Commentary: Speech, appearance, language and notation

February 23, 2012

By David Magallanes /Guest contributor

What do we perceive when someone on the street approaches us and tells us, “Hey, you got some change?  ‘Cause I ain’t got no money and even though I gone to the agency, they won’t give me a @#&*#@& penny!”

We might sympathize with their plight and fork over a handful of change or even bills, contrary to the official advice to refrain from such generosity lest the people in these circumstances become dependent on their panhandling skills and avoid official charitable agencies who in fact want to help them.

Those of us who grew up with an awareness of language might quite automatically, whether we consciously want to or not, render some sort of judgment regarding this person’s education and even character, based simply on their use of language — not to mention our first impressions based on their possible appearance.

Such is the sort of awareness I try to inculcate in my students of mathematics, some of them in the higher echelons of this field at the community college.  Although their physical appearance is not the issue, in my particular area of academics I continually have the opportunity to remind them that they are judged by others based on the appearance and correctness of their writing; more specifically, in the world of mathematics, they are judged not only by the precision of their mathematics, but also by the appearance, logic, legibility and “flow” of their thoughts on paper.

I often receive math assignments whose appearance is, well, sloppy, for lack of a more diplomatic term.  Without the proper notation and symbols, there are times I simply cannot follow a student’s work.  I have students who try to compensate for their lack of proper notation by drawing arrows on the paper in an attempt to give me a roadmap and direct my vision as I attempt to navigate my way through their work.  Sometimes I have to believe that they are not accustomed to the level of evaluation of their work that they experience in my classes.  They sometimes appear stunned that I actually scrutinize their work as thoroughly as I do.  At times I wonder whether I’m providing an unusually beneficial service for them, or if I’m simply being unusually meticulous to the point of discouraging them from attempting mathematics.

But when I have students coming back to me — sometimes years later — from their university studies in math, science or engineering and thanking me for being mathematically “tough” with them (I really do think I’m considerate of and kind toward my students), I realize that I really do provide a service, making them aware of their mathematical expression, which will be judged by others — for better or for worse — just like their language and appearance.

A crisp, clean, highly legible and technically precise paper would make me want to hire someone, were I an employer; a paper that is slap dashed together in a slipshod manner does not impress me, and neither will it impress someone actually making a hiring decision.

I’m particularly gratified when students tell me that they teach others — another college student, or their little brother or sister — how to lay out a paper of mathematics, based on what they learned in my class.  As in most learning, acquiring good mathematical and language skills can be painful. It might mean having our ego bruised; a measure of humility is required on the part of any serious student.  But the rewards are tangible and potentially priceless when the first impression we convey in a given situation is impactful, and we get the job, the promotion, the mentor or the approval we sought.

Fair or not, we are constantly judged by others before we even open our mouths or do anything.  And once we do open them and speak, or when we put pen or pencil to paper, or when we perform, we are judged even more severely, with consequences that can bless or condemn us.

As I tell my students, we can be the smartest or most skilled person in the hiring pool, but if we don’t know how to properly express ourselves and “wow” the hiring executive or committee with our presence, then we don’t get the job. Instead, we hear the word that no interviewee wants to hear: “Next!”

— David Magallanes is embarking on a speaking and writing career whose purpose is to promote and facilitate the attainment of the American Dream.  As an optimistic American of Mexican descent and an educator in college mathematics, he brings a unique perspective to issues of our day.  He may be contacted for speaking requests or for commentary at




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