A.K. Whitney on Paris and "The Joy of X"

Noodle Expert A.K. Whitney shares her experience as a "word" person who loves numbers and the merits of Yosemite and Paris.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

I would pick Steven Strogatz, the mathematician, Cornell professor, and author of "The Joy of X." I would like to take calculus with him, not just going over the stuff I already know, but learning more. He is experienced at teaching math in an approachable and clear way to students who aren't trained as mathematicians. As long as he's willing to be patient with all my questions and intermittent math anxiety, I think we would collaborate well.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

Never assume you can't do something just because you fail on the first try, and never believe those who tell you it's not worth bothering to try in the first place.

Where would you send a student who hasn’t traveled before?

That really depends on the student and his or her experiences. If the student grew up in a big city, I would send him or her to a place with lots of natural wonders, so he or she can understand how beautiful our world can be, and what we have to lose. Yosemite would be a candidate. If the student grew up in a tiny town with little diversity, I would send him or her to a huge metropolis. It sounds clichéd, but I'd pick Paris, which has a lot of history, style, and amazing food. The pace can be frenetic, but most Parisians are friendly as long as you are friendly and polite too.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

In tenth grade, I failed geometry, which was a huge blow. In retrospect, that was not surprising, since I'd given up on math years earlier. But I learned that my smarts were no longer enough of an excuse to coast along, and that hard work, no matter how exhausting or tedious, does pay off.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I became a journalist because I've always needed to know the ins and outs of everything, and because writing always felt very natural. But what I didn't expect was that, in choosing to become a "word" person, I didn't have to give up being a "number" person. It took me a few years, but I finally realized I can be both. Sure, it's not 50–50, more 35–65, but math is a big part of my life now, and being a journalist who embraces numbers and writes about math education has made my life so much better. I will never fear calculating a tip again.

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