read an essay of sorts.Like all of the classes at St. John’s, you sit down around a table (real or metaphorical) to present and discuss the matters at hand. In order to actually convey what that experience is, it’s probably best to give you a sense of…

A day in the life.

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The Presentation, as Homework and in Class

There is a great deal of difference between doing a presentation and doing problems. You read through and study the math, and then you probably did it again. The goal is to thoroughly understand what is known as a proposition. A proposition is basically like a problem as the original mathematician came up with it; it comes in a series on the same subject, with logical steps, either written out or implied. In this sense, your task is both easier and harder than simply working through a problem, since you have more context to work with and you have to have a good understanding of the context. Once you are prepared, you go to the board (a nice chalkboard in the real world, Ziteboard for now) and present it. You write out steps, you draw diagrams, you make references. 

The Discussion, or Where the Magic Happens 

It can indeed be intimidating. However, you and your classmates are encouraged to ask questions, from the basic to the more theoretical. This is usually where the class discussion comes in. Once you or some other classmate is done, the tutor will guide the discussion to the most pertinent questions and make sure everyone understands the necessary aspects. And if you think that this is likely to be boring, think again. Math, beyond the basics and shown in its full usefulness and glory, is more like poetry: a slippery and mysterious thing, underpinned by rules and observation. If that is not enough, there is application. Past Euclid in freshman year, math is usually studied in the context of understanding astronomy and physics, and the concepts you study will absolutely be relevant in lab and music. 

What is a Math Paper?

A math paper (like many of your other papers) will most likely begin here, in the class discussion. A question can only get so much time and it many be fascinating and worthwhile. What the exact guidelines are of course depends on the tutor, but a paper could look like a more in depth explanation of a proposition with a particular focus, tracing a theme through several different ones, or the significance of a particular phrase. It could more philosophical or more technical. 

Getting Help

This is less threatening than it seems, but here’s a worthwhile reminder: if you feel lost with your studying, or didn’t feel you understood your tutor, or merely feel you understand 90% when you could fully master the subjecttalk to an assistant. There’s no shame in it and they are interesting anyway. They are also a great resource when it comes to the papers. Get them to check it over, especially in the early stages, and you will know that your argument is valid.

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You’ll reach for beauty, stars, and falling objects and you will catch them, understanding what all those symbols are for, as long as you remember how to do your presentations, make use of and enjoy discussions, engage with the subject as with your other texts, and don’t let any issues go. 

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